Vivek : Issues & Options

Pakistan Weekly Political Brief

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November 25, 2011 - December 1, 2011

Political and Internal Developments

Weeks of speculation came to an end last week after former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi hitched his political wagon on to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) juggernaut.

Announcing his decision to join the TI at a rally in Ghotki, Sindh, before a crowd of around 40,000 people (most of whom are believed to be his mureeds from the Ghausia Jamaat), Qureshi projected himself as a staunch Pakistani nationalist who resisted kowtowing to American demands and defied President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in this regard. He made an extremely controversial claim that the nuclear programme of Pakistan was insecure in the hands of President Zardari. Not only was he severely criticised by the PPP for saying this, the claim was also refuted by the Pakistan foreign office. In fact, Qureshi was ridiculed even in the media for saying this with people not only asking why he remained quiet as long as he was in government and also pointing out that the civilians hardly had any control over the nuclear programme and therefore could never be accused of making the programme insecure. Having reportedly been made the Senior Vice Chairman of the PTI and being given a virtual free-hand in South Punjab, Qureshi threw the gauntlet at the PPP and declared that Sindh could no longer be treated as the fiefdom of either the PPP or the Bhutto/Zardari family.

It is not so much Qureshi’s exit that has worried the PPP – senior party leaders have dismissed Qureshi’s exit by saying that he has joined the dustbin of history – as the imminent possibility of a ‘forward bloc’ within the party which is aligned with Qureshi. With the Imran Khan band-wagon showing no sign of stalling, much less stopping, it continues gather support from all parts of Punjab and is fast emerging as the most potent political force in the province, if not the country. Quite naturally, PTI phenomenon continues to attract flak from the party that stands to lose the most i.e. PMLN. Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar, continued to fire verbal salvos at Imran Khan and accused the intelligence agencies of ‘lining up lotas (turncoats)’ to join PTI. Both the public support being attracted by the PTI as well as the perception that the ‘establishment’ is supporting the PTI, is making the two main parties – PPP and PMLN – revisit their political strategy. There were some reports last week of a backroom understanding reached between the two parties. The deal is that the PMLN would continue to criticise the PPP in public but will ensure that it doesn't go so far as to topple the government or derail the democratic system. After the Senate elections, early general elections will be called, something that suits both parties.

But if at all there is some backroom deal between the PPP and PMLN, it is likely to come unstuck by developments elsewhere. The big cloud of uncertainty once again descended on the government after the Supreme Court dismissed the review petition in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) case and asked the government to implement the judgment in letter and spirit. The immediate import of the judgement is that the government will have to write to Swiss authorities to reopen the cases against President Zardari. The government has, however, decided to defy the Court on this issue, taking the plea that the President enjoyed immunity and also pointing to the fact that all the other accused in these cases had already been acquitted by the courts.

The memogate scandal is also haunting the government, more so after PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking to uncover the real story behind the controversial memo allegedly dictated by the former Pakistan ambassador to US, Hussain Haqqani, on the instructions of President Asif Zardari. While Prime Minister Gilani did not show too much concern over the memo controversy or the PMLN petition and promised to form a committee to make an impartial inquiry in the whole affair – the parliamentary committee on national security has also decided to hold hearings in the matter and the PM has promised to appear before the PCNS and give a detailed briefing to MPs – President Asif Zardari has asked the PPP to back Haqqani completely in what he calls a conspiracy aimed at driving a wedge between the civilian and military leadership in the country.

There are reports that the Pakistan Steel Mills are on the verge of closing down. As against its requirement of Rs. 20 billion to revive itself the government is only willing to give it around Rs. 6 billion which is just about enough to keep it afloat for some more time. No measures are being contemplated to put the public sector giant on track. Meanwhile, the power situation is expected to worsen because of the closure of canals which will reduce hydropower generation. The shortfall could have been met by thermal generation but this is constrained by the unending circular debt crisis. The unkindest cut of all is that while massive energy shortages are becoming the order of the day, prices of gas, power and fuel continue to rise, thereby fuelling public anger.

There are reports that Mullah Omar has asked the Haqqani network to mediate a peace deal between the Pakistan government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). According to some militant commanders, the purpose of the deal is to focus on the fight against the international forces in Afghanistan instead of targeting Pakistan. But while tentative peace moves are underway in the Pashtun belt, signs of trouble in Sindh emerged after a Sindhi separatist organisation, Sindhudesh Liberation Army, claimed responsibility for 6 bomb blasts on railways tracks that disrupted train movements between Sindh and upcountry. The SLA had carried out a similar campaign some months back.

