Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Obituary of a scandal : A first draft on Pakistan’s “Memogate”


One of Pakistan’s most bizarre political dramas appears to be running out of steam.  What began as an unsigned memo seeking American help to rein in the military escalated into a full-blown power struggle between the civilian government and the army after Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz accused then ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani of writing it. Haqqani, who denied involvement, resigned and returned to Pakistan to clear his name.  But that did nothing to stem a crisis in civilian-military relations which carried uncomfortable echoes of the 1990s when government after government were dismissed in a decade which ended in a coup in 1999. 

With Haqqani now living in virtual house arrest in Pakistan, the so-called “Memogate” affair is far from over – it remains subject to judicial and parliamentary enquiries. But after weeks of drama, from coup rumours to allegations the army had already sought Gulf backing to take over - both denied by the military – to unusually spirited criticism of the army by the government, to the more farcical circulation of an old video featuring Ijaz commenting on naked female wrestling – the media feeding frenzy triggered by the memo appears finally to be satiated. Ijaz, meanwhile, has said he is unwilling to travel to Pakistan to testify, citing fears for his safety, diminishing his utility as a star player. 

As things stand, not only has the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari survived, but it may even be on course to pull off an unprecedented feat in Pakistan – to serve its term, hold elections and hand over power to another democratically elected government. And while elections are not due until 2013, it is widely expected to hold them early with a real possibility of winning enough seats to stake a claim to lead a new coalition. Pakistan’s constituency-based system makes it hard for outsiders like the Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) of rising politician Imran Khan to break the traditional grip of the PPP and its main rival, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Yet to suggest that the civilian government has come out on top in its confrontation with the generals would be to vastly overstate the significance of  “Memogate”,  and to grossly underestimate the distribution of power in Pakistan.

Failing to learn: US resumes drone attacks in Pakistan


When Pakistan’s Express Tribune wrote this week that the CIA was likely to resume drone strikes for the first time since November, it included a quote from an unnamed Pakistani official saying that Pakistani authorities believed drones were “strategically harmful but tactically advantageous”.  I tweeted the link and asked who would explain to the Pakistani public that the drone strikes – which have fuelled intense anti-Americanism – were seen even in their own country as “tactically advantageous”.

One of the answers was particularly telling. It was from a supporter of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of former cricketer Imran Khan – who has risen in popularity on a wave of anti-Americanism, opposition to drone strikes, and belief the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has sold out to the United States. Here is the tweet:

Talking to the Taliban:an elusive peace in Afghanistan


It is the season for “progress” on Taliban talks. In January 2010, the London conference on Afghanistan put the idea of negotiating with the Taliban firmly on the international agenda. In February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a major policy speech, insisted it was time the United States began to talk to its enemies. Her speech was accompanied by a leaked report that Washington was in fact already holding direct talks with the Taliban to try to convince them to join a political settlement and sever ties with al Qaeda. And now we have the Taliban agreeing to open a liaison office in Qatar to help speed along the talks process as Washington prepares to withdraw most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

But what are we actually looking at here? A quick-fix settlement that could provide just about enough cover for war-weary western governments to pull their troops out before Afghanistan descends again into civil war? Or a serious process which might offer an enduring peace? Do we believe the Taliban are now more amenable to talks than they were before? Or rather that domestic political compulsions in the United States are driving it more rapidly towards the exit? 

In Pakistan, history may not even rhyme, let alone repeat


In his book, Between Mosque and Military, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani wrote of how military coups in the past were carefully planned, yet carried out in such a way as to give the appearance of being a spontaneous reaction to an emergency.

“The Pakistan military always insists on an immediate provocation as the trigger of its coups,” wrote Haqqani, who was forced to quit last month after being accused of involvement in a memo seeking American help to rein in the army, an allegation he denies.  “The army’s ability to swiftly execute a military takeover within hours of a supposed provocation is often attributed to its having contingency plans for such occasions. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals a pattern of careful prior planning, including disorder in the streets orchestrated with the help of the reliable street power of Islamist political parties.”

Winning the battle, losing the war; the US and Pakistan


When former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said this weekend that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not safe under President Asif Ali Zardari, he almost certainly did not mean that the nuclear arsenal is not secure. The nuclear weapons have little to do with the civilian government; they are guarded ferociously by the Pakistan Army both against terrorist attacks and any foreign or U.S. attempt to seize them, and, as a matter of pride for Pakistanis chafing at any American suggestions otherwise,  safeguarded to international standards.

