Political and Internal Developments
After days of a high-octane and shrill media-driven, military-orchestrated and politically-motivated campaign against Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, over a ‘memo’ allegedly dictated by him to a Pakistani-American businessman with a somewhat dubious reputation, the inquisition squad finally managed to force Haqqani out of office even if they haven’t yet managed to get his ‘boss’ – President Asif Zardari – much less get to the bottom of the entire ‘memogate’ scandal.
Although seriously weakened by the controversy, the civilian government managed to retrieve some ground when it appointed a PPP lawmaker and former editor, Sherry Rehman, as Haqqani’s successor.
The grapevine is that the military didn’t oppose Rehman’s appointment because even though she isn’t going to be a lackey of the Pakistan army, she won’t also blindly toe the line of President Asif Zardari and strike deals on his behalf with the Americans keeping the army out of the loop, something that Haqqani was always suspected of doing. What is more, as a smart, articulate woman with impeccable liberal credentials, she makes for a good advertisement for Pakistan at a time when the country’s image is down in the dumps. Some Islamist groups like the Barelvi sectarian outfit Sunni Tehrik have denounced her appointment, calling her anti-Islam for the position she took against the notorious Blasphemy law. But such noises will only add to Rehman’s acceptability in the US.
Haqqani’s removal is however not quite the end of the entire sordid affair. Amidst reports that the Prime Minister was planning to appoint a ‘special investigator’ to get to the bottom of the memo, the issue has become highly politicised and the opposition which was already demanding the ouster of the government has got yet another handle to beat the government with. The main opposition party PMLN has taken the lead and filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking an inquiry into who was actually behind the controversial memo. Strangely, even as PMLN chief claims that he has filed the petition because parliament had become ineffective and had failed to take action on even unanimous resolutions, his own party leader has asked the Parliament Committee on National Security to summon the ISI chief and the foreign secretary to make a complete disclosure of all the facts surrounding the memo.
The PPP of course views the memo controversy as a conspiracy against the elected government. President Zardari is reported to have told the Core Committee of the PPP as much, asking why he needed to go through such an unreliable messenger when he could have directly spoken to US President Obama. Under fire from all sides, the PPP has managed to put up a brave face and has brushed aside any talk of an impending clash between the civilian government and the military. The only silver lining for the PPP has been the backing it has received from the PMLQ chief Shujaat Hussein. Even though many in the PMLQ have been calling for distancing the party from the PPP in the wake of the memo controversy, Shujaat has maintained that Zardari could never have been behind the memo and that the controversy will fizzle out soon.
Earlier, belying all reports of his refusing to return to Pakistan because of the apprehension that he might be arrested and charged with treason, the former Pakistan ambassador to US, Hussain Haqqani, returned to Islamabad to answer the charges against him. Although he was finally forced to put in his papers, he continued to maintain his innocence in the entire affair. His denials however were rejected amidst reports that shortly after the controversy erupted last October, the ISI chief had visited London where he had been handed over all the ‘evidence’ by Mansoor Ijaz which he had then got ‘verified’. Revelations that the memo had been forwarded to the then US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen by the former US National Security Advisor Gen James Jones was strangely enough taken to be a confirmation of Haqqani’s guilt. This, even though, both Jones and Mullen stated that they didn’t find the memo credible and other top American analysts labelled the memo as a ‘clumsy fake’. In the meantime, Ijaz very ‘graciously’ gave President Zardari the benefit of doubt. He said that Zardari probably was unaware of the specifics of the memo though he had no doubt that Haqqani had got his orders from the President. With the military unwilling to buy Haqqani’s explanations, he was forced to quit and is currently cooling his heels in Pakistan. Though he is not in prison, it is not clear if he is free to leave the country or has been ‘informally’ put on the infamous ‘exit control list’.
It was not only the memo that caused grief to the PPP government but also Mirza – Zulfikar Mirza – who’s diatribe against the MQM in London caused strain within the ruling alliance and forced the PPP to distance itself from him to retain the support of the MQM. Despite his claims of presenting evidence to the UK authorities of MQM chief Altaf Hussein’s involvement in the murder of the MQM leader Dr Imran Farooq – a claim that seems to have rattled the MQM quite a lot – and his turning his guns also against President Asif Zardari (something that ostensibly gives a lie to the conspiracy theories that Mirza is acting on the behest of Zardari), there is nothing to suggest that Mirza has anything remotely resembling evidence against the MQM. Nevertheless, an incensed MQM went into an overdrive, writing letters to the British Prime Minister and demanding action from Zardari against Mirza’s supporters. To placate the MQM, the PPP suspended a sitting provincial lawmaker and sacked the provincial information minister who had accompanied Mirza to London. But while the PPP leadership has for the moment managed to keep dissidence in check, it hasn’t quite been able to stem the growing sentiment within the party in Mirza’s favour.
