New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 15 Dec 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Pakistan: Curse of Interesting Times

By Najam Sethi

Dec 16-22, 2011

The curse of interesting times refuses to go away. The spectre of a clash between the presidency and GHQ over Memogate seems to have receded just as quickly as it arose in the first instance. But the spectre of confrontation between the presidency and SC over the NRO looms on the horizon.

President Asif Zardari's sudden illness that dispatched him to a hospital in Dubai seems to have been relieved. But he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to return to Pakistan until "all is well". What next?

The prime minister has announced that all five respondents in Nawaz Sharif's petition - PM Gillani, President Zardari, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and DG-ISI Ahmed Shuja Pasha - ordered by the SC to file their views on Memogate will speak with one voice, probably the Attorney General, on 19 December. This is significant. Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha can hardly file a response through the AG that is in any way hostile to the president or government. So the SC will simply have to pass on the matter to a Commission of Inquiry as a supplement to the Parliamentary Committee set up by the government.

This means that, for the time being, Memogate is off the anvil. Clearly, there is some "understanding" between General Kayani and President Zardari/PM Gilani aimed at "resolving" Memogate without destabilizing the government and effecting regime change. This "solution" may lead to the decapitation of Mr Haqqani and the neutering of President Zardari without any immediate or formal indictment of either. Even if a Commission of Inquiry eventually finds Mr Haqqani culpable in any sense, it will still be a long way to pressing charges and getting a conviction against him. Meanwhile, President Zardari may have to take a low profile and hand over all decision-making to the prime minister and army chief, including when to call the next general elections and what sort of neutral caretaker governments to set up so that the political transition is smooth when the time comes.

This "arrangement" will have a significant impact on the SC's order to the government to revive the money laundering cases against President Zardari in Switzerland. The PM is expected to drag his feet until two milestones have been passed: the Senate elections in March (in which the PPP is expected to win a majority of seats on the basis of the current arithmetic in the Provincial and National Assemblies) and the time-barring of the Swiss case in April. Should the SC lose patience and think of ordering General Kayani to compel the PM to write the letter to the Swiss authorities upon pain of booting out the government, it will have to think twice in view of General Kayani's decision in the Memogate case to remain firmly anchored to the government in the final analysis. The last time a Chief Justice of the SC ordered an army chief to come to his assistance was in 1998 and he lost his job when the army chief turned it over to the Defense Ministry for compliance.

Two factors may be responsible for restraining General Kayani's hand. One, a destabilization of the government with the aim of effecting regime change is bound to be a shrill, hotly contested and nasty affair. At the very least, it could amount to renewed political martyrdom of the PPP and its Sindhi leaders, raising the prospects of seriously dividing the country and enabling their political revival during the elections. Worse, it might also bring back Nawaz Sharif and add to the military's discomfort because Mr. Sharif makes no bones about his intention to firmly put the brass in barracks again.

Two, this is a bad time for manipulating regime change. There is a serious deadlock with the US over the endgame in Afghanistan and Pakistan's role in it. General Kayani needs a legitimate government in Islamabad to take "ownership" of the hard response that he has formulated. A political vacuum in Islamabad for four or five months would seriously hurt the process of re-engaging with the US on the basis of the new rules of alliance approved by parliament and submitted to Washington. Far better, it may be reasoned, to prop up a pliant PPP government in Islamabad until the US has been partially brought round to GHQ's view and a better electoral alternative than Nawaz Sharif like Imran Khan (who still needs six months at least to get his act together) can be harnessed.

Of course, Nawaz Sharif and the SC could still upset all these cold calculations, the first by precipitating a crisis on the basis of mass street agitation and resignations from the assembles, and the latter by throwing caution to the wind and ordering General Kayani to obey its orders, or "else". But that would plunge the country into political chaos and anarchy. Pakistan's foreign detractors would then have field day in achieving their objectives.

Source: The Friday Times, Lahore