Pakistan: Through the eye of a needle

December 21, 2009

lawyers celebrateFor the first time in many months, the future of Pakistan is being determined not in the fight against Islamist militants, but within its institutions — its judiciary, its political parties, its government and its military.  Last week’s decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a 2007 amnesty given to politicians and bureaucrats has provided Pakistan with a rare opportunity to remodel itself as a civilian democracy based on the rule of law.  But the way forward is so fraught with difficulties that assessments of its chances of success are at best sober, at worst ominous.

The court decision to strike down the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) affects some 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats on a list of those who had been covered by the amnesty, including the defence and interior ministers.  President Asif Ali Zardari had also been covered by the amnesty, but remains protected by presidential immunity. Such was the upheaval created by the ruling that foreign exchange markets were briefly shaken last week by unfounded rumours of a military coup. The real impact is likely to be more slow-burning.


The disarray in government ranks will weaken its ability to take on the country’s powerful military, which continues to call the shots in Pakistan’s security and foreign policy.

mush nawaz“Building faith in the judicial system is vital and calls for accountability of all other state institutions as well to strengthen the perception that the decision on the NRO was in good faith and to strengthen the rule of law,” said Ayesha Siddiqa in a column in Dawn newspaper. ”But if a question is asked about whether the decision signifies the strengthening of the democratic process and civilian institutions, the answer must be in the negative. Since the perception regarding the decision is that it strengthens the armed forces and their ability to manipulate political stakeholders, it is not possible to see a major shift in the balance of power.”

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the army out of politics. But the military, which has ruled Pakistan for much of its existence, nonetheless exerts a powerful influence behind the scenes.  Even when out of power it has tended to play the role of an over-protective parent which has never allowed fledgling civilian governments to learn from their mistakes and find their own feet, thereby paving the way for a more mature democracy. The result has been a cycle of military coups — the most recent of which was when former army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999 — interspersed with brief periods of civilian rule.

Shortly after taking power, Zardari had not only tried to clip the wings of the military but also pushed for peace talks with India, carving out a radically different position from the army which has long seen India as a threat. He had even gone as far as to suggest Pakistan adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons back in November 2008, breaking two taboos at a stroke – over the country’s stance towards India, and over an understanding that any discussion of  Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should remain the exclusive preserve of the military.

Now he is fighting for his political survival. 

zulfikar bhuttoHis last remaining card which he could use against the military is his power to appoint the head of the army — a slow-burning fuse that is likely to become the subject of intense speculation before Kayani’s term expires in the autumn of 2010. But he is also under pressure to give up that right — part of sweeping powers under the 17th amendment to the Pakistani constitution which Musharraf used to bolster his presidency.

 ”Now, the president can think about extending the deadline for repealing the 17th Amendment to be able to play a role in the extension or appointment of the army chief,” wrote Siddiqa. “That’s his last but temporary lifeline.”


The Supreme Court ruling striking down the NRO is seen as disproportionately affecting the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Zardari, and whose roots are in Sindh province – in contrast to the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which dominates Punjab province.

“… since the vast majority of those named and shamed … are from Sindh, are we being asked to believe that politicians and bureaucrats from the much larger Punjab province are as clean as the driven snow? Or are Sindhi leaders of the PPP government being victimised yet again?” asked Irfan Husain, a Dawn columnist based in Karachi, the province’s biggest city.

jinnah flagSharif’s PML (N) party has so far played the loyal opposition in response to the ruling, insisting it would not support any unconstitutional action against Zardari or his government.  Sharif is currently seen as on course to win the next general election due by 2013 and has little to gain by rocking the boat right now, particularly if this were to cause enough turbulence to encourage a military coup.

But any attempt by the opposition to exploit the situation would be expected to raise hackles in Sindh, already wary of the power of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan Army.

“Sindh is restive. It wants in; or else, it wants out,” wrote Zafar Hilaly in Pakistan daily The News. He predicted that Zardari – credited by his allies for keeping Pakistan united in the tumultuous days following Bhutto’s death in 2007 – would use the PPP’s support base in Sindh against the opposition in the event of any serious stand-off.  “A call to rise in Sindh would still get him a generous response, and although it may not draw the large support that some warn, a heavy-handed response from Islamabad would very quickly make up for the deficiency in numbers.”

Of Pakistan’s four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) – it already faces a separatist revolt in Baluchistan, while NWFP has been on the frontline of its battle against Islamist militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  “Alienation in Sindh is conjoined with that which already exists in Balochistan and would have lethal consequences for the Federation,” wrote Hilaly.

It would also stir up the Pakistan Army’s worst fears – since losing East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971 following a humiliating defeat by India – the military has been haunted by any fresh challenge to the country’s territorial integrity.


Political instability is making it harder for other countries to work out how to manage their relations with Pakistan. 

This is less true for the United States, which has long been faulted for its willingness to deal directly with the military, often at the price of encouraging army rule over civilian democracy.

India broke off talks with Pakistan after last year’s attack on Mumbai and has refused to resume a formal dialogue until Pakistan takes more action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group it blames for the assault. But Indian analysts say even if New Delhi wanted to try to repair relations, it would not be sure who to deal with in order to negotiate the kind of long-term concessions needed to underpin any peace moves.

With little in the way of either formal, or informal dialogue, relations between India and Pakistan remain in a dangerous vacuum, vulnerable to exploitation by al Qaeda and its allies, should they try to launch another Mumbai-style attack in an attempt to trigger a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Even China, Pakistan’s most loyal ally, is struggling to work out how to help stabilise the country. It disapproved of Washington’s drive to replace  Musharraf with a civilian government and has never warmed to Zardari.  It has also voiced concern about the fall-out of the Supreme Court ruling after the defence minister abruptly cancelled a planned trip to China on being told that as one of the people on the list of those who had been covered by the amnesty, he was no longer allowed to leave Pakistan.


None of those risks means that Pakistan is incapable of using the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to build up its democracy and rule of law.  But the course is a very narrow one.

Nirupama Subramanian, the Islamabad correspondent for Indian newspaper The Hindu, quoted the main petitioner in the case to get the NRO abrogated as holding out only limited hope for change.

“The people of Pakistan are extremely happy, so I’m happy too. But since I know the reality, I do not entertain the hope that this will stop the state of Pakistan from falling apart,” Subramanian quoted 88-year-old Mubashir Hasan as saying. The judgment gave the patient a “slight chance”, he said, “to reconstruct or perish”.

(Photos: lawyers celebrate Supreme Court ruling; 1999 file photo of then army head Musharraf meeting then prime minister  Sharif; 1977 file photo of the late Zulfikar Bhutto; guards march past a poster of Jinnah)


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