Political and Internal Developments
Rumours of a ‘soft coup’ went viral in Pakistan and around the world after President Asif Zardari suddenly left on an unannounced visit to Dubai, ostensibly for a medical check-up. Coming as it did amidst rising pressure on the government because of the ‘memogate’ scandal and growing opposition to the PPP-led dispensation, Zardari’s departure resulted in wild speculation about his ouster.
The rumour mill was fuelled in large part by the shocking information mis-management by the ruling party and government – there was no one story and different people were saying different things, some of which were contradictory. Adding fuel to the fire was a report in a US-based website that claimed that Zardari had been given ‘safe passage’ by the Pakistan army and he would be resigning ‘on health grounds’ as part of the deal. While things did settle down a little after around 48 hours of political uncertainty, especially after it became clear that Zardari did indeed have a health problem that required attention (he is reported to have two or three stents in his heart and was on medication for heart related problems), the clouds hanging over the government have still not disappeared and speculation is rife about Zardari’s removal by the military establishment.
Although there is a perception that the noose is tightening around the neck of the PPP-led government because of the ‘memogate’ scandal, there is no material evidence to suggest that Zardari’s continuation in the Presidency is untenable and intolerable for the ‘establishment’. Nor for that matter is there anything to suggest that Zardari has been boxed in so much by the growing opposition to his presence that he is either ready or is left with no choice but to throw in the towel. True, he is an object of hate for the opposition, is disliked by the judiciary, is distrusted by the military and his image is mud in eyes of large sections of the public. But this is something he has learnt to take in his stride. The one thing different this time is the growing sense of disquiet within the PPP rank and file, almost a sense of resignation that the party doesn't stand any chance in the next elections. This has led many in the party to start seeking greener pastures. Add to this a sense of doom regarding the government, the feeling that this government cannot last very long anymore, which is making the rats jump the sinking ship. If this trend continues, then it could become a domino that could pull down the government. Otherwise, the rumours of Zardari quitting will remain just that.
There is no denying the fact, however, that the government has increasingly found itself pushed against the wall on a range of issues. The PPPs troubles in Punjab have been mounting after the formation of a ‘forward bloc’ of MPAs from South Punjab who appear inclined to join the former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and shift their support in favour of the rising star of Pakistani politics – the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan. In order to woo back the parties disgruntled legislators, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani held a meeting with them and promised them constituency development funds (around Rs. 70 million each), a quota in government jobs, and arms licenses. While this might quell the dissidence for some time, chances are that there will be many desertions closer to election time. There was also trouble in Sindh where not only the PPP is unable to settle matters on the Local Government law with MQM, its other allies – PMLF and PMLQ – are getting restive. While PMLF is complaining about not being taken into confidence over the LG law, the PMLQ is angry over the manner in which portfolios allocated to it are being bifurcated to accommodate the MQM.
Far more serious than the discontent brewing in the party and the coalition is the challenge that is being posed by the judiciary which in the last two weeks has passed judgments and directives that grievously wound the government in general and the PPPs top leadership in particular. After first dismissing the government’s review petition in the NRO case, the Supreme Court last week took up PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif’s petition in the ‘memogate’ scandal and, showing undue and unseemly haste, appointed a one-man commission of inquiry to investigate the ‘memogate’ scandal and has issued notices to the President, former ambassador to US Hussain Haqqani, army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha, asking them to explain their position on the entire affair within two weeks. Forbidding Haqqani from leaving the country until the matter was finally disposed off, the Supreme Court permitted the commission to go abroad to collect the necessary evidence and asked foreign agencies to lend maximum cooperation to it. What was rather disconcerting for the PPP was not just the alacrity with which the court took up the matter but also the hints dropped by the judges that a case of treason could be filed against those found guilty of writing the controversial memo seeking American interference in Pakistan's domestic affairs.
Predictably, the PPP reacted with fury and questioned the court ruling on both substantive and procedural grounds. Without saying so directly, the PPP jiyalas insinuated clear bias against the party from the judiciary. They also questioned the choice of Tariq Khosa as the head of the commission, accusing him of inherent bias since his father-in-law was one of the judges who sentenced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to death and his one brother was a Supreme Court judge and another brother the chief secretary of Punjab and therefore a favourite of the Sharifs.
The PMLN has of course denied these charges and claimed that it was left with no choice but to go to court since the parliament had become ineffective. With the PPP in a defiant mood, all eyes are on whether President Zardari will reply to the notice sent to him by the court. More importantly, the future of the case will depend critically on the replies filed by the army and ISI chiefs. But the PPPs counter-offensive did work to an extent – the Court was forced on the back foot, more so after Khosa declined to head the commission citing pre-occupation. Nevertheless, the judicial proceedings seemed to have caused a lot of discomfiture in the government. So much so that the Prime Minister Gilani spoke about a conspiracy against the government and another senior party functionary was quoted as saying that a frontal attack had been launched against the PPP with the opposition, army and judiciary all united against the government.
Significantly, Prime Minister Gilani, while downplaying the ‘memogate’ scandal, acted as a shield for President Zardari and declared that as the head of government he was responsible for whatever happened, thereby letting it be known that the buck on the ‘memogate’ scandal stopped at his doorstep. Meanwhile, the US administration has rubbished claims made by Mansoor Ijaz, a central character in the ‘memogate’ scandal that President Zardari and Hussain Haqqani had prior knowledge that the US Special Forces operation in Abottabad to kill Osama bin Laden.
In the face of the frontal assault on the government and its leadership, it was announced that President Zardari, who has proclaimed himself to be the ‘spiritual son of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’, would address the joint session of Parliament after Muharram. While the contents of his proposed address remained unknown, it was widely expected that apart from talking about the looming confrontation with the US after the Mohmand bombing incident and the ‘memogate’ scandal, Zardari would come out with all guns blazing against his detractors and dare them to act against him or his government. There were also reports that Zardari had told his party’s leaders to start preparing for the next elections and to brace themselves for some rather turbulent times ahead.
Even as the PPP wakes up to the possibility of an early election, the new kid on the block, PTI, continues to gather momentum and is now assiduously wooing established politicians to join its ranks. However, so far, apart from Shah Mehmood Qureshi, no real heavyweight politician has joined the PTI. According to reports, while the PTI is trying to rope in politicians like Sheikh Rashid and Marvi Memon, the support base of these politicians is quite iffy. This could change if the heavyweights in the PMLQ (Likeminded) join the PTI. The Likeminded are divided on whether to join the PMLN – Humayun Akhtar faction is keen on joining Nawaz Sharif – or the PTI – Hamid Nasir Chhatha and Khurshid Kasuri are gravitating to the PTI. There is also a division on whether to have an alliance with PTI or a merger. While most LM leaders are keen on an alliance, the PTI is insisting on a merger. Also keen on a tie-up with PTI is the Jamaat Islami. A number of top PTI functionaries have a Jamaat background and the positions of the two parties are quite similar and equally reactionary on a range of issues like the War on Terror and relations with America. Meanwhile, Imran Khan declared his assets publicly last week and threatened to launch a civil disobedience movement if other politicians did not do the same thing. But while Imran tried to claim high moral ground, the slip has started showing as far as his finances are concerned. For instance, he claims that he took advantage of the tax laws that exempt foreign income from tax, but when other politicians take recourse to similar laws to lower their tax burden, Imran Khan accuses them of tax evasion. Questioned about the source of funds for his party, Imran Khan admitted that he had carried out a fund raising drive in UAE and was least bothered by the incongruity of raising funds in a foreign land for his politics. Needless to say, the PMLN wasn’t impressed with Imran’s ‘transparency’ and accused him of hiding his assets.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik seemed to lend credence to unconfirmed reports of negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban and the government when he thanked the Taliban for not carrying out any terrorist attack on Shias during Muharram. He expressed the hope that they remain peaceful in future and work with the government for the security of the country! Reports in the Pakistani media have pointed out that the frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has dropped quite drastically in the last few months. This is believed to be partly the result of the splintering of the Taliban into smaller outfits the leaders of which are entering into peace deals with the govt, partly an outcome of the drone attacks that have decapitated TTP leaders and partly the result of Pakistan army operations against some of the more lethal groups.
Foreign Relations / Foreign Policy
While the terrorists did not launch any major terror strike against Shias in Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out a devastating strike against mourning Shias in Kabul, killing over 70 people. The strike led to another round of recriminations between Kabul and Islamabad, with the former demanding action against groups like the LeJ and the latter asking for evidence that LeJ was involved and also pointing out that it was already a banned group in Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the Bonn conference that while he was open to the idea of working with Pakistan to restore peace in Afghanistan, it was imperative that Pakistan shuts down Taliban sanctuaries and arranges for a purposeful dialogue with them.
Even as the White House claimed in a fact sheet that the US was the largest aid donor to Pakistan and gave $ 1.1 billion in civilian aid in 2011, the US Senate has voted in favour of more stringent conditions being tied to aid given to Pakistan, including action by Pakistan to curb the menace of IEDs. Amidst demands from senior US senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to re-evaluate US assistance to Pakistan, the State Department has defended US aid to Pakistan and said that it served US national interests by “strengthening Pakistani democratic institutions and boosting the Pakistani economy”. Meanwhile, Pakistan's finance minister has said that there has as yet been no change in US aid policy towards Pakistan and expressed confidence that the US economic assistance of $ 500 million will remain on track. More importantly, the Pakistanis seem to be quite confident that the spat with the US will not affect their trade and other economic relations.
While relations between NATO and Pakistan remain extremely strained in the aftermath of the NATO attack on two Pakistani posts in Mohmand agency, there are reports that NATO commanders are planning to launch a major offensive in Eastern Afghanistan to degrade the capabilities of pro-Pakistan terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and the Taliban militias of commanders like Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Given that Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani has issued orders permitted troops on the ground to retaliate with full force at their command against any hostile action from any quarter without waiting for instructions from the High Command, NATO offensive operations close to Pakistan’s borders could easily lead to clashes between NATO troops and America’s ‘Major Non-NATO ally’ Pakistan, more so with both armies on a hair-trigger mode now. The US has however responded to Kayani’s brinkmanship rather coolly, saying that while Pakistan had the right to self-defence, so too did the US and NATO troops. At the same time, there are reports that the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Allen has ordered his soldiers to avoid operating in the buffer zone on the Pak-Afghan border in order to prevent any untoward incident between the two armies.
With the Pakistan blockade of NATO supply lines entering its third week, there is no sign of Pakistan opening up the supply lines anytime soon. For now, NATO and US officials say that they are well stocked and face no real problems in supplies. The Americans have also started the process of vacating the Shamsi airbase and are expected to complete the process before the December 11 deadline. There is however no clarity if there are any other airbases being used by US forces. While Pakistani officials deny American presence or control of any other airbase, media reports have indicated that in addition to Shamsi, there are three, maybe four, airbases in Pakistan, including Jacobabad, which are being used by the US forces. In yet another retaliatory move, the Pakistan army has recalled most of its officers from the border coordination centres along the Pak-Afghan border. While the Pakistanis see this as a strong signal to the NATO forces, Americans officials have pointed out that the move increases the risks of miscommunication and a repeat of Mohmand-like incidents. What is more, the Pakistanis have not only refused to participate in the investigations being conducted by NATO into the November 26 incident, they have also suspended the ‘core group’ meeting comprising officials from US, Afghanistan and Pakistan which was supposed to decide on a ‘peace formula’ to be presented at the Bonn conference. According to Pakistan's information minister, Pakistan is also planning to approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the matter.
The Pakistan government stuck to its decision to boycott the Bonn conference on Afghanistan. Despite phone calls by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani respectively, the Pakistanis refused to relent on the decision. The fact that Obama only offered condolences and did not offer anything close to an ‘apology’ for the Mohmand attack only stiffened Pakistan’s resolve to boycott Bonn. The endorsement of the government’s decision to boycott Bonn conference by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) served as an excuse for Gilani to rebuff Clinton’s request to reconsider the boycott. The PCNS has also been mandated to make recommendations on how relations with US should be structured and these will be put before a joint session of parliament to reach a national consensus on issues like Pakistan's participation in the War on Terror.
Clearly, Pakistan has been playing hardball with the Americans with a view to ‘reset’ the relationship on more favourable terms. According to a report, Pakistan not only wants an apology from the Americans but also punishment of officials responsible for the attack on its post and have Gen John Allen in their crosshairs. But despite all the tough talk, the Pakistanis are still not quite ready for a complete break in relationship with the US. Speaking to the PCNS, Prime Minister Gilani made it clear that even though he had ordered a review of the relationship with US and NATO, he was quite sure that Pakistan's best option was to stay aligned with the US to bring peace in Afghanistan. But both before the PCNS and from other forums, Prime Minister Gilani has insisted that Pakistan and US will have to work out new terms of engagement and rules of business that would be based on “sovereign equality, mutual interest and mutual respect” and would include “a firm and categorical commitment on inviolability of Pakistan’s borders and an assurance that incidents like the one on Nov 26 would not be repeated”. Gilani’s insistence on ‘respecting each others’ red lines’ and ‘clearly defined parameters’ of cooperation has so far not evoked any real response from the US except for a statement by the State Department calling Pakistan ‘an essential partner’ in the fight against terrorism. Interestingly, while the Americans have refrained from publicly responding to Pakistan's demand for working new terms of engagement, there are reports that the two countries are negotiating an ‘Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) to facilitate reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies and services’. What is more, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen has said that Pakistan had been offered a ‘political framework for cooperation’ with NATO.
Relations with India
Pakistan has reportedly decided to take the issue of India’s Nimoo-Bazgo hydroelectric power project to the International Court of Arbitration and has issued instructions to the Indus Waters Commissioner for preparing the case papers.