PAKISTAN’S YEAR OF RECKONING

Canberra, 22 February 2013
Pakistan has arrived at its most critical juncture in its volatile history since independence in 1947. The year 2013 will be decisive for its future—national elections are due to be held in April-May; the President Asif Zardari completes his tenure in September; the Chief of Army, General Ashfaq Kayani’s term concludes in November; and the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will retire in December. Most noteworthy of all these important events is the fact that this is the first time in Pakistan’s independent history that a democratic government is completing its full term in office. It is noteworthy because the past five years has seen the nation making progress, however erratic and feeble, in consolidating democratic processes, despite the extremely fragile security situation; poor and at times absent governance; a broken economy; a fracturing social framework; and almost overriding and endemic corruption at all levels. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, parliamentary democracy looks like having a slim chance of survival.

There is a tangible feeling of the civil-military relationship reaching a point of transformation, both within the country as well as amongst external observers. The military continues to subscribe to the belief,  clearly articulated laid out by the Chief of Army, that, ‘…no individual or institution had the monopoly to decide what was right or wrong in defining national interests…’, who also went on to say that ‘As a nation we are passing through a defining phase.’ This could indicate that the military, so far the self-proclaimed protectors of the sovereignty of the nation, will let elections take place and hopefully not interfere in the political process even if the election does not throw up an admissible majority party to form the government. The fact that despite almost appalling incompetency of the current government, the military did not intervene in state-governance can be taken as a good omen. However, if General Kayani retires on schedule and his replacement is one with more hawkish proclivities and an exaggerated sense of the Army’s role, the situation could change rapidly. In any case, the democratic process has been strengthened, at least for the time being, and it seems that the prospect of a military takeover has receded considerably. [If historical precedents are to be extrapolated, this sense of the Army ‘going back to the barracks’ could well be a superficial and cosmetic veneer.] This has been facilitated, in no small measure, by the fiercely independent judiciary (which was the primary group responsible for the end of the ten-year military rule of General Musharraf) and a gradually awakening media. The judiciary and media have been extraordinarily active and have initiated some remedial actions to the persistent challenges to the nation. There is a feeling, however, in some groups that in their overzealousness they have also crossed some invisible proprietary lines in terms of the actions that they have initiated to force the government to act. In the broader perspective these excesses could perhaps be forgiven. The judiciary and the media have been, by and large, positive forces.

