Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
If your country is desperate to stave off economic collapse, there is probably no better place to visit, and no better friend to have, than China right now. With $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China is sheltered from the worst of the financial storm, so much so that many are looking at it to play a part in hauling the global economy into calmer waters.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari begins a trip to China on Tuesday on what is being billed as his first official visit abroad – his earlier trip to the United States has been presented as one to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
Pakistan has long seen China as its most reliable friend, in contrast to the United States, whose support has waxed and waned in line with U.S. strategic interests in the region. And China in turn has long been content to provide quiet support, avoiding the brashness of the United States while building a relationship with an ally that could be used as a counterweight to India. So there is nothing unusual about a Pakistani leader making China his first choice for a bilateral trip. (more…)
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be in New Delhi this weekend to celebrate a hard-fought nuclear deal that to its critics strikes at the heart of the global non-proliferation regime by allowing India access to nuclear technology despite its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) and give up a weapons programme.
China and Pakistan are not amused although both stepped aside as they watched an unstoppable Bush administration push the deal through the International Atomic Energy Agency and then the Nuclear Suppliers Group in one of its few foreign policy successes.
While Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is in the United States discussing U.S. military strikes across Pakistan’s border, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is on a far less publicised trip to China to talk about defence cooperation. The timing may be coincidental, but the potential implications of the United States and China playing competing roles in Pakistan are huge.
Pakistan has always seen China as a much more reliable friend, while support from Washington has waxed and waned in line with U.S. interests (Islamabad has never quite forgiven the United States for using it to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then dropping it when the Russians were driven out in 1989.)
Just two days after a suicide bomb attack on the Marriott killed 53 people in the heart of Islamabad, there were reports of trouble both on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and on the Line of Control with India.
On the Afghan border, Pakistani troops fired on two U.S. helicopters that intruded into Pakistani airspace on Sunday night, forcing them to turn back to Afghanistan, according to a senior Pakistani security official. On the Indian side, Pakistani and Indian troops exchanged fire across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, in the latest breach of a ceasefire agreed in 2003. And as if that was not enough, Afghanistan’s top diplomat was kidnapped in Peshawar.
Both the United States and Osama bin Laden are losing support in Pakistan, according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes report released this week (download the full PDF report to see details on Pakistan).
The poll, conducted before the resignation of former President Pervez Musharraf, showed faith in U.S. intentions towards democracy was weaker than ever - only 20 percent believed the United States favoured democracy in Pakistan, down from 39 percent in 2005.
Senator Barack Obama has accused Pakistan of misusing U.S. military aid meant to help it fight al Qaeda and the Taliban to prepare for war against India. In an interview with Fox News he also says the United States must put more pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants, hold it accountable for increased military support, and be prepared to act aggressively against al Qaeda; “if we have bin Laden in our sights, we target him and we knock him out,” he says. However he adds that “nobody talked about some full-blown invasion of Pakistan.”
The latter part of his comments is not that new, nor indeed that different from the policies of the current U.S. administration. But it is his comment about India that has been seized upon by the media in South Asia. ”We are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they’re using the military aid that we use, to Pakistan, they’re preparing for war against India,” he says.
One of the more troublesome aspects of the latest protests in Kashmir, among the biggest since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989, is the impact on the younger generation.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra writes that India’s attempt to crush the revolt in 1989 and 1990 ended up provoking many young Kashmiris to take to arms and embrace radical Islam.
The resignation of President Pervez Musharraf has, as expected, unleashed a new power struggle within Pakistan’s fractious coalition. Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and widower of Benazir Bhutto, has staked a claim to the presidency, setting him on a collision course with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) sees Zardari’s candidacy as an attempt to garner more power and delay the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf last November. PML (N) officials are already saying the row could break up the six-month-old coalition cobbled together after elections in February.
So will there be a fight to the finish between Zardari and Sharif that will drag Pakistan deeper into the mire? Or are the two men simply manoeuvring themselves into the best position they can find in the post-Musharraf era?
UPDATE – President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation has been greeted with jubilation from supporters of the ruling PML-N and PPP parties (see picture right), and sparked a rally in the stock market. But reading through the comments on this and other blogs, I can’t see any clear theme emerging, with some praising and others condemning Musharraf’s legacy, some regretting and others welcoming his departure, and many fretting about the future.
The last time I visited Kashmir, in November, I was struck by an apparent contradiction: it was more peaceful than it had been in years, at least in the capital Srinagar, and yet the overwhelming mood was one of gloom. With the peace process between India and Pakistan going nowhere, there was a sense that thousands of people had died for nothing in the violence that had convulsed the region since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. Although the soldiers had disappeared from the streets of Srinagar, and tourists were flocking back, it retained the some of the same tinderbox atmosphere that I had known at the height of the violence. One spark, people told me, could ignite it again.
When that spark came, in the form of a land dispute between Hindus and Muslims that triggered some of the biggest protests since 1989 (you can see my last posting on this here), the surprise was perhaps not so much that it happened but that so few analysts in Delhi (or Islamabad for that matter) saw it coming.