Pakhtunkhwa Times

Who Will Save Pakistan? (The Guardian)

Posted in 1 by ppfcanada on March 4, 2009

The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore shows the folly of politicians like Imran Khan who placate the Taliban, Tuesday 3 March 2009, Simon Tisdall

The audacious attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket players as they travelled through Lahore has underscored fears that politically fractured, economically destitute and militarily challenged Pakistan, if not already a failed state, is heading rapidly towards the status of international outcast.

The virtual certainty that Pakistan’s days of hosting Test cricket are over for the foreseeable future is the least of the country’s problems. The attack in the heartlands of the Punjab, the army’s traditional stronghold and the most populous province, looked like a deliberate throwing down of the gauntlet to army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

It is barely six months since the democratically elected civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari succeeded in ousting General Pervez Musharraf, a Kayani predecessor who had ruled the country for nearly a decade following a 1999 coup d’etat. But Zardari and his Pakistan People’s party (PPP) are mired in domestic controversy and appear increasingly unable to manage Pakistan’s multiplying problems.
Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics, a pledge he reportedly renewed during talks in Washington last week on a new, combined military and political strategy for what the Americans call “Afpak” – Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the Obama administration’s confidence in Zardari, as with the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, is wearing thin.

If Kayani and his fellow generals felt obliged to step in “for the good of the country”, then Washington, more concerned about defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida than preserving a democratic system that daily appears to be more and more of a travesty of itself, might well go along. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Like other Pakistani commentators, author and journalist Ahmed Rashid pinned blame for the attack against the Sri Lankan team squarely on Islamist militants with whom Pakistan is fighting a spreading battle along its north-western flank. Involvement of Baluchi separtists or Tamil Tiger renegades from Sri Lanka itself was largely discounted.

There was also broad consensus about the purpose of the attack, which was widely compared, in terms of tactics and aims, to that carried out by the Punjabi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, in Mumbai last November. “I think this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the government at the time when there is a huge political crisis in the country,” Rashid said. “They are trying to create a vacuum of power in which eventually they can take over.”

If internal chaos is the aim of the jihadis, they are being ably aided and abetted by Pakistan’s mainstream politicians. It is only a year since civilian governance returned to Islamabad, with the principal parties promising to work together.

That was then. The vicious infighting now under way between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League is strongly reminiscent of the epic battles between Sharif and Zardari’s murdered wife, Benazir Bhutto, that led directly to Musharraf’s coup. If unchecked, it may not only encourage the militants; it may also open up a path to power to Pakistan’s religious parties, in alliance with or separate from Sharif.
Last week’s supreme court ruling barring Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab, from elected office, was widely seen as a political putsch engineered by Zardari. His decision to sack Punjab’s government and imposed direct rule recklessly upped the ante even further. Now the Sharifs and their angry supporters are planning to lead a massive protest march on the capital on March 12.

The march will commemorate the dismissal two years ago of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who Sharif says should be reinstated. It is being organised by a lawyers movement but will also be supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party which wants sharia law adopted throughout Pakistan. This is an unholy alliance, even by Pakistani standards. The potential for a violent confrontation, and for a further, possibly fatal weakening of Zardari’s grip on power, is not inconsiderable.

The president’s authority is already under fierce fire on several other fronts, not least the impenetrable north-western tribal areas where Pakistani Taliban groups are variously reported to have formed an alliance to fight Nato in Afghanistan, to be in the process of reneging on a recent truce, or to be giving up the fight in agencies such as Bajur.

This confusion is typical in a region where alliances shift as quickly as the winds blowing off the Hindu Kush. But one thing is certain: the government in Islamabad is not in control of events and, more often than not, is a victim of them. For instance, Washington’s anger at the peace deal in Swat allowing the introduction of sharia law there is tempered by the expectation that, like previous agreements with the ungovernable Pashtun hill tribes stretching back to the days of the Raj, it will not stick.

The US is offering massive new infusions of economic aid, in addition to conditional military assistance, to help root out the jihadi menace. But at a time of growing febrility, there’s little doubt US pressure, increasing under Barack Obama, is also making matters worse, at least in the short term.

The rise in cross-border attacks by US forces using Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles since Zardari took power has further alienated tribal leaders and encouraged radicalisation, Pakistani officials say. Washington argues the policy is necessary in the absence of better answers from Pakistan. Critics say Zardari has secretly sold out the country’s sovereignty in return for Obama’s support.

Pakistan’s economic troubles, compounded by a fast expanding population, chronic poverty, high unemployment, and lack of education, have added to a sense that the country is isolated and in danger of imploding. Islamabad was obliged to accept a $7.6bn emergency IMF loan package in November. It may yet need much more to stave off collapse.

Heightened tensions with India following the Mumbai attacks, friction with Afghanistan’s government over security, China’s rising alarm over its neighbour’s predicament, and international worries about the safety of Pakistan’s unregulated nuclear weapons stockpile form the wider context to this dramatic, apparently ineluctable descent.

Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?


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