Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week. “We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan,” he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post. “We wish your success because it’s in our own interest.”
It was not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan – a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy — although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.
It was more in the choice of language — not necessarily Biden’s strong point. It left you wondering which audience he was appealing to when he said, “we want what you want”.
To popular sentiment, which at the moment is running high? But it is not about the need for democracy, but about defending the honour of the prophet Mohammed against perceived western-driven attempts to amend provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code imposing the death penalty for anyone believed to have insulted him. Religious parties have been able to bring thousands out into the streets to defend Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws, after the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard over his opposition to these legal provisions.
For everyone trying to understand the implications of Salman Taseer’s assassination, this essay from 2007 is good place to start (h/t Abu Muqawama). “The Politics of God” is about why Europe decided, after years of warfare over the correct interpretation of Christianity, to separate church and state. But it is also relevant to Pakistan, where the killing of the Punjab governor over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws has shown that what was left of Pakistani secularism, is, if not dead, at least in intensive care.
Read the opening paragraph to understand why it resonates:
“For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”
In one of the more anguished posts about the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer, Pakistani blogger Huma Imtiaz wrote that his assassination ”is not the beginning of the end. This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better. Saying ‘enough is enough’ does not cut it anymore …”
It was a sense that permeated much of the English-language commentary about Taseer’s killing in Islamabad by one of his own security guards. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Taseer, governor of Punjab province and a leading politician in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was killed because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A sense that the forces of religious intolerance are becoming all but unstoppable; and that those who oppose them by promoting a more liberal vision of Pakistan occupy an ever diminishing space.
Not too long ago, you could have predicted relatively easily how regional rivalries would play out in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia would line up alongside Pakistan while Iran and India would coordinate their policies to curb the influence of their main regional rivals.
But that pattern has been shifting for a while — the row over Indian oil payments to Iran is if anything a continuation of that shift rather than a dramatic new departure in global diplomacy. And as two foreign policy crises converge, over Iran’s nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan, the chances are that those traditional alliances will be dented further. It is no longer a safe bet to assume that rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran will fit neatly into Pakistan-India hostility so that the four countries fall easily into two opposing camps come any final showdown over Afghanistan.
Never in the history of Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government served out its full term and then been replaced by another one, also through democratic elections. It is that context that makes the latest political crisis in Pakistan so important.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scrambling to save his PPP-led government after it lost its parliamentary majority when its coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced it would go into opposition. A smaller religious party, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), already quit the coalition last month. If the government falls and elections are held ahead of schedule in 2013, the opportunity for Pakistan to have a government which serves its full term will be lost.
Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.
The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere. Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas “cleared” by the military were consolidated, “it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan has always led to deep resentment within the Pakistan Army, which has taken heavy casualties of its own fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its side of the border with Afghanistan. But there are signs that this resentment is now spiralling in dangerously unpredictable ways.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has denied it was responsible for revealing the name of a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in Pakistan, forcing him to flee the country after threats to his life. But the suspicion lingers that the ISI, which falls under the control of the Pakistan Army, is flexing its muscles in response to U.S. pressure.
(The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK)
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Is the flood over in Pakistan? No. Most certainly not! Notwithstanding the massive relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction operations, the devastation from the worst natural disaster in recent times continues to claim lives in scores due to the outbreak of epidemics, lack of health facilities, and shortage of food, shelter and clothing.
Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama suggested during a visit to Beijing that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I wrote at the time, China — Islamabad’s most loyal partner — was an obvious country to turn to for help in working out how to deal with Pakistan. Its economy would be the first to gain from greater regional stability which opened up trade routes and improved its access to energy supplies. And it also shared some of Washington’s concerns about Islamist militancy, particularly if this were to spread unrest in its Muslim Xinjiang region.
The big question was whether the suggestion would fall foul of the zero sum game thinking which has bedevilled relations between India, Pakistan and China for nearly 50 years. India was defeated by China in a border war in 1962 and since then has regarded it as its main military threat. Pakistan has built close ties with China to offset what it sees as its own main military threat from its much larger neighbour India. China in turn has been able to use its relationship with Pakistan to clip India’s wings and curb any ambitions it has at regional hegemony.
The fall-out from the fake WikiLeaks cables in Pakistan continues to be far more interesting than the real WikiLeaks cables. To recap, several Pakistani newspapers retracted stories last week which quoted WikiLeaks cables ostensibly accusing India of stirring up trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan, cited U.S. diplomats as ridiculing the Indian Army, and compared Kashmir to Bosnia in the 1990s. Since the anti-India narrative presented in the stories chimed with the views of Pakistani intelligence agencies, the alleged cables were then dismissed as fakes and most likely an intelligence plant.
However, just to complicate matters, some of the information in the “fake cables” is also in the “real cables”. For example, the real cables do contain allegations of Indian support for Baluch separatists, largely sourced to British intelligence, according to The Guardian. The British newspaper, which had advance access to the cables, also cited them as evidence that India practiced systematic torture in Kashmir.