Rather it was a rhetorical device to attack the government at a rally where Qureshi announced he was joining the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) , the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, a rising force in Pakistani politics.  Qureshi’s assertion tapped into growing anti-Americanism, and a populist view that the  civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party, to which he once belonged, had somehow sold the country’s honour – in this case symbolised by nuclear weapons – in return for American aid.  (Pakistan first agreed its uneasy alliance with the United States under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.)

Capturing the Punjabi imagination: drones and “the noble savage”


Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid may have captured something rather interesting in his short story published this month by  The Guardian.   And it is not as obvious as it looks.

In “Terminator: Attack of the Drone”, Hamid imagines life in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan under constant attack from U.S. drone bombings.  His narrator is one of two boys who go out one night to try to attack a drone.

from Afghan Journal:

India-Afghan strategic pact:the beginnings of regional integration

A strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan would ordinarily have evoked howls of protest from Pakistan which has long regarded its western neighbour as part of its sphere of influence.  Islamabad has, in the past, made no secret of its displeasure at India's role in Afghanistan including  a$2 billion aid effort that has won it goodwill among the Afghan  people, but which Pakistan sees as New Delhi's way to expand influence. 

Instead the reaction to the pact signed last month during President Hamid Karzai's visit to New Delhi, the first Kabul had done with any country, was decidedly muted. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani  said India and Afghanistan were "both sovereign countries and they have the right to do whatever they want to."  The Pakistani foreign office echoed Gilani's comments, adding only that regional stability should be preserved. It cried off further comment, saying it was studying the pact.

She came, she saw, she confounded: Clinton in Pakistan


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recently concluded visit to Pakistan has left us none the wiser about how the United States and its allies will end the  Afghan war. In her public comments, she spoke of action ”over the next days and weeks – not months and years, but days and weeks”.  She promised the United States would tackle Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan in response to a long-standing Pakistani complaint that Washington had neglected the region when  it decided to concentrate its forces in population centres in southern Afghanistan in 2010 (remember “government in a box”?).

She called, in return, for cooperation on the Pakistani side of the border to ”squeeze these terrorists so that they cannot attack and kill any Pakistani, any Afghan, any American, or anyone.”  Between the two countries, they would tackle the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.

Trusting the masses: US tiptoes into democracy in Pakistan


In his book “Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination“, an edited collection of his Chapati Mystery blog, historian Manan Ahmed complained about the United States’ past support for former president Pervez Musharraf, and its refusal, at the time to trust Pakistan with democracy.  In an entry written in 2007, he described Pakistan as the “the not yet nation” - a country for which democracy might be a good thing in the long run, but  was in American eyes not yet ready.

“We fear the multitudes on two fronts. One is that we conceive of them as masses without politics – forever hostage to gross religious and ideological provocations. Masses which do not constitute a body politic or act with an interest in self-preservation or self-growth. Faced with that absence of reason, we are forced to support native royals to do the job (from Egypt to Pakistan). We justify it by stressing that we may not like these dictators but we know that if we did not have them, the masses would instantly betray us to the very forces of extremism that we seek to destroy,” he wrote.

from Afghan Journal:

The Taliban in Afghanistan’s once impregnable Panjshir Valley

Last month driving up Afghanistan's magnificent Panjshir valley, you couldn't help thinking if the resurgent Taliban would ever be able to break its defences, both natural and from the Tajik-dominated populace. With its jagged cliffs and plunging valleys, Panjshir has been largely out of bounds  for the  Taliban, whether during the civil war or in the past 10 years when it has expanded a deadly insurgency against western and Afghan forces across the country. But on Saturday, the insurgents struck, carrying out a suicide bombing at a provincial reconstruction team base housing U.S. and Afghan troops and officials.

They were halted outside the base, but according to the provincial deputy governor they succeeded in  killing two civilians and wounding two guards when they detonated their explosives. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the first suicide bombing in a decade was a message to Western forces that they were not secure anywhere in the country. They said the  bombers came from within Panjshir, which if true  would worry people even more  because that would suggest the penetration was deeper and there could be more attacks.