That is the positive side of things. There are two concurrent activities taking place in Pakistan that have no precedence and therefore, are difficult to predict in terms of how they will influence the future of Pakistan. At least one of them has the potential to derail the barely minimum stability that has been established in the past few years. [In this case ‘stability’ has to be measured against Pakistan’s own standards of and not against any external scale.] First, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant group that is at war with the Pakistan Army, predominantly in the tribal belt of FATA, has expressed willingness to talk to the government, even though the offer is smothered in a plethora of caveats. [The conditions that they have set appear to be laid down so that the refusal to negotiate can be blamed on the government; they are such that it will be extremely difficult for a democratic government to accept!] Second, Mohammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Sufi cleric, has returned from self-exile in Canada and is leading a sort of mass protest movement against the incumbent government.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan
The TTP is an assembly of a number of separate militant groups with three stated primary objectives—fight against Pakistan and its Army; enforce their own interpretation of the Sharia law in Pakistan; and unite to fight against the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. They are not thought to be allied or affiliated with the Afghan Taliban and the only commonality between the two seems to be that both the groups belong to the Deobandi sect. [Deobandi is a revivalist movement in Sunni Islam, centred in the Indian sub-continent and is known for its harsh stance and actions against what it considers not ‘pure’ Islam.] The main groups within the TTP are not considered to have taken part in the war against USSR nor in any action against NATO. Their primary focus so far has been to fight the Pakistan Army. Essentially their main objective is the talibanisation of Pakistan. The public opinion regarding the TTP in Pakistan varies from the belief that they are CIA or Indian agents who are being used to destabilise Pakistan to their being considered outlaw terrorists who have so far killed or wounded more than a 100,000 civilians and about 10,000 military personnel. In fact there is very limited support for them in the urban centres of the nation. [The numbers of casualties are estimates and cannot be confirmed because of lack of openly available and verifiable data.]
The TTP’s offer to negotiate must be taken with a pinch of salt. At least till now they have not displayed any trustworthiness and there fundamental aim of destabilising Pakistan through fighting the security forces and terrorist activities has not been replaced with any other objective. Weakening of the state institutions—in the case of Pakistan this has to be read as the military forces—that hold up the state is their primary aim and therefore the Pakistani military forces have been the focus of their attacks. The TTP has so far taken responsibility for the attack on the Naval Station in Mehran where maritime patrol aircraft were destroyed, attacks on Peshawar Air Force Base where fuel dumps were destroyed and for the less successful attack on the military headquarters itself. Even if some sort of negotiation takes place it is doubtful whether a clear cut ceasefire can be agreed upon and whether the amorphous group will adhere by their promises. TTP aims are not in consonance with the democratic ambitions of the political parties and therefore, achieving a negotiated settlement to the near civil war situation and then moving forward to create a peaceful nation is highly unlikely. Further, there is a lack of political consensus to negotiating with the TTP with some factions rejecting any deal with TTP, considering such overtures as attempts at appeasement that would give the militants breathing time to regroup and launch further attacks.
The latest development has been that in a conference attended by 26 political and religious parties it was agreed to pursue a joint strategy to combat terrorism. Further, the unanimous declaration adopted at a meeting of all the parties proclaimed that all participants agreed that, ‘attaining peace through dialogue should be the first priority.’ It was also agreed that challenges posed by terrorism should be countered in accordance with, ‘the constitution, law, security, and sovereignty of the country.’ Once again, whether or not these declarations [I hesitate to label them as initiatives, since tangible action as a follow through has yet to be formulated and commenced] will be converted to demonstrable action that would force the TTP to the negotiating table and more importantly, hold them to account if they do not deliver on the promises made, is left to speculation. If historical precedent is anything to go by, then no definitive action will be forthcoming and the TTP will continue its brutal subversive acts of terrorism.  
Mohammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s ‘Democratic Revolution’
In December 2012, Qaudri, the self-exiled Sufi cleric, returned to Pakistan and demanded the immediate dissolution of the Zardari government and the formulation of a caretaker government. His demands were to—clean up the nation by ending corruption; dismiss the inefficient and corrupt officials responsible for the nation’s retarded economic growth; counter the raging Taliban insurgency; and stem the rapid escalation of crime in the country. Qadri has always been a moderate Sufi scholar and came into prominence after moving to Canada when he issued a 600-page Fatwa on Terrorism, denouncing all forms of terrorist activity as un-Islamic and asserting that there is no place for terrorism in the concept of Islam. Qadri’s support base in Pakistan is mainly the middle- and lower-class spread across almost the entire nation. The common people of Pakistan are miserable and are impatient for a change for the better—in terms of security, economy and the simple freedoms required to carry on with their everyday life.

Qadri’s appeal to the common person in the street is easy to understand—he demands an end to corruption and inefficiency that has been the bane of Pakistan for the past few decades. [Even earlier the issues were the same, but successive dictators who ruled the nation at least managed to provide a basic modicum of personal safety to the people and broad internal security to the nation. The domestic Islamic insurgency has taken root mainly because the military is riddled with radical Islamic infiltration—a legacy of the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq—and therefore unable to take stern measures to curb the violence.] While the demand for a caretaker government was extraordinary, considering that the current parliament will finish its tenure in another month, his demand that the caretaker be appointed in consultation with the military and judiciary has been received with some amount of favour. In order to ensure that the forthcoming elections are fair, he has demanded that the Army manage its conduct. [This is almost like making the thief stand guard and surety for the open treasury and believing that the treasure will be safe!] This has also fuelled another conspiracy rumour in the nation with people now believing that Qadri’s protest is a military sponsored phenomenon. [There is no dearth of conspiracy theories in Pakistan, which is the conspiracy theory capital of the world. Whether it is because the people are gullible or because the inherent ethos in the nation is one wherein the ills of the nation are seen as being created by external agencies and blamed on anyone other than themselves is open to debate. This ethos has become so pervasive that the conspiracy theories are now believed as facts.]