Foreign Relations / Foreign Policy

Even as Pakistan and China concluded military exercises in the Jhelum area, attempts were made through background briefings to the media to clarify that only Chinese engineers were present in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and that too for the purpose of rebuilding and upgrading portions of the Karakorum Highway. The Pakistan army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, also took pains to dispel concerns of a Sino-Pak military compact by publicly stating that the Pakistan’s relations with China, while being strategic, were not directed against any country in particular. On the contrary, he said that this relationship would ensure peace and stability in the region. Kayani promised to continue cooperation with China against the Uighur militants.

Afghanistan has shared evidence regarding the involvement of Pakistan based Taliban (Quetta Shura) in the assassination of the former Afghan president, Buhanuddin Rabbani, and has asked Pakistan to cooperate in arresting the conspirators. Pakistan's interior minister has however flatly denied the presence of any of the accused in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the British special envoy for Afpak region, Mark Sedwill visited Pakistan last week. He is reported to have asked Pakistan to use its influence with the Haqqani network to make them amenable to participation in the reconciliation process. In a remarkable display of pusillanimity, Sedwill told his Pakistani interlocutors that Britain did not want Pakistan to take action against the Haqqani’s and only wanted that Pakistan do its utmost to minimise the threats posed by the Haqqani network.
US ambassador Cameron Munter’s advice to Pakistan that it should avoid the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and instead opt for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline did not go down well with his Pakistani hosts who saw it as an example of the US diplomat interfering in Pakistan's affairs. The commander of ISAF troops in Afghanistan, Gen John Allen visited Pakistan last week and held a meeting with the Pakistan army chief to discuss matters relating to ‘coordination, communication and procedures’ along the Afpak border between the Afghan, US and Pakistan armies in order to enhance border security and prevent any cross-border incidents. A day later, on November 26, all hell broke loose after NATO helicopters fired on two Pakistani border posts in the Mohmand agency killing 24 Pakistan army soldiers and injuring another 13.

What exactly happened on the Salala border posts is still shrouded by the fog of war. The Americans claim that their troops who were on an operation in the area came under fire from the Pakistani side. Close air support was called and the choppers attacked the area from where fire was coming, killing the Pakistan army soldiers at one of the posts. An adjacent post fired back and that too was taken out by the choppers. According to the Americans, they had received clearance from Pakistan army officers present at one of the coordination centres who told them that no Pakistani posts were located in the area. The Pakistanis claim that the grid reference given was wrong and that is why Pakistan officers gave the go ahead. The Pakistanis have also charged the Americans with launching a deliberate and unprovoked ‘aggression’ and have said that even after the Americans were informed that Pakistani posts were under fire, the attack did not stop. The entire incident played out for over two hours, which also added to Pakistani suspicions that the attack was deliberate. Refusing to accept US claims of an accident that resulted from Pakistani troops firing first, the Pakistan army rejected any apology from the US side as ‘not good enough’. There was also some speculation that the incident could have been orchestrated by the Taliban to break the already tenuous US-Pakistan relationship. But the Afghan Taliban have dismissed these reports and said that they carried out no attack in the area on the said date and added that they never needed to take refuge in Pakistan, thereby giving an alibi to the Pakistanis who insisted that they had already cleared the entire Mohmand agency of militants and so there was no question of any Taliban presence in that area.

Pushed by a seething Pakistan army as well as the public outrage that erupted after the incident, the government reacted by shutting off the NATO supply routes, denying the Americans use of the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan (used by drones), announcing a boycott of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan, suspending all intelligence cooperation, cancelling all scheduled bilateral meetings with US officials, stopping all efforts to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come on the negotiating table, and declaring that cooperation with the US in the War on Terror would be revisited and reviewed. Protests were also lodged with the NATO headquarters and the US ambassador was summoned and told that Pakistan was ‘deeply incensed’ by the attack. Foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar called her American counterpart to apprise her of the ‘deep sense of rage’ in Pakistan over the incident. A letter was also written to the Presidents of the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council informing them of the attack and lodging a protest on the same.

Throughout the week, despite ‘regrets’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘condolences’ being expressed by leaders of the US and other NATO countries, the Pakistanis continued to ride the high horse, adopting a belligerent attitude (even refusing a request from the UAE to reconsider the decision to take back the Shamsi airbase) and laying down demands that seemed to indicate that they were trying to use the incident to extract diplomatic, political, military and economic concessions, or if you will, a handsome price, for backing down. With Prime Minister Gilani declaring that it can no longer be business as usual, the Pakistanis rejected all entreaties to participate in the Bonn conference. They were also adamant that the NATO supply lines were going to be permanently shut down. Not only did the Pakistanis demand an apology and compensation for the loss of life caused by the attack, they also upped the ante further by insisting on a written agreement that laid down all the parameters of cooperation with guarantees that incidents like the Mohmand attack would never again be repeated.

