Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States can’t get more transactional than the prolonged negotiations over restoration of the Pakistani supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, according to leaked accounts of so-called private negotiations, is demanding $5000 as transit fee for allowing trucks to use the two most obvious routes into landlocked Afghanistan, blocked since November when two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in an U.S. air strike from Afghanistan. The United States which apparently paid about $250 for each vehicle carrying everything from fuel to bottled water all these years is ready to double that, but nowhere near the price Pakistan is demanding for its support of the war. It also wants an apology for the deaths of the soldiers but America has stopped short of that, offering regret instead.
The two countries will likely reach a compromise, probably sooner than later. But the whole image of so-called allied nations involved in grubby negotiations about trucking fees while there is a disastrous war going on – and leaking details of those talks – tells you how destructive the relationship has become. You would think Pakistan and the United States would try and figure how to prevent incidents such as the air strike near the Afghan-Pakistan that led to the closure of the supply route in the first place. Imagine another strike of that kind and the impact it would have on an already inflamed nation, weak as it may be. Instead negotiations went down to the wire ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago over how many more dollars Pakistan can make as a conduit for a war that has turned it into a battlefield itself.
And America, playing just as hardball, is refusing to give any quarter even though it is paying quite a high price to transport the supplies by a combination of air and land through a northern route into Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. In any case, higher trucking fees in the closing stages of the war, can only be a drop in the vast amount America spends on its military – more than the next four countries put together.
One of the early calls that Vladimir Putin took following his expected victory in the Russian presidential election last weekend was from Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He congratulated Putin on his success and invited him to visit Islamabad in September which the Russian leader accepted, according to newspaper reports citing an official statement.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has written a letter to the Supreme Court to review the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — the country’s first popularly-elected prime minister — over three decades ago.
The reopening of Bhutto’s case was one of the long-running demands of the supporters of the charismatic leader but critics say the timing of Zardari’s move was intriguing.
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.
Of the many comments I heard in Pakistan, one question particularly flummoxed me. Was democracy really the right system for South Asia? It came, unsurprisingly, from someone sympathetic to the military, and was couched in a comparison between Pakistan and India.
What had India achieved, he asked, with its long years of near-uninterrupted democracy, to reduce the gap between rich and poor? What of the Maoist rebellion eating away at its heartland? Its desperate poverty? The human rights abuses from Kashmir to Manipur, when Indian forces were called in to quell separatist revolts? Maybe, he said, democracy was just not suited to countries like India and Pakistan.
Outside President Asif Ali Zardari’s political rally in Birmingham last weekend, I chatted to a middle-aged woman passing by about the floods in Pakistan. “I have every sympathy for Pakistan and the Pakistanis, but he is not helping them much, is he?” she said. Another woman asked me to explain why it was that the protesters were not focused on the floods but demonstrating “about all sorts”. Inside the rally, a young British Pakistani who had recently returned from a visit to his family home in Kashmir complained about negative stereotyping in the media of Pakistan that had reduced a country of some 170 million people to “a terrorist threat”.
If there is a common thread to the relatively slow western response to one of the worst catastrophes in Pakistan’s history, it is a sense of confusion, not about whether to help, but how to help. That, and the dehumanising impact of stereotypes - corrupt politicians, angry bearded protesters, suicide bombers to name but a few – that obscure the impact of the floods on the very real people – 14 million of them - affected by the disaster.
“Whatever the result, this meeting will be a turning point in Pakistan’s history,” Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told his daughter Benazir as he prepared for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 in the Indian hill resort of Simla after his country’s defeat by India in the 1971 war. “I want you to witness it first hand.”
If there is a slightly surreal quality to President Asif Ali Zardari’s controversial state visit to Britain - where he is expected to launch the political career of Oxford graduate Bilawal Bhutto at a rally for British Pakistanis in Birmingham on Saturday - it is perhaps no more surreal than taking your daughter, herself then a student at Harvard, to witness negotiations with India after a crushing military defeat.
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.
President Asif Ali Zardari has said that an agreement signed last month to allow Islamic law in the troubled Swat Valley in return for a ceasefire was made with religious clerics, and not the Taliban. The Pakistani state had not negotiated with the Taliban and other extremist elements, and nor will it ever do so, Zardari wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
But some people are questioning the distinction that Zardari is drawing between the “traditional local clerics” and the Swat Taliban militants who effectively control what was once an idyllic holiday destination. In the light of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the first major strike on international sport since the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, the debate over the deal has acquired a sharper edge as some see it as having emboldened the militants in the first place.
A reader has pointed to an agreement that Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, the main Islamist political group, signed with the Chinese communist party during its trip to Beijing a few days ago.