If the PPP is finding itself in a bit of a bind, the main opposition party PMLN is also having its own share of problems, the biggest of which is that it is unable to come up with an idea that could stall, if not stop, the Imran Khan juggernaut which is posing the most significant challenge to PMLN’s ambition to form the next government. In order to demonstrate its popular support, the PMLN organised a rally in Faisalabad last week. Although the crowd was quite impressive, it was nowhere of a magnitude that could overshadow the show put up by Imran Khan in Lahore. Not only was the crowd not as enthused as the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporters in Lahore, the PMLN wasn’t able to shake off the charge of using government machinery to mobilise a big crowd. Nevertheless, the rally proved one thing: between the brothers, Nawaz Sharif’s popularity and charisma is way ahead of that of Shahbaz Sharif. But more than the crowd, it was what appeared to be the message that is more worrisome, more so since it didn’t really seem to ignite the crowd. Apart from recounting the achievements of his previous government, the PMLN tore into Imran Khan and Asif Zardari. While Nawaz Sharif recounted the litany of complaints against the Zardari regime and called for its ouster, he also lambasted the ‘establishment’ for interfering in the politics of the country by propping up Imran Khan and providing him with patronage. Nawaz Sharif denied that his campaign against Zardari had anything to do with the Senate elections next March and emphatically stated that he was not in favour of any unconstitutional change.
The inroads made on the political scene by Imran Khan was evident from two other developments last week. At a time when the PMLN is contemplating resigning from the assemblies to force an early election, the Unification bloc of the PMLQ which is supporting the PMLN government in Punjab has declared that it will not blindly follow the PMLN on this course. There are reports that many among the U-bloc as well as other dissident PMLQ factions like the ‘likeminded’ are torn between casting their lot with PMLN or joining the ranks of PTI. Nawaz Sharif also had to put a brave face to the refusal of former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to join the PMLN. A highly publicised and anticipated meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Qureshi ended without any result with Qureshi insisting that he would make his political plans clear in a rally on November 27 in Ghotki, Sindh. Speculation is rife that Qureshi will jump on the Imran Khan bandwagon because while in the PTI he will be a virtual number two, in the PMLN he will be just one among a number of powerful politicians.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan remains on a roll and there is a steady inflow of local notables and electables in party. While no real big name has so far joined the PTI, this is expected to change in the coming weeks, especially if people like Qureshi join hands with Imran Khan. Of course, the entry of seasoned politicians does nothing for Imran Khan’s claims of being an agent of change. It is also causing angst in the rank and file of PTI. But Imran Khan insists that while the doors of the party are open to everyone, party tickets will only be given after exercising due diligence about the credentials of prospective candidates. But Imran Khan’s image took a bit of a toss last week after a UK paper published a story of a meeting between him and the US ambassador in the presence of the ISI chief. While the story has been denied by all three parties, the impression that Imran Khan is the establishment’s candidate continues to gather strength. Paradoxically, this is not viewed as a disqualification but is in fact adding to Imran’s attractiveness for the old school politicos.
The PPP government last week raised the support prices of wheat by over 10% to Rs. 1050 per 40 kg. The move is expected to bolster the support for the party in the rural areas. But in the urban areas, it will lead to higher prices of food and a spike in inflation. Interestingly, the support price is only meant for the procurement agency of the federal government, something that will allow the PPP to dispense patronage in the rural belt especially in bread-basket, Punjab. Meanwhile, discussions between the IMF and Pakistan government concluded in Dubai last week. The IMF is believed to have suggested an approximately 8% depreciation in the Pakistan rupee in order for Pakistani products to remain competitive. According to IMF estimates, the Pakistan economy is likely to grow by 3.5% (as opposed to the 4.2% projected in the budget) and pressure is likely to mount on the current account which is expected to run in deficit. The IMF has also made it clear that Pakistan will have to undertake widespread structural reforms in the power sector and mere tinkering with prices will not help. It was probably with an eye on the IMF’s insistence on power sector reforms that last week the government finally dissolved the Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO), a step that it hopes will pave the way for around $ 2 billion in loans from the World Bank and ADB.
