From the Economist:
By its recent chaotic standards, Pakistan had quite a good 2009. Admittedly, more than 2m people were displaced by fighting between the army and Taliban militants. The economy was in the doldrums. And a threat of political crisis, pitting President Asif Zardari against his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, loomed. Yet his government, a coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), looked stable. An injection of IMF cash—and a promise from America of an extra $1.5 billion a year—kept its creditors at bay. And the army, despite much suffering, won the biggest victories of a floundering eight-year campaign on its north-west frontier. Without catastrophic violence—an important assassination or a terrorist attack in India—Pakistan will be messy, but stable after this fashion, in 2010.
The army will also make a bit more progress against the militants. Goaded into action in early 2009, after the Taliban seized areas of North-West Frontier Province alarmingly close to Islamabad, it pushed them back ruthlessly. Compounding the Taliban’s troubles, their supreme leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was responsible for a two-year suicide-bomb spree (and allegedly for the 2007 murder of Mr Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto), was killed by an American missile last August. And in October the army launched an assault on his former fief, in South Waziristan. Alas, it has shown no interest in pursuing members of the other Taliban, Afghanistan’s former rulers, who have found refuge in Pakistan. More:
In the New York Times, Joshua Kurlantzick reviews “To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan,” by Nicholas Schmidle:
Taking office in January, Barack Obama promised a radically different vision of foreign policy from that of his predecessor. But on perhaps the most critical issue, the new king looks a lot like the old one. In Pakistan, President Obama has retained the Bush administration’s targeted drone missile attacks against suspected militants and may quietly be expanding the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert battle against jihadis along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
As Nicholas Schmidle, a contributor to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and Slate, reveals in a richly reported book based on his two years traveling across Pakistan, United States policy does not change because Pakistan, sadly, does not change. Birthed in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer son of a rich merchant, the country remains in the grip of venal, feudal, wealthy politician-landlords like the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, for whom democracy means one vote one time, after which the victors go on to dominate indefinitely. Worse, greed and graft have led Islamabad’s ruling class to ignore large portions of the population, who remain illiterate, and their incompetent governance has opened the door to Islamists’ offering average Pakistanis promises that the first Mayor Daley would have recognized – safe and orderly streets – not through machine politics but through the brutal application of Shariah law. More:
Karachi-based economist and political analyst Haris Gazdar says in the Economic and Political Weekly that “President Zardari’s bungling and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s irrational ambitions brought a welcome relief to the jihadi apparatus at the precise moment when the noose around it looked like tightening.”
Strategic affairs analyst and deputy editor at The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan, says he agrees with Gazdar’s “compelling if contrarian assessment of the ‘revolutionary movement’ led by the lawyers and Nawaz Sharif, its implications and consequences for the power of the military and the growing threat posed by the Taliban.”
Gazdar’s article in EPW was edited down from a longer piece by him which Siddharth has on his blog, Reality, one bite at a time:
Beyond the Sharif-Zardari tussle, political parties collectively lost ground to other forces. The most obvious gainer is the military which as guarantor occupied a dominant position with respect to both parties. We wait to see what its pound of flesh will be. The lawyers and the “restored” judges too might feel that they have emerged as an autonomous power centre. But for all the talk of the rule of law the judges are unlikely to challenge the de facto power of the military.
The “independent” electronic media which continued its denial chorus, emerged as another power centre. Regardless of whether the rightwing domination of the electronic media is choreographed or genuine, the effect is the same. A minority opinion, if measured in terms of electoral arithmetic, is projected as the national view. This view is defensive about jihadi militancy, hostile to good relations with Afghanistan and India, and prickly about any discussion of nuclear proliferation — all the elements that led Pakistan to be labelled “the world’s migraine”. More:
From the Financial Times:
Settling back in his seat, a picture of calm in his light grey shalwar kameez, Sharif tells us he is much more satisfied as an opposition leader, pushing for true democracy, than he ever was as a prime minister. Sharif is a generous host. The scale of his entertaining is legendary in Pakistan. We were told about an irreverent joke that was doing the rounds in Lahore last month: even as the convoy of protesters drove through the outskirts of the city amid high drama, Sharif would have wanted to stop to point out to his companions his favourite provisioners. He is not, however, tempted by the food on the breakfast trolley. Rather, as we enjoy the savoury pastries and dainty sandwiches on offer, he digresses into his past.