There are a number of questions regarding the success of Qadri’s protests that have as yet not been answered satisfactorily. The source of the enormous amount of funds needed to organise protests of the size and magnitude that he managed have not been revealed, although Qadri has claimed that it came from expatriate Pakistani’s who want to fight corruption in their homeland. After four days of massive protest, Qadri arrived at an understanding with the Government. According to the agreement, the government will dissolve parliament before the due date of 16 March and thereafter hold elections before the stipulated 90 days are over. Although it was also agreed that all parties would be consulted in the formulation of the interim government, the government categorically stated that the Army would not be consulted. [This is perhaps the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government has made such an open statement. Whether or not it is followed up with actual implementation will provide a clue to the actual power play within the state.] It was also agreed that Qadri would be consulted on the formulation of the election commission to oversee the elections. The critics of Qadri, who are many, are convinced that he is the Army’s stooge bend on creating situations that would impede the conduct of democratic elections so that the Army has a tangible rationale to once again take over the nation. Irrespective of the number of theories being floated regarding Qadri’s credentials and intent, the question to be asked is whether or not this protest (that has now ended) can usher in change into the decaying body politic or at least infuse it with the energy to right itself or whether it is also a storm in a tea cup like many other movements before. The cynical view of the government’s agreement with Qadri is that it is a placating move by the government to gradually ease Qadri out of the equation and permit him to leave without loss of face. The only silver lining in the Qadri episode is that the strength of mass protests, that too peaceful held, was clearly demonstrated, something that Pakistan has not been able to achieve for decades. Democracy, even in a flawed representation, may yet be the saviour of a drowning nation.

The Question of Democracy

A democratically elected government in Pakistan has survived, rather precariously, a its full five-year term. However, this has been a government where all the ruling coalition partners are tainted and the government has had to look the other way when massive corruption and heinous crimes were being carried out, purely in order to survive. The other fact to be noted, and which is likely to come back to haunt the next government, is that an elected government has blatantly defied the judiciary time and again. Although the out-going government put up a façade of democracy to the outside world, its record of governance is pathetic. [This is perhaps an understatement. There are reports that this government has presided over corruption to the tune of $ 80 billion during its tenure (Transparency International), and has bankrupted previously profitable public sector undertaking such as the national airline and the railways.] The political and economic outlook for the nation is extremely gloomy and does not give the confidence to feel that Pakistan is moving on the right track. Almost all parties practice dynastic politics and inflation is sky high. (The Pakistani rupee has been devalued 100 per cent against the US $ in five years). The woes of the nation do not end here—internal dissentions have reached epic proportions; sectarian and ethnic violence is now an everyday occurrence; the state does not have the capacity to enforce its own rules or the law; there is an acute leadership deficit built up over the years; political expediencies have seen morals, ethics and human values thrown out without any compunctions; and the Army, the only institution that is functional [other than the judiciary which is gradually trying to assert its independence] and still held in high regard by a majority of the population, is unable or unwilling to strengthen the framework of a democratic society.

Pakistan has so far been a resilient nation, weathering all kinds of grievous harm to itself, mostly self-inflicted. However, the coming election is only going to bring further and increased violence and another blow to the broader unity of the state. The elections will bring, at best, a government run by the same or another set of corrupt politicians who will continue to consciously avoid the rule of law or, at worst, the country will descend into civil war (if the current situation is still not being classified officially as a civil war). In this fragile country fresh elections in the near future (within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament in March)  is not likely to bring peace and stability; on the contrary, it is almost certain to bring about more anarchy, opportunistic corruption and sectarian, ethnic and religious bloodshed. The descent into chaos is almost palpable even to the casual observer. 
 
                              
         
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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