Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Concern is mounting over the health of John Solecki, an American working for the UNHCR, who was kidnapped from the Pakistani city of Quetta 45 days ago.
The UN said it was worried about an apparent deterioration in his health after a little known Baluch group, which says it is holding him, called a local news agency saying he was seriously ill with a heart condition.
Three deadlines set by a group calling itself the Baluchistan Liberation United Front have passed and a new one was meant to end on Thursday. The group wants the release of 1,000 Baluch prisoners, including women, said to be held in Pakistan government cells.
With little sign of any resolution Pakistani media are questioning the seriousness of the effort to secure Solecki’s release. Neither the Baluch government nor the government in Islamabad had taken the task seriously, the liberal Daily Times said. “No matter who kidnapped Solecki, observers say the government cannot absolve itself of the primary responsibility of protecting all those in Pakistan’s territory,” it said.
For some months now there has been a steady drumbeat of reports in the media saying that while the United States had made significant breakthroughs in its covert military campaign in Pakistan’s autonomous tribal areas, it could not continue to ignore the vast province of Baluchistan to the south where the Afghan Taliban leadership is based.
This is where the Taliban’s reclusive, one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, along with his deputies in the Quetta shura, is believed to be orchestrating the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. And this where the United States must target its covert war inside Pakistan carried out largely through missile strikes by unmanned aircraft, U.S. generals and policy makers have begun saying.
Now that President Asif Ali Zardari has agreed to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and offered to challenge a court decision against his rival Nawaz Sharif, is he going to come under pressure to give up his powers to dismiss parliament, another popular demand?
For many Pakistanis, that is the next stage in the rapid emasculation of Zardari’s presidency. Article 58-2B of the constitution, which many blame for much of the country’s political instability, has several times been used to sack elected governments. Zardari had promised to ditch it but has yet to deliver.
Two years after Iftikhar Chaudhry was first sacked by then President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan government officials said he would be reinstated as Chief Justice after a nationwide protest led by Pakistan’s lawyers.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. After he was removed by Musharraf, Chaudhry was reinstated only to be sacked again and placed under house arrest along with many other lawyers when the former general declared emergency rule in November 2007. At the time, Pakistani lawyer/politician Aitzaz Ahsan wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the leaders of the lawyers movement ”will neither be silent nor still”. But he also fretted that the lawyers’ movement would be ignored by the United States and overlooked by the forthcoming election.
Lawyers dressed in black suits scuffling with police, several dragged into police vans. Other marching, their arms linked, shouting slogans and holding placards in a peaceful campaign for justice. If you looked at the TV and still pictures of the “long march” launched by the lawyers in a two-year campaign to uphold the freedom and integrity of the judiciary, they seemed to show a vibrant democracy rather than a country teetering on the brink of failure. It’s a face of Pakistan that has all but got buried in recent months, M Reza Pirbhai, a professor of South Asian history at Louisiana University, wrote in Counterpunch.
“Turban-topped, gun-totting mountain men, stern military dictators and corrupt civilian politicians dominate the global media’s representations of Pakistan, from Washington to New Delhi best fitting the preferred image of the ‘most dangerous place on earth,” he said.
Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is much talked about these days as the one national figure who could lean on Pakistan’s warring politicians to back down from a confrontation threatening the stability of the country. The question is over how he would intervene while maintaining a commitment to keep the army out of politics.
Most analysts have ruled out a coup for now and in an interview with PBS Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed Kayani was committed to a civilian government.
Pakistani authorities banned public protests and detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition workers nationwide to prevent them from launching Thursday’s planned ”long march” towards the capital Islamabad to force President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate a former Supreme Court judge.
Many went into hiding according to these reports, vowing to press on with the cross-country motor convoy that will set off from cities in Baluchistan and Sind and then Puinjab on Friday before culminating outside the parliament building in the capital.
Maybe this always happens at times of national upheaval. But there is a surprising disconnect between the immediacy of the crisis facing Pakistan as expressed by Pakistani bloggers and the more slow-moving debate taking place in the outside world over the right strategy to adopt towards both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Reading Pakistani blogs since confrontation between the country’s two main political parties exploded and comparing them to international commentaries is a bit like watching men shout that their house is on fire, and then panning over to the fire station where the folks in charge are debating which type of water hose works best.
The Pakistani state may be facing its most serious threat since its birth more than six decades ago, begging the question of who controls the militants who are expanding their influence across the country.
The question has arisen in the light of escalating violence inside Pakistan including the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team despite a call reported to have been made by the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, urging Pakistani militants to stop fighting at home and instead focus on Afghanistan.
The bombing of the mausoleum of a renowned Pashto mystic poet outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar has darkened the mood further in a nation already numbed by the attack on cricket, its favourite sport, when the Sri Lankan team were targeted in Lahore.
Taliban militants are suspected of being behind the attack on the shrine of Abdul Rehman at the foot of the Khyber pass, where for centuries musicians and poets have gathered in honour of the 17th century messenger of peace and love.