First come the sporting memories. He is an accomplished cricketer, having played First Class matches including against a Rest of the World eleven. He recalls playing a match at the 1993 Commonwealth summit in Zimbabwe with John Major, the then British prime minister, and other ministers. “I was the highest scorer, 36 not out,” he says. He also remembers playing in the 1980s as an opening batsman against a West Indian side that included some of its famously fearsome fast bowlers.
Huma Yusuf in The Indian Express:
The problem with a love triangle is that someone always winds up with a broken heart. As Pakistanis rejoice at the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, I can’t help but wonder who will come away broken-hearted from the sordid entanglement that brought Chaudhry, President Asif Zardari, and Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif together in an ill-fated ménage a trois. Flags are waving in the streets of Islamabad and Lahore, music is blaring, congratulatory text messages are being forwarded, and bloggers are beginning to tire of the words “historic day.”
So, is President Zardari the triangle’s victim?
Triumphalism over a Musharraf impeachment won’t hide the failings of Pakistan’s ruling coalition. Fatima Bhutto in The Guardian:
The murky abyss of Pakistani politics has been especially murky over recent months, and true to form it just keeps getting murkier. The one thing that is absolute when dealing with the dregs that run my country is this: nothing is ever as it seems. Nowhere is that more true than in the current scenario involving President Musharraf’s likely impeachment by the ruling coalition.
“It has become imperative to move for impeachment,” barked Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, at a press conference in Islamabad last week. Sitting beside the new head of the Pakistan People’s party was Nawaz Sharif, twice formerly prime minister of Pakistan. Zardari snarled every time Musharraf’s name came up, seething with political rage and righteousness, while Sharif did his best to keep up with the pace of things. He nodded sombrely and harrumphed every once in a while. The two men are acting for democracy, you see. And impeaching dictators is a good thing for democracies, you know.
Musharraf will be gone in days
The Pakistani president is likely to quit soon. But don’t expect democracy to rush in: the military’s habits die hard. Tariq Ali in The Guardian:
There is never a dull moment in Pakistan. As the country moved from a moth-eaten dictatorship to a moth-eaten democracy the celebrations were muted. Many citizens wondered whether the change represented a forward movement.
Five months later, the moral climate has deteriorated still further. All the ideals embraced by the hopeful youth and the poor of the country – political morality, legality, civic virtue, food subsidies, freedom and equality of opportunity – once again lie at their feet, broken and scattered. The widower Bhutto and his men are extremely unpopular. The worm-eaten tongues of chameleon politicians and resurrected civil servants are on daily display. Removing Musharraf, who is even more unpopular, might win the politicians badly-needed popular support, but not for long.
Pervez Hoodbhoy on the tenth anniversary of Pakistan’s testing of the nuclear bomb in Dawn [via 3QuarksDaily]
IT’S May 1998 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulates wildly cheering citizens as the Chagai mountain trembles and goes white from multiple nuclear explosions. He declares that Pakistan is now safe and sound forever.
Bomb makers become national heroes. Schoolchildren are handed free badges with mushroom clouds. Bomb and missile replicas are planted in cities up and down the land. Welcome to nuclear Pakistan.
Fast-forward the video 10 years. Pakistan turns into a different country, deeply insecure and afraid for its future. Grim-faced citizens see machine-gun bunkers, soldiers crouched behind sandbags, barbed wire and barricaded streets. In Balochistan and Fata, helicopter gunships and fighter jets swarm the skies.
Today, we are at war on multiple fronts. But the bomb provides no defence. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. On this awful anniversary, it is important that we relate the present to the past.
The fissures in Pakistan’s new government are allowing the country’s dangerous problems to fester, writes Irfan Husain in Open Democracy
Pakistan’s newly minted coalition government, in office only since 25 March 2008, is presently lurching from one crisis to another. Its political core, the partnership between the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) ended – for the moment at least – on 13 May 2008 when Sharif withdrew his quota of ministers from the federal cabinet over the ostensibly arcane issue of how to restore to office the senior judges sacked under President Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency on 3 November 2007.