Apart from domestic political compulsions that forced the government to take a strident position, it was also emboldened to do so by not only the somewhat diffident, almost apologetic, response from the NATO countries but also by the encouragement it received from the Chinese, Russians and Turks. The Chinese expressed ‘deep shock’ over the incident and said that “Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and the incident should be thoroughly investigated and be handled properly”. The Russian foreign minister not only called for a thorough investigation but also hinted that Russia might stop NATO supplies from the Northern Distribution Network in reaction to NATO missile defence program. Such a drastic step by Russia means that Pakistan would literally hold the aces as far as NATO supply routes was concerned, something that the Pakistanis think would make US grovel before them. The Turkish foreign minister expressed pain over the episode and assured Pakistan that as a member of NATO, Turkey would insist on an impartial inquiry into the attacks.

By the end of the week however there were indications that the Pakistanis were realising that they had probably gone a little over the top in their reaction and instead of calibrating their response they had bitten off a lot more than they could chew. Many of the analysts who in the heat of the moment after the attack had gone ballistic in demanding tough retaliatory measures and indulged in extremely irresponsible grandstanding seemed to be climbing down by the end of the week once it became clear that the tough stand taken was not quite sustainable for any length of time. Notwithstanding the chest thumping by the Pakistanis, a reality check was sounded by the Director General Military Operations and the Chief of General Staff when they informed the Pakistani media there was a huge technological gap between the Pakistan and NATO military capabilities and ‘given the power imbalance, the response may not always lie in the military domain’ and therefore ‘an overall government response is the prudent response’. Not surprisingly, the generals who had pushed the civilian government into taking a tough stand and against the advice of the foreign office forced the government to boycott the Bonn conference, seemed to be now pushing the ball into the government’s court by saying that ‘if given orders’ the army will fight with whatever it had. Clearly, the Pakistan army wants the civilian government to take the fall for any backing down from the tough stand taken. Interestingly, the military too has been facing some rather uncomfortable moments in replying to questions as to why it did not react at the time of the attack with air power and other means at its command. A reality check was also sounded by the finance minister who advised caution in taking any hasty and harsh decision. He reportedly told his cabinet colleagues to first work out the counter measures that the NATO countries would take in retaliation before getting into a confrontational mode with the US and its NATO allies.

The problem for the Pakistanis is that despite the Americans efforts to cool tempers in Pakistan, there was really very little give on Pakistan's demands, has left the Pakistanis wondering how they can actually climb down keeping their pride intact. While both the US President and the new Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey have refused to offer a formal apology, all the Americans have assured the Pakistanis is an inquiry into the whole incident, the report of which will be out only in late December. The Americans have also taken the closure of Shamsi airbase and the supply lines in their stride and haven’t yet bend over backwards to make the Pakistanis change their minds. In this context, it may be mentioned that this airbase is not critical for the drone attacks and it is believed that US forces in Afghanistan have six month supply stocks.

Apart from concerns of how a climb down will be taken by the rank and file of the army, the Pakistani authorities will also have to take into account the reaction by the Islamist terror groups like the Jamaatud Dawa and others who have been agitating the street demanding action against the US. While the TTP has rubbed salt into the wounds of the Pakistan army by issuing a statement that America can never be a friend of Pakistan and asking the Pakistan government to join hands with the Taliban against the Americans, the JuD too has been urging the government to withdraw from the US war on terror, break of diplomatic relations with the US and declare jihad on America.

Relations with India

It was not only the US that was the target of JuD’s ire, India too remained a pet object of hate for the terrorist organisation which organised three back-to-back rallies against the government decision in principle to grant the MFN status to India. Apart from a farmers rally and a students rally, the JuD also organised a countrywide protest against the moves to open up trade with India. Addressing one of these rallies, a senior JuD leader, Amir Hamza, declared that ‘India can never be a most favourite nation (sic.) of Pakistan’ and demanded a reversal of the decision. The JuD seems to have been given a leadership role in the rousing the Pakistani street against India and other militant and terrorist organisations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jamaat Islami have come on the JuD platform to make hate speeches against India. At one of the rallies, the JuD also announced that it would strive to turn Pakistan into a Taliban state and will train the youth to wage jihad against India and US.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan press has reported that Pakistan and India have agreed to sign three agreements that will facilitate the granting of MFN status to India. These agreements are: a Mutual Recognition Agreement between the regulatory authorities of the two countries which will create a mechanism to harmonise standards and conformity assessment procedures for the products of export interest; an Agreement on Mechanism for Redressal of Grievances; and finally, a Customs Cooperation Agreement.

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