Senior Fellow, VIF
A major development during the week was the arrest of a Taliban military commander and Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, from outside a Karachi madrassa. Baradar’s arrest was followed by the arrest of a few more senior Afghan Taliban leaders, including a shadow governor. Significant though these arrests are, they do not necessarily signify a change in policy on the part of the Pakistani military establishment as far as using the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset is concerned. It is possible that these arrests are simply an accident, or a one off quid pro quo for the more accommodative position taken by the USA in addressing Pakistan’s strategic concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan. This could, perhaps, also be Pakistan's way of making out that it can deliver the Afghan Taliban leadership to the USA if Pakistan's interests are safe-guarded. It is highly unlikely that these arrests are part of a new policy on the part of the Pakistan. If so, then in the coming weeks and months we can expect some very major paradigm shifts in the region..
The only merit in the ‘abject surrender’ by the government on the issue of appointment of judges is that it defused the immediate crisis and gave another lease of life to the government by postponing the almost inevitable clash between the pillars of the state for a few more days, at best a couple of weeks. But in the process, the majesty and authority of the government, whatever little remained of it, has been irretrievably damaged. The political and administrative incompetence of PPP-led coalition government is simply astounding. Time and again it enters into scraps that it has neither any chance of winning, nor has the will to win. And, after every retreat, the credibility and legitimacy of both the party leadership as well as the party government, suffers a body blow and sends out the unmistakable signal that they are pushovers.
For nearly a week, the government had taken a hard line against the judiciary. The prime minister even held out a not-so veiled threat against the judiciary stating that the restoration of the judges still required Parliamentary ratification. But then overnight something happened to change the tone and tenor of the government and the prime minister gate-crashed into a reception being hosted in the Supreme Court and smoked the peace pipe with the chief justice. The next day he invited the chief justice to his office for tea, and soon after announced acceptance of all the recommendations of the Chief Justice for appointments to the Supreme Court.
The dice was always loaded against the government on this issue and, therefore, it made little sense to get into a needless confrontation with the judiciary in this regard. But perhaps the show of defiance was partly the result of a sense of being constantly pushed into a corner by the triumvirate of army, opposition and the judiciary, partly the result of a sense of being reduced to becoming powerless office holders, and partly a tactic to regroup and enthuse the party cadre. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is believed to be furious over the Supreme Court’s questioning of his giving promotions to top bureaucrats. Gilani is said to have told his close associates that there is no point being the prime minister if he cannot even exercise his discretion in promoting officials. The ruling dispensation is also enraged over what it sees as a motivated campaign on the part of the courts to target the top party leadership.
But the throwing in of the towel has not helped address any of these causes for which the government tried to take on the judiciary. If the government thought that the SC would ease up the pressure after the latest scrap, it was disabused of this notion the very next day after the PM had surrendered to the diktat of the chief justice, when the Court ordered the NAB chief to report within 48 hours on the progress over the SC order on reopening Swiss cases in which President Zardari is a co-accused. Far from ending the targeting of the government by its opponents, it appears as though there is going to be even greater targeting from here on.
While at one level, this is likely to create sympathy for the PPP leadership which can project itself as being victimised, at another level the successive surrenders have left the party cadre depressed and despondent. Party cadres are angry that their leaders, instead of facing the situation boldly, first make a show of defiance and then surrender under pressure. Reports suggest that Gilani’s popularity and credibility has greatly suffered because of his U-turn from his defiant speech in parliament. The party cadre now fears that the latest surrender would now pave the way for more such surrenders, especially on key appointments and extensions like that of DG ISI and the Army chief.
The problem for the government is that the forces arraigned against it seem to be far more powerful than those on its side. So much so, that the government cannot depend on even the support of its allies in any confrontation with the judiciary, much less the army. At the same time, the principal political opposition party, PMLN, is now itching to end its ‘friendly opposition’ and go all out in targeting the government. Nawaz Sharif has toughened his line and has openly targeted President Asif Zardari, calling him the biggest threat to democracy and blaming him for conspiring with the former chief justice, AH Dogar, to disqualify Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections.
Sharif’s comments, which came at the height of the crisis over judicial appointments, led to a confrontation on the streets between PPP jiyalas (enthusiasts) and PMLN matwalas (zealots). Both parties burned effigies of leaders of the opposing party and gave rise to speculation that the situation could spiral out of control and take the relationship between the two biggest political parties to what it was in the 1990s when the hostility between them was so deep that the party leaders did not even look at each other, let alone talk to each to each other. That was also the time when these parties would conspire with the military to destabilise the other party’s government, a mistake that allowed the military to play one against the other and dominate the political scene.
Prime Minister Gilani, however, has tried to dissuade PMLN from going down this path and met Nawaz Sharif over breakfast and assured him of his commitment to scrap the 17th Amendment and implement the Charter of Democracy that was agreed upon by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto in 2006. But these assurances depend upon an agreement on the constitutional reforms currently being deliberated by the Parliamentary Constitutional Reforms committee. The committee has however been unable to develop a consensus on three most contentious issues – the procedure for appointment of judges and judicial reforms, scope and quantum of provincial autonomy and the renaming of NWFP. The deterioration in ties between the PPP and PMLN make the task of the committee even more difficult and as of now it appears as though the target date of 23rd March for implementing the constitutional reforms package could be missed.
Foreign Relations / Foreign policy
Pakistan’s triumphalism, over its growing central role in deciding the future of Afghanistan, is mixed with apprehensions that the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan could once again leave the country carrying the can. In a meeting with EU ambassadors, Prime Minister Gilani urged that the Europeans should delink their relations with Pakistan from their interests in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, in an interaction with media personnel disclosed that Pakistan needed US help to balance Indian arms acquisitions. Haqqani also said that Pakistan was dependent on the US for military and economic assistance because no other country in the world, including China, was willing to give it military assistance free of cost. It is important that the Indian government should take up the matter forcefully with the US authorities in order to squelch Pakistan’s rearmament programme which is blatantly directed against us.
Meanwhile, the US has told Pakistan in no uncertain terms that it cannot be expected to keep paying Pakistan's bills indefinitely. Addressing the National Defence University, US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson told her audience that solution to Pakistan’s economic challenges does not reside with the US or international donor community but with people of Pakistan. She went on to say that American taxpayers will not forever pay for Pakistan’s economic and social development. She asked the senior military officers to start focusing on economic issues, clearly hinting that the security policies and strategies being adopted, rather being forced upon Pakistan by the army, are bankrupting the country and rendering in unviable and dependent on foreign assistance.
The US appears to be tightening the purse strings and this is something that became apparent after Senator John Kerry, during a visit to Pakistan, told his interlocutors that the coalition support funds being demanded by the Pakistanis that have been held up for quite some time now will only be released after the auditing of the accounts being presented by the Pakistanis is over. But even as the US has grown chary of signing blank cheques for Pakistan, the Americans are still not willing to push the Pakistanis too hard. One sign of this is the visit of the defence delegation from the US which has been visiting Pakistan to make an assessment of its defence needs for the next five years.