Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is to be given a a three-year extension to his term of office to maintain continuity in the country’s battle against Islamist militants.
Kayani, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful man, had been due to retire in November. His future had been the subject of intense speculation for months, with opinion divided between the those who argued he should be given an extension for the sake of continuity, and those who said that Pakistan needed to build its institutions rather than rely on individuals – as it had done with powerful army rulers in the past.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who announced the extension, said the decision to extend Kayani’s term reflected “his effective role in the war against terrorism and in the enforcement of rule of law in the country.”
Kayani is considered to have built a good working relationship with the United States - which needs the Pakistan Army’s help in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan – prompting speculation, denied by the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, that Washington had pressed for his term of office to be extended.
Last week’s suicide bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, capital of the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, is another reminder of how far two of the United States’ main foreign policy challenges – its row with Iran over its nuclear programme, and its policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – are intertwined.
A senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the United States would face “fall out” from the bomb attack which it blamed on the Jundollah Sunni Muslim rebel group - a militant group which Iran says is backed by Washington and operates from Baluchistan province in neighbouring Pakistan. Massoud Jazayeri, deputy head of the dominant ideological wing of Iran’s armed forces, did not specify what he meant by fall-out from the bombing, which killed 28 people and which the United States has condemned.
Richard Haass, president at the Council on Foreign Relations, has become the latest to urge the United States to change course in Afghanistan and to seek a political settlement to try to bring an end to the war.
“The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better,” he writes in an article in Newsweek.
Hopes of progress were low when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in Islamabad last week and the two sides lived up to expectations, disagreeing on how to move their relationship forward and blaming each other for souring the mood.
Pakistan took exception to the timing of remarks by the Indian Home Secretary on the eve of the talks accusing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. India objected to comments made by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi comparing those remarks to anti-India speeches given by Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for Mumbai. Qureshi complained his counterpart repeatedly took instructions from Delhi during their talks, an accusation that Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna denied.
Perhaps one of the most telling features on the media commentary ahead of a meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in Islamabad this week is the lack of it. Expectations could hardly be lower.
Part of that is the nature of the actors involved. In India, policy towards Pakistan is set by the prime minister’s office, not the foreign ministry. So External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is not in a position to deliver the kind of breakthrough that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh achieved at a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani when both agreed at a meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan in April to try to find a way back into talks broken off by the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. In Pakistan, the army retains a tight grip on foreign and security policy, limiting in turn the kind of concessions that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi might make.
In the highly charged debate about Afghanistan, one of the more common features is the straw man fallacy - in which you deliberately misrepresent your opponent’s position in order to discredit it. One of the least common is a definition of terms and timing – thereby making the straw man attack even easier. So before a round-up of where things stand on prospects for a settlement, here are some caveats on what it does not involve.
First, as Andrew Exum highlights here, few are talking about a helicopters-on-the-rooftops of Kabul-style, complete U.S. withdrawal come July 2011, the deadline fixed by President Barack Obama for starting to draw down U.S. troops. Second, few believe the war will end in an outright victory; but rather in a negotiated settlement, including with the Taliban. Third, when people talk about negotiating, they are not suggesting Taliban leaders are suddenly about to lay down arms and come to the table (it is just not the sort of thing you do when your names figure on the most-wanted list.) Beyond those caveats, what you do have is a set of questions about the likely influences that will define the timings and terms of a settlement.
Another three people have been killed in Kashmir in the biggest anti-India demonstrations in two years, bringing the death toll to at least 14 in the last three weeks. You can see some video of the protests in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar here – please watch it and remember that only a few years ago peace had returned to the streets of Srinagar after more than a decade of violence.
While Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has suggested the violence is being whipped up by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, our correspondent in Srinagar says that many local Kashmiris believe the protests are largely spontaneous.
Diplomats like to stress that Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game, that if only the many regional players — including Pakistan and India – can settle their differences, they can find common cause in seeking a political settlement that will offer stability. That view comes complete with an appealing historical template – the British in India were able to extricate themselves from their failed Afghan wars in the 19th century in part because they agreed with Tsarist Russia that Afghanistan should be allowed to remain neutral.
Yet in the feverishness of the 21st century Afghan war, the perception (right or wrong) of a likely early American disengagement may be encouraging more, rather than less, zero-sum gamesmanship. The danger then is that far from moving towards a settlement for Afghanistan, regional players back different sides in the Afghan conflict, leading to de facto partition and renewed civil war.
Nearly a week after suicide bombers attacked one of Pakistan’s most popular shrines in Lahore, it remains unclear how the country should, and indeed will, respond to a fresh wave of attacks in its heartland Punjab province.
The government has announced plans to hold a national conference on ways to combat terrorism to try to limit the political bickering which erupted between the federal government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Punjab provincial government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif over who was to blame.
Pakistani education authorities are verifying university degrees of members of parliament amid fears that scores of them could be disqualified for holding “fake degrees”, leading to “mini mid-term elections” less than three years after general elections were held in the country.
Large scale by-elections could trigger political uncertainty in the country which is presently confronted with growing threat of Islamist militancy and is struggling to bolster a weak economy.