There was a flurry of reports and a lot of confusion on whether or not a ‘peace process’ or talks were underway between Pakistani authorities and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While some Taliban commanders claimed that talks had been taking place for some weeks now, the official spokesman of the TTP denied any such negotiations, maintaining that ‘at the moment, the chapter of peace talks with the government is completely closed’ and calling these reports a ploy to sow divisions in the ranks of the militants. The Taliban commanders who claimed that negotiations were taking place at different levels – with former and serving civil and military officials, intelligence officials and tribal elders – said that the militants had put forward a few demands. These included ceasing of all military operations, withdrawing the army from the tribal areas and handing over security (read police duties) in the area to the Frontier Corps, paying compensation for the damage to property caused by military operations, releasing all arrested Taliban cadres and leaders, and permitting the Taliban freedom of movement around the country. According to reports, the TTP commander Waliur Rehman was authorised by the TTP shura to conduct negotiations and while the negotiations were currently focussed on South Waziristan, if successful, the peace deal could extend to other parts of the tribal belt. There were also reports of a ceasefire in South Waziristan and a few confidence building measures undertaken by the Taliban, including the release of 5 intelligence personnel in their custody.
While the Pakistan army spokesman denied these reports calling them ‘concocted, baseless, and unfounded’, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that there would be no dialogue with the militants until they did not give up their weapons. The reports of talks with the Taliban also caused disquiet among the tribal vigilante groups raised to fight against the Islamist terror groups. But events on the ground raise some serious questions about the veracity of these reports. Major clashes between the security forces and the Taliban continued throughout the week in Kurram and Orakzai agencies with government forces claiming that scores of Taliban fighters were killed. The Taliban too continued with their attacks and waved the assault on a police station in Dera Ismail Khan as proof that there was no ceasefire between the militants and the government. Relations between the government and Taliban forces of a pro-army commander in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, also went into a tailspin. Bahadur had already announced the end of peace talks with government forces after military action in the Miramshah bazaar week before last. Pamphlets distributed by his men last week warned local tribesmen against participating in any government or army sponsored project.
Meanwhile, Baloch freedom fighters carried out a ferocious attack on a FC convoy in the Musa Khel district killing over 15 FC personnel (insurgents claimed over 40 dead), including a major of the Pakistan army. In another attack, a landmine was exploded killing 5 security personnel escorting Chinese engineers in Dera Bugti district.
Foreign Relations / Foreign Policy
Notwithstanding denials by the Pakistan foreign office of reports of a less than cordial meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Maldives, the strains in the relationship became apparent last week when addressing a joint press conference with the visiting German foreign minister, Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said that Pakistan couldn’t extend its hand of friendship to Afghanistan if the gesture was not being reciprocated. She said that ‘it takes two to tango’ as far as improving relations with Afghanistan was concerned and added that any country serious about improving ties with another country will desist from making ‘recriminatory comments’ about that country. Denying that Pakistan had any ‘hidden agenda’ in Afghanistan, Khar said that all Pakistan wanted was ‘a peaceful and stable dispensation in Afghanistan’. Despite the downturn in relations, an Afghan delegation visited Pakistan last week to share information on the assassination of the former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Pakistan's relations with another South Asian country, Bangladesh, took a bit of a tumble last week after the Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni demanded a formal apology from Pakistan for the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in 1971. She also wanted a settlement on the issue of division of assets and war reparations and said that good relations between the two countries depended on resolving these issues.
While the Pakistan government has informed the National Assembly of its intention to approach the UN Human Rights Commission on the issue of drone strikes, US senators have moved amendments in the aid bill for Pakistan which seek to link aid with concrete action by Pakistan against terror groups like the Haqqani Network. An amendment move by Senator Harry Reid calls on the US Secretary of State to certify that Pakistan is cooperating with the US against the HN, Quetta Shura and Al Qaeda, and is taking steps to end support for such groups and preventing them from carrying out attacks against neighbouring countries. Another amendment moved by four other Senators has called for a certification from the Secretary of State that Pakistan was making serious efforts to curb the menace of IEDs.
Relations with India
While the Prime Minister of India has bravely claimed that the Pakistan army is very much on board on the issue of peace initiatives being taken by the civilian government of Pakistan, reports in the Pakistan press claim that the army has expressed its serious reservations over granting of MFN status to India. According to defence experts in Pakistan, the granting of MFN status to India ‘does not suit the security policy of Pakistan towards Afghanistan’.
That the army is not completely on board is also apparent from the countrywide demonstrations organised by its proxies – Jamaatud Dawa and Jamaat Islami – against the trade initiative with India. The Mullahs used the pulpit to denounce the government’s ‘anti-state decision’ and demanded an immediate withdrawal of the same. Interestingly, the TTP which is accused by many Pakistanis of being an Indian agent, also criticised the Pakistan government’s ‘in principle’ decision to grant MFN status to India. In a statement, the TTP said that “giving MFN status to India is tantamount to treason to the blood of the Kashmiri martyrs and against the national integrity”!