Sunday, March 15, 2009

PAKISTAN'S LONG MARCH TO CHAOS CONTINUES

Nawaz Sharif and, as per some reports, his brother Shahbaz Sharif have been put under house arrest by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in a desperate effort to ensure that the Long March that the duo had started does not bring the country's capital to a halt. This long march will, in all likelihood, end in some sort of a compromise settlement between Nawaz Sharif and Zardari. Notwithstanding how it plays out, the harsh fact that cannot be escaped is that this standoff will strengthen and hasten the long march of the Taliban to Islamabad and the rest of Pakistan.

One would have expected that in the wake of the terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, all moderate mainstream politicians would come together to face the challenge that Pakistan faces from the Islamic radicals who have already overrun large parts of the country. That is what they had done after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and to remove Gen Musharraf as President. But no, they seem to have learnt no lessons from the mess they have been making right since the creation of the country. That feudal, tribal mindset is too deeply ingrained.

Zardari has been candidly admitting that his country is afflicted by the cancer of terrorism and that it is in danger of being run over by the Taliban. When the President of a country is alive to the grave danger his country faces, a reminder of which was graphically given in the Lahore terror attack, then it is but natural to expect that he will show a sense of responsibility and an understanding of his role as President in these difficult times whose reverberations are likely to be felt for a very long time. Unfortunately, he has not only been unable to shake free of the politics of blatant deceit that got him to the President's office but has now got into a war of petty political vendetta against the very Nawaz Sharif with whom had joined hands earlier.

The immediate provocation to the present crisis is the decision of the Musharraf-appointed judges of the Supreme Court to declare Nawaz Sharif ineligible to contest elections and also declare null and void the election of his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, leading to the fall of his government and imposition of Governor's rule. There are reports that the Army, taking advantage of the situation, is planning to stage a coup. But, that possibility is remote, notwithstanding the noises that are emanating from different quarters.

For one, the current fight is between two of Pakistan's most powerful politicians and not between the military and the civilian government. Things have not deteriorated between Zardari and Kiyani to the extent they had between Musharraf and Sharif in the backdrop of Musharraf's misadventure in Kargil without keeping Sharif in the loop. In fact, it appears that even otherwise Gen Kiyani is already calling the shots. Imran Khan had said as much a few days back. The present crisis has made the General's position even stronger. Secondly, the US is now monitoring Pakistan closely almost in real-time, and holds all the cards too, with Pakistan now an economic basket case and with US forces in Afghanistan. Therefore, Kiyani cannot afford to take over unless the US gives him a green signal which it is not going to, at least for now.

Zardari has clearly bitten more than he can chew. But, given his great manipulation skills, it is inconceivable that he would have precipitated such a crisis unless he was dead sure of the support of the US. Such dangerous games cannot be played without very strong anchors. One thing needs to be understood: Zardari, no matter how dishonest he may be, is clearly a "dove" among hawks. In a sea of Punjabis, he is the face of a moderate Sindh. For the US, he is therefore the one valuable asset that it would not like to lose in its efforts to contain hard line and pro-Taliban elements in the Pakistani establishment, including its military.

That is the main reason why there will no coup in Pakistan, at least in the near future. That is also why, unless this crisis takes an unexpectedly dramatic turn, Zardari is not going to lose his job. That is perhaps why he has dug in his heels. He will give in, there is no doubt, but will not "surrender" to the pressure tactics of Nawaz Sharif. Also, both will agree to a deal brokered not between them but for them by Washington. Hillary Clinton has already spoken to both the warring 'lords'; Richard Holbrooke has been on the ball too, for quite sometime.

So, where is Pakistan already? On the one side, the Taliban are less than 90 miles from Islamabad, with a demonstrated capability to strike at will anywhere in the Pakistan still under the control of the federal government. On the other side is the United States, which has appropriated the role of a "super-government" that is the final arbiter of all important internal affairs of the country. A truly united and independent Pakistan has already passed into history. That Pakistan exists only in the minds of those who foolishly think that a few nukes, the ISI and a large military are enough to define nation-state of Pakistan and mark its independence.

A solution to the present crisis will be found. There is no choice. Pakistani leaders may not realise how high the stakes are and how foolishly they are ruining their country, but the US does, at least partially. It will keep Zardari in business for the foreseeable future and will accommodate the Sharif brothers too. No matter what the solution, no matter who loses more face or less, the stark fact is that this crisis will further erode the credibility of the Pakistani state and of its mainstream non-Islamic institutions, including democracy.

This is just what the radical Islamists in the Army, the ISI and other institutions of the state want. They are simply not programmed to live in peace with themselves and with Pakistan's size. They want to usurp Afghanistan and Kashmir, destroy India and be in the vanguard of the jehad that seeks to establish Islamic rule over the whole world. They want the US out of Afghanistan, for which they will try every trick in the book to force it to cut a deal with the artificially created "good" Taliban, as Fareed Zakaria calls the 'benign' elements who he believes want to wantonly behead people within Pakistan only and cause no harm to the US and others.

Pakistan's Long March to chaos continues unchecked. Whichever way one looks at it, one cannot shake the feeling that events are all moving towards an inevitable and bloody climax that will profoundly impact the future of the whole world. India needs to ready itself for the developments which will effect it, both before and after that flashpoint. For that, its leaders will have to do more than mindlessly keep saying that India is "worried" about the developments in that country and parroting that "a strong and stable Pakistan" is essential for the region.

UPDATE

The crisis has blown over. Nawaz Sharif has won. Zardari has given in. After a late night meeting between Army Chief Kiyani and Prime Minister Gilani, the government has ordered the reinstatement of former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhary and other judges who were sacked by Musharraf. He will take charge on March 21. Section 144 has also been lifted and arrested activists are being released. The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif by the court will be reviewed. The Long March has been called off by a jubilant Sharif. The Army, as I had assessed, has remained in the barracks.
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Readers may also read:
1. Zakaria's Afghanistan strategy: salvage or surrender?
2. All cylinders on fire: where is Pakistan heading?
3. Attack on Sri Lankan cricketers: no room for pretence now