But the real problem between the PML-N and the PPP (the party led until her assassination on 27 December by Benazir Bhutto, and now effectively headed by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari) goes far deeper than the high-profile “judges’ issue”. Its root is the longstanding rivalry for power between the two formations, symbolised by the personal contest for power between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif themselves. These figures long alternated in office as Pakistan’s prime minister, sharing the spoils of what became – until Musharraf’s first seizure of power in October 1999 – a virtual two-party state.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is pulling his party out of the new government. The BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad looks at why, and what happens next.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N decision to quit the cabinet has been on the cards for a while.
So when the party’s nine ministers handed in their resignations on Tuesday it did not come as a surprise. The biggest party in the cabinet is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Its leader is Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto. Since the PPP and the PML-N trounced President Pervez Musharraf’s allies in February’s general elections, Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif have appeared to enjoy an excellent relationship.
And Tuesday’s cabinet split may not be as dramatic as it appears.
After more than seven years in exile, Pakistan’s former PM is back in power and doing his best to depose the president. In The Guardian, Julian Borger goes to visit him at the family home outside Lahore:
The road to Nawaz Sharif’s house performs some radical zigzags along the way. This is presumably for security purposes – forcing would be suicide-bombers to slow down enough for the guards to take a shot. But the winding drive must also serve as a daily reminder for Sharif of the precarious route to power in Pakistan.
He has twice been prime minister. His last term was cut short in 1999 by a coup by his army chief, Pervez Musharraf. Nine years on, Musharraf is still president but has been haemorrhaging authority for months in the face of public disdain.
Sharif is back from exile and back in power, this time as part of a new democratically elected coalition, and working hard to sideline the president with the aim of eventually forcing him out.
Pakistani leaders delivered a strong message to American diplomats. Jane Perlez from Islamabad in The New York Times:
The top State Department officials responsible for the alliance with Pakistan met leaders of the new government on Tuesday, and received what amounted to a public dressing-down from one of them, as well as the first direct indication that the United States relationship with Pakistan would have to change.
On the day that the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Richard A. Boucher, also met with the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, whom they had embraced as their partner in the campaign against terrorism over the past seven years but whose power is quickly ebbing.
The leader of the second biggest party in the new Parliament, Nawaz Sharif, said after meeting the two American diplomats that it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a “killing field.”
Moderates hold key in Pakistan
Also in NYT, a report from Peshawar:
One of the most significant results of Pakistan’s elections in February was the defeat of the religious parties that ran this critical border province for the last five years. In their place, voters elected moderates from a small regional party that may now wield big influence over Pakistan’s changing strategy toward its militants.
The victory of the Awami National Party, or A.N.P., was welcomed by Western officials and Pakistanis as a clear rejection of the Taliban and the religious parties that backed them here in North-West Frontier Province. The party will now be part of the governing coalition in the national Parliament, and sees itself as critically placed to begin a dialogue with the militants, something the Bush administration has regarded warily.
Anjum Niaz in Dawn, Karachi, on the Zardari makeover:
Forgive me Coen brothers for borrowing the title of your film that fetched four Oscars last Sunday. This column is not about Academy Awards, but the vanity of man. It’s about the makeover of men who can’t make up their minds whether to let their hair and moustaches look grey, white or black.
If they were ordinary people, they would not have cared. But they are our stellar material, who hit the mini-screen day and night and are in-and-out of our living rooms. Put under the glaring lights of cameras, these guys come across as a confused bunch when it comes to personal grooming. They, I’m sure, have enough money to pay super image-makers and pricey consultants to advise them on what colour conforms to the needs of the time.
This VVIP hair-colour-confusion is a tale as old as the hills. In America, a wrinkled Ronald Reagan showed off his boot polish black puff until the last day in office at the White House. Even though the aging president had begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s and quite easily forgot names of dignitaries, once addressing Prince Charles as Princess of Wales at a glittering gala, his unmistakable Hollywood-style hairdo never floundered. It seemed stuck to his head like glue.
In Tehelka William Dalrymple writes of the role of Pakistan’s emerging middle class in shaping a democratic future
Two events in the last three months have radically changed the course of Indo-Pak relations, and have the potential to radically alter the future direction of South Asian history.
