By Najam Sethi
A CLUTCH of important Pakistani leaders visited Saudi Arabia last week — General Tariq Majeed, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Ashfaq Kayani, COAS, and Mr Nawaz Sharif. The latter’s visit to Riyadh has set tongues wagging, given his close links to the Saudi monarchy which is singularly responsible for his rising political fortune. Mr Sharif, interestingly, stopped over in Dubai for a day exactly when President Asif Zardari detoured to the same city for a mysterious stopover and meeting, before turning around and flying off to Japan for the critical moot of the “ Friends of Pakistan” consortium. The FOP is deliberating how much economic assistance to give Pakistan over the next few years and Saudi Arabia may turn out to be the biggest single donor in it.
Are these meetings, therefore, all about propping up Mr Zardari’s government and Pakistan’s economy? Is Mr Sharif hoisting the national interest above his party’s political interest by putting in a good word with the Saudis on behalf of Mr Zardari? Is General Kayani also backing up Mr Zardari for the grand sake of democracy? Not at all. None of the political players is doing anything without a core vested interest. Indeed, there is a seamlessness about political developments in Pakistan since that fateful day of March 16 when Mr Zardari was outmanoeuvred by a combination of Army and America, and Mr Sharif was raised as a smart alternative to Mr Zardari who has increasingly come to be perceived in Washington as “ not such a good option” in the prevailing domestic and international crisis facing the country. The fact that visiting American, British and EU bigwigs have probably met Mr Sharif as many times as they have President Zardari, says it all.
IN CONSEQUENCE, we have seen their joint handiwork in unmistakable terms. First, it was the restoration of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan, with public thanks to an intervention by General Kayani. Second, and as a consequence of Mr Chaudhry’s intervention, there was the restoration of Mr Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of Punjab, by a specially constituted bench of the Supreme Court. Third, we saw Mr Zardari’s decision to constitute a bipartisan parliamentary committee to determine how to implement the Charter of Democracy and get rid of the 17th constitutional amendment, which empowers the office of the President and stops Mr Sharif from becoming a prime minister for the third time, so that all major stakeholders, especially Mr Sharif, are satisfied.
Surely, this was not done happily and voluntarily. Fourth, the decision by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to invite Mr Sharif’s PMLN to join the federal cabinet and claim a stake in government, thereby diminishing the PPP’s monopoly of power, is not a gratuitous act. It suggests there is pressure from certain quarters to cut President Zardari down to size while getting Mr Sharif to take greater responsibility for certain unpalatable decisions regarding the “war against terror” and belt- tightening the economy. Fifth, Mr Zardari’s decision to place the matter of the Nizam i Adl Regulation in Swat, which cements a dubious peace deal between the local government and the Taliban, before parliament and get it to stamp its approval unanimously, implies that Mr Zardari, who had foot- dragged the issue, finally succumbed to pressure and did it this way because he didn’t want to take sole responsibility in the event of its failure.
Sixth, the release of Maulana Aziz, the firebrand Lal Masjid religious leader, from prison on the orders of the Chaudhry- led Supreme Court, on April 15, against the inclination of the Zardari administration, signals an army/ ISI interest because he might prove an intelligence asset in the three- way tussle for leverage between the army, Taliban and America. Similarly, Mr Sharif’s cooperation suggests a movement towards a “national government” as a prelude to a mid- term election, which remains the PMLN’s most outstanding demand.
Still, there are wheels within wheels.
And nothing has been stitched up so far because of countervailing pulls and pushes. Washington first put all its eggs in Benazir Bhutto’s basket and handed it to President Pervez Musharraf.
WHEN the eggs didn’t hatch because Ms Bhutto was assassinated, the Bush administration put its weight behind Mr Zardari. But President Musharraf didn’t survive the political fallout of the elections. So Washington quickly transferred its affection to General Kayani. However, this move didn’t pay off because General Kayani was angered by the Obama administration’s allegations of “ double dealing” by the ISI and crude attempts to nudge Mr Zardari to cut the secret agency down to size. So it was time to bring Mr Sharif on board, to give the civilian government greater muscle and popular backing. That is where the Saudis come in, right behind Mr Sharif.
Mr Zardari has been considerably weakened in the last month or so by a string of bad political decisions which have alienated him from the army and most Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the US is frustrated because it is unable to have its way fully with Islamabad. The recent assertion of “gaps” between Washington and Islamabad, at the behest of the hard-line army, including a refusal to give a blank cheque to Mr Holbrooke, is a measure of the bumps that lie ahead.
Mr Zardari wants nothing less than a Marshall Plan to bail out Pakistan and stabilise his PPP government. But the US is tying money and weapons to a proper quid pro quo from the army and ISI on the war on terror. But the army and ISI are not ready to accept Mr Zardari’s pro- US prescriptions because of long- held views on regional security and national interest that are not acceptable to Washington. So he is being compelled by the US to turn to Mr Sharif and bring him into the loop because of his popular backing. But Mr Sharif has his own agenda. He has the ear of the Saudis and is using their money and clout to guarantee a passage back to power at the expense of Mr Zardari sooner than later. Which power or actor will ultimately prevail and what will be the fate of Pakistan in these tumultuous times remains to be seen.
Courtesy: Mail Today, New Delhi
The writer is the editor of The Friday Times, Lahore
Price of Swat peace
Editorial in Daily Times Pakistan
The NWFP Governor, Mr Owais Ahmed Ghani, signed the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation on Wednesday, formally enforcing what he called Sharia laws in Swat and five other northern districts, and calling the occasion a historic day. President Asif Ali Zardari on the other hand insisted for the nth time that Nizam-e Adl was not sharia and that its enforcement would be reviewed if peace did not come to prevail in the Malakand region. He was in Tokyo, asking a scared Friends of Pakistan group of countries to give Pakistan approximately $6 billion in aid quickly to fight terrorism.
The world outside has never liked the Swat deal because it thinks it is an instrument of defeat after the failure of the Pakistan army to oust the Taliban from the area. The deal was reached with a man who is the father-in-law of the warlord who has killed a lot of innocent people in Swat and is answerