Political and Internal Developments
Pakistan appeared to be on the brink of a putsch last week after civil-military relations deteriorated sharply. The action-reaction domino that seemed to have been put in motion started with an interview by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to a Chinese daily in which he said that the affidavits submitted before the Supreme Court by the army and ISI chiefs in the ‘memogate’ case were ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ and had violated the rules of business as they had not received sanction from the competent authority for submitting the affidavits. The fact that the interview was given to a Chinese daily and that to at a time when the army chief was on a visit to China was seen as a great affront by the military brass.
Warning that the Prime Minister’s remarks would have ‘serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country’, the ISPR, following a meeting of army top brass at GHQ, refuted point by point the Prime Minister’s contention. Not surprisingly the TV news channels went ballistic over the ISPR statement. Things seemed to be spiralling totally out of control after the Prime Minister’s Office sacked the Defence Secretary on grounds of ‘gross misconduct and illegal action’ and for causing ‘misunderstanding between state institutions’. The PM gave additional charge of the Defence Secretary to the Cabinet Secretary, which led to speculation that the government was in the process of issuing a notification ordering the removal of the army and ISI chiefs. According to some reports, before the ISPR statement had been issued, the army chief had spoken to the PM and asked him to retract his comments. On refusal, the army chief, according to the PM, asked for permission to issue a clarification, which had been granted. But the wording of the clarification left an unmistakable impression that the army was furious with the civilian government and in any other country, such a statement would have led to the dismissal of the army chief.
The Pakistan army appears to have prepared its fallback position in the event of such a precipitate action on part of the government. The grapevine is that instead of a coup, the military would have approached either the Supreme Court or the Islamabad High Court to set aside such an order. Almost on cue, a serial petitioner submitted a petition before the IHC seeking to restrain the government from taking any action to remove the army and ISI chiefs from their position.
Perhaps, if it had received the requisite support from both its allies and the opposition, the government would have been inclined to take such a step. But with its allies shying away from a headlong confrontation with the army and counselling restraint and reconciliation, and the opposition threatening to stand with the army if the government indulged in any ‘adventurism’ – PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif even went public calling for an early general election and asking the government’s allies to pull out their support from a government which was jeopardising the entire system ‘just to protect its corruption’ – the government was probably left with no choice but to pull back from the brink. Matters seemed to cool down considerably after senior ministers issued statements denying any move whatsoever to fire the army or the ISI chiefs and later the PM underplayed the ISPR statement by revealing that the army chief had spoken to him before releasing the statement.
While the immediate threat to the government from the army has receded, the Damocles sword continues to hang over it head. If it is not the army, then the judiciary will most likely become the nemesis of the PPP-led government. Having already pushed the government against the wall by forming a judicial inquiry commission to investigate the ‘memogate’ issue, the judiciary applied more pressure last week on the government. The Supreme Court targeted top government members like former Law Minister Babar Awan, who was issued with a contempt notice which was followed by a show cause notice threatening him with cancellation of his license to practise in the Supreme Court for ‘ridiculing’ the judiciary in connection with the Court ruling in the memogate scandal. Far more serious however were the proceedings in the NRO judgment implementation case with the Supreme Court bench holding the Prime Minister prima facie in contempt for not implementing the NRO judgment. Calling him a dishonest man who has violated his oath by being more loyal to his party than to the constitution, the head of the Supreme Court bench said that the PM was liable to be disqualified from holding public office. The bench also turned its guns on President Zardari and held that after a TV interview given by him in which he point blank refused to reopen the Swiss money laundering cases, action could be taken against him as well for violating the constitution.
Referring the entire case to a larger bench of the Supreme Court, the judges offered six options to the government and sought an answer on these by January 16. The options were the following: 1) The prime minister is held in violation of his oath of office; 2) Contempt of court proceedings to be initiated against the Prime Minister, Law Minister, and Secretary Law; 3) the court could appoint a Commission to execute the judgment passed; 4) give the accused an opportunity of hearing; 5) initiate contempt proceedings against NAB chairman (who defied the court and maintained that it was well within his powers to decide whom to prosecute and whom not to prosecute); 6) “the court may exercise judicial restraint and leave the matter to the better judgment of the people of the country or their representatives in the Parliament to appropriately deal with the delinquent.”
The Court ruling coupled with the fact that it named both the PM and President as liable to be charged with contempt of court sent shock waves down the entire body politic. Reacting to the ruling, Babar Awan said that it reminded him of East Pakistan and the Agartala Conspiracy case. Interior Minister Rehman Malik hit back by unveiling for the first time the agreement between Nawaz Sharif and Gen Pervez Musharraf under which the former was pardoned and sent into exile. Malik said that this too was a NRO, albeit for an individual. The PPP held an emergency meeting of the Core Committee in which the hawkish elements advocated a headlong confrontation with the judiciary. But in the end the party decided to try and buy more time and delay as much as possible any precipitate action, both from its side as well as from the judiciary’s side. In pursuit of this objective, the party, in consultation with its allies, decided to summon a special session of parliament and take the case before the elected representatives. According to reports, while President Asif Zardari was opposed to any confrontation, he was quite emphatic that there would be no compromise on principles viz. supremacy of parliament and a refusal to try the ‘grave of Benazir Bhutto’. Prime Minister Gilani too drew a red line when he said that as an elected representative, he would not take any dictation from anyone for following the constitution.
Alongside the NRO judgment implementation case, the judicial commission on the memogate scandal commenced its investigations. Appearing before the commission, Hussain Haqqani once again denied playing any role in either the drafting or the transmission of the controversial memo. He also refused to surrender his privacy rights and make available the Blackberry data of his phones. He took the somewhat implausible plea that he had left his mobiles in US and since he couldn’t go back he was unable to present his phones to the Commission for collecting forensic evidence. Haqqani also filed a review petition on the Supreme Court judgment setting up the judicial commission. In order to appear even handed, the commission refused a plea by the ISI chief to give an in-camera briefing and asked him to convey whatever confidential information he wanted to share with the commission in a sealed envelope. Only after perusing the contents of the letter would the Commission decide on whether or not to hold an in-camera session. Haqqani’s lawyers of course opposed any in-camera briefing and insisted that all evidence be presented in open court hearings. Amidst reports that the government could deny Ijaz a visa, the Commission issued directions to the government to give a visa to Mansoor Ijaz and provide him security from both the police and the army when he came to Pakistan to appear before the commission. Meanwhile, a PPP loyalist has filed a petition against Ijaz seeking a criminal case against him for his role in the memogate scandal.
Earlier, breaking weeks of silence, President Asif Zardari gave an interview to a local TV channel in which he tried to present his position on the various contentious and controversial issues bedevilling his party’s government. Zardari denied any conflict with either the army or the judiciary but let it be known that in the memogate case he would give precedence to the report of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) over the report of the judicial commission set up by the Supreme Court. He claimed that the government didn’t take legal action against Mansoor Ijaz when the controversial memo first came to light because it believed that doing so would harm national interest. He defended the decision of the government to not write to the Swiss authorities for reopening the money laundering case on the grounds that there was no question of holding a trial of Benazir Bhutto’s grave, nor for that matter did the government want to go down in infamy by violating Presidential Immunity and writing to a foreign court against the country’s President. He said that he had around 15 months left in office and once he vacated the President’s office, the government would be most welcome to reopen the cases. He was quite open to the idea of meeting with Nawaz Sharif to hold a dialogue on all issues, including discussing the possibility of holding early elections.
Nawaz Sharif however has rejected Zardari’s justification for not reopening the Swiss cases saying that the NRO case cannot be linked to Benazir Bhutto’s grave. He demanded to know the source of the $ 60 million alleged to be stashed away in the Swiss accounts by Zardari. Sharif also defended his decision to approach the Supreme Court in connection with the memogate scandal and questioned the rationale for holding a parallel enquiry through the PCNS when the judicial commission had already been set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the matter. He took a completely opposite stand to Zardari’s and said that there was no question of giving precedence to the PCNS over the Supreme Court nominated commission.
Although President Zardari has been quoted as telling his party leaders in Sindh that general elections will be held according to schedule, the political confabulations in Islamabad suggest that there is an strong possibility of early elections, either in May or else in September/October 2012 instead of February 2013. One indication of this came when the government, in consultation with its alliance partners decided to hold the Senate elections in mid February, the earliest possible date for holding these elections. The thinking is that once the Senate elections are out of the way, the political options for all sides will open up and the PPP won’t be averse to going to the hustings six months before schedule.