The first of these events took place on November 24, 2007. On this day, a suicide bomber detonated himself beside a bus at the entrance of Camp Hamza, the ISI’s Islamabad headquarters. Around twenty people died in what is the first known attack by an Islamist cell against the Pakistan intelligence services. Many of the dead were ISI staffers. This event, coming as it did after three assassination attempts on General Musharraf, several other bomb attacks on army barracks, and the murder of many captured army personnel in Waziristan, is credited with persuading even the most pro-Islamist elements in the Pakistan army, and the agencies, that the jehadi Frankenstein’s monster they have created now has to be dispatched with a stake in its heart, and as soon possible.
Vir Sanghvi in his Counterpoint column in the Hindustan Times says that unlike in the West where appearance matters, Indian voters don’t really care about how politicians look. So where does this leave Pakistan where politicians like Nawaz Sharif have recently had a hair transplant?
Okay, so it isn’t just me. A few months ago, as the political scene in Pakistan hotted up, Indian TV channels all began telecasting ‘exclusive’ interviews with a man who was described as Nawaz Sharif. I am not an expert on Pakistan but, even to my untutored eye, there was something odd about this Sharif.
It was the hair. The Sharif who had welcomed AB Vajpayee to Lahore had a head like a billiard ball. So distinctive was his baldness that Pakistani papers claimed that Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz were affectionately called ‘Do Ganje’ by their friends in the Punjab.
Faisal Naqvi in the Daily Times, Pakistan:
I wish I could give a coherent explanation as to why I finally settled on the PPP but I don’t think I can. When I reached the polling booth, my head was still spinning from the lack of decent choices...
…Well, I decided to take the Sherlock Holmes approach and first rule out the impossibles. So, vote for Zardari? Hell no. Vote for Nawaz Sharif? Over my dead body. Vote for Moonis Elahi? Only if you took me aside later and shot me in the back of the head.
In The Spectator, Stephen Schwartz writes that in this failing state, the ballot box is also a tinderbox. Even if Monday’s elections do go ahead, Pakistan might well end up in a worse state than before: exporting terror, spawning confrontation and at war with itself:
The most important country in the world right now faces the most dangerous election in recent times. The country is Pakistan, not America, and the elections for parliament take place this coming Monday. Policy experts speak of ‘failed states’, and Pakistan is just about as close to failure as it is possible for a state to be. That’s one reason the world will be watching on Monday. Another and more immediate reason for interest is the assassination at the end of last year of Benazir Bhutto, twice the country’s prime minister and the secularist leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan in World Security Network
No one expected that one fatal move – the removal of the Chief Justice – would have unleashed such a rash of democratic forces that would so rapidly lead to the serious political impasse Pakistan is faced with today. In the process, President Musharraf lost much of his most important constituency – the professionals and the middle class.
For the U.S., the assassination of Benazir Bhutto means that it is left with little or no options, seeing that Washington had pinned its hopes on the “Musharraf Plus” package. The latter envisaged the President in control of foreign policy and national security matters, and a Benazir Bhutto-led government focusing on all other matters of state (and giving the country a democratic façade).
American journalist Nicholas Schmidle was kicked out of Pakistan by the Musharraf government on Friday. He talks with Steve Clemons of The Washington Note about a Taliban fighter who loves Texas barbeque and about the man who may be Pakistan’s next prime minister – and who is known as “the godfather of Mullah Omar’s Taliban.”
Watch the video chat on Bloggingheads.tv
Read the piece “Next-Gen Taliban” that got him kicked out: NYTimes Magazine
Before assassins struck on December 27, Pakistan’s ex-premier kept up frenetic pace but also found time for a prayer, report Griff White and Emily Wax in The Washington Post
Gripping the podium with both hands, Benazir Bhutto spoke in a shout that filled the cavernous park and echoed into the streets beyond.
Rarely has anyone in public life lost popularity as rapidly as Musharraf, reports Tavleen Singh from Lahore
Will there be an election in Pakistan on February 18? They ask this question in Lahore’s bazaars awash still with fraying posters of Benazir Bhutto and they ask it in Lahore’s drawing rooms where all conversation these days is about politics. There is distrust in the question and a sad sort of resignation.
Continue reading ‘In Pakistan, deep distrust and one question: Is democracy possible?’