Despite the public sniping at each other, reports that the PPP and PMLN were holding back room talks to reach an agreement on the future course of politics continued to flow in all through the week. Apparently the two parties had settled on four out of the six issues on which they are negotiating with each other. The issues on which an agreement has been reached are senate elections to be followed by early general elections but after the budget (which means not before August or September), setting up of an independent accountability commission and an independent election commission. The two outstanding issues are creation of new provinces and the caretaker government that will conduct the next elections. Earlier reports claimed that Aitzaz Ahsan and Ishaq Dar were the main negotiators for the PPP and PMLN respectively. But after they denied their involvement it was been claimed that the property baron Malik Riaz was negotiating on behalf of Zardari and Senator Pervez Rashid on behalf of Nawaz Sharif. That some sort of talks are underway was also borne out by reports that Nawaz Sharif had once again pulled up his brother and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif for going overboard in lambasting Asif Zardari. There are also reports that the JUIF chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman too has been trying to play a role in mediating a truce of sorts between the PMLN and PPP.
The parallel tracks on which Nawaz Sharif is operating – taking on the government through the Courts and in public rallies and at the same time trying to strike a mutually beneficial deal – is quite understandable from his perspective. He needs to present a strong opposition to the government to keep his vote bank intact and prevent it from splitting in Imran Khan’s favour who he is convinced is being propped up by the ‘establishment’. But he is also wary of pushing things too hard lest the system collapses and he ends up as a loser. If he gets an early election along with the rest of his demands regarding the Election Commission and caretaker setup met, he thinks he will be in pole position to come out on tops in the next general elections. Although for now there seems to be a sort of tacit understanding between Nawaz Sharif and the military establishment (once again the grapevine is that both sides have agreed on the need to get rid of the current dispensation and hold new polls with assurances that they will be free and fair), the former is apprehensive that the military will never really be comfortable with him. His recent utterances on Balochistan where he has demanded an immediate end the military operation and has called for holding an All Parties Conference to resolve the crisis in Balochistan – the PPP has endorsed the APC idea – is not likely to go down well with the military establishment. During his visit to Balochistan last week, Nawaz Sharif once again blamed Musharraf for the crisis in Balochistan and demanded his trial for the murder of Akbar Bugti, something that the army will be loath to let happen.
But even though he has been trying to woo the Baloch, his own party unit in Balochistan, like the party units in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is riven with dissension. Compounding Nawaz Sharif’s problems is also the PPP ploy of pushing ahead with their plans to carve out new provinces. Deferring to the sensitivities of ANP, the PPP has not raked up the issue of carving a Hazara province from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has so far only been pushing for a Seraiki or a South Punjab province, which hits Nawaz Sharif and at the same time earns the PPP political points in an area of Punjab where it has been quite strong. According to Prime Minister Gilani, while the ruling coalition has a two-thirds majority on the issue of a Seraiki province, it was not able to evolve a consensus on the Hazara province issue. With the PPP promising to bring a constitutional amendment in the next session of parliament for creating a Seraiki province, Nawaz Sharif has been caught in a bind. He cannot openly oppose the Seraiki province and has taken shelter behind opposing any creation of new provinces on ethnic or linguistic lines. But given that the proposed Hazara province which will be carved out from the Hazara belt of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (an area which is a PMLN stronghold) will essentially be an ethnic and a linguistic entity, Nawaz Sharif’s stance on new provinces is a little disingenuous. Muddying the waters has been the MQM which first moved separate resolutions in the parliament calling for creation of a Hazara and a Seraiki province and later presented the 20th Amendment bill seeking to carve out these two new provinces. The MQM move led to stormy debates in parliament in which a senior PPP minister accused his government’s alliance partner of trying to sabotage the new provinces issue by spoiling the environment of the House.
Meanwhile, the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf announced his intention of returning to Pakistan by the end of the month. Musharraf is believed to be seeking guarantees from the Saudis and the British for ensuring his safe and unmolested return to Pakistan. But the news has been greeted with derision from the PPP which has said that he will be arrested as soon as he lands since he has been notified as a proclaimed offender in both the Benazir Bhutto assassination case and the Akbar Bugti murder case.
The split in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ranks between the faction led by Hakimullah Mehsud and the pro-dialogue faction led by Waliur Rehman was reflected last week in two separate incidents that indicate the approach of the pro-talks and anti-talks militants. In the first incident, the Mehsud faction massacred 15 FC personnel who were in their custody in retaliation against a military operation some days earlier in which a top TTP commander was killed. In the other incident, 17 students from Bajaur agency who had been kidnapped while on an excursion to the Pak-Afghan border on Eid day were released as a ‘goodwill gesture’. These boys had been kidnapped by Faqir Mohammed of Bajaur who has already told journalists that he is in peace negotiations with the Pakistani authorities. Meanwhile, after a fairly long time, there was once again a massive terrorist bombing in Jamrud, Khyber agency, killing around 35 people. Strangely, none of the Taliban groups accepted responsibility for the attack which was triggered not by a suicide bomber but by a car bomb which was detonated by remote control. Equally significant was the restarting of drone attacks with two back-to-back strikes in North Waziristan. These were the first strikes since the US-Pakistan standoff after the NATO bombing of two Pakistan army posts in Mohmand agency on 26 November last. It is still not clear whether these strikes indicate a restoration of relations between the US and Pakistani security agencies and were a part of the new terms of engagement that the two sides were reportedly trying to reach or whether they were a unilateral strike on part of the Americans. The silence of the Pakistani military establishment suggests that it is the former and not the latter. In Balochistan meanwhile, Baloch freedom fighters ambushed a FC convoy and killed 15 soldiers in Turbat.
Foreign Relations / Foreign policy
Foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar has denied reports that Pakistan was going to demand a civilian nuclear deal as part of the new terms of engagement with the US that is expected to be recommended by the PCNS to parliament. While all eyes are on the recommendations that the PCNS makes to parliament – reports indicate that the recommendations will include seeking parliamentary approval for granting the US over-flight rights and will demand validation from parliament for all agreements reached with the US – finance minister Hafeez Shaikh has cautioned the PCNS against taking any ‘drastic measure’ against the US because this could push Pakistan into international isolation. Shaikh is believed to have said that such hard line measures could cause shocks that the country might not be in a position to bear. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Defence Council, a conglomeration of right-wing radical and extremist Islamist parties like the terrorist organisation Jamaatud Dawa, has warned against reopening of NATO supply lines and threatened a nationwide agitation if this was done. The PDC also excoriated the government’s move to grant MFN status to India.
After keeping a studied silence over the persecution of the former Pakistani ambassador to US, Hussain Haqqani, in the memogate scandal, the US administration as well as lawmakers and academics have started to raise their voice in Haqqani’s favour. It is believed that these noises and voices in Haqqani’s cause are the result of lobbying by his wife. Apart from three top senators, including John McCain, the State Department also voiced concerns over the treatment being meted out to Haqqani and made it clear that the US was closely monitoring the situation in relation to Haqqani. The US academic community has also flagged its concerns regarding Haqqani’s safety.
At a time when Pakistan is trying to defy the US and hopes that other benefactors like Saudi Arabia and other ‘brotherly Muslim’ countries will replace the Americans insofar as aid is concerned, reports that the Saudis and Kuwaitis have refused to give Pakistan the oil facility on deferred payment basis that it so desperately was seeking should serve as a reality check for the Pakistanis. But the red carpet treatment that its ‘all weather’ friend China gave to the visiting Pakistan army chief – he was almost given the treatment reserved for a Head of State – will probably keep Pakistan's hopes of finding another patron alive.
In a 75 minute meeting with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Pakistan was assured of China’s support for its “efforts to safeguard its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, maintain its national dignity and back the country’s economic growth”. Jiabao told Kayani that Pakistan will find China a ‘reliable partner’ and added that the two countries ‘support the safeguarding of each other’s core interests’. He also ‘thanked Pakistan for its people’s consistent stand on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang’. Almost as though he was conceding Pakistan’s role as a client, if not vassal state, of China, Kayani told the Chinese Premier that ‘Pakistan’s armed forces would unswervingly boost cooperation with China and firmly support China’s efforts to maintain its core interests.’ In turn Jiabao lauded Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror. Kayani also met State Councillor Dai Bingguo, PLA Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde, PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Staff General Ma Xiaotian, Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie and Chen Qiufa, Administrator, State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND). In his talks with the PLA CGS, Gen Bingde, Kayani and his Chinese counterpart decided to ‘enhance exchanges of younger soldiers and officers of the two armed forces.’ Kayani is reported to have explored ‘new avenues for shared technological platforms’ in his meeting with the SASTIND chief.
Relations with India
Pakistan has invited Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to Islamabad next month for the signing of three agreements that are expected to pave the way for granting of MFN status to India. These three agreements relate to customs cooperation, mutual recognition and redressing grievances which according to officials in the Pakistani commerce ministry will help in addressing the problem of tariff and non-tariff barriers that India is alleged to have put in place on the trade front.
In a letter to the UN Secretary General, Pakistan has challenged India’s position on the issue of Sir Creek and said that it doesn't recognise the ‘New Delhi promulgated baseline system’. According to the Pakistani letter, India’s claims encroach on Pakistan's territorial waters and therefore Pakistan “reserves its right to seek suitable revision of this notification, any claim India makes on the basis of Indian notification to extend its sovereignty and jurisdiction on Pakistani waters or extend its internal waters, territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf is, therefore, not acceptable to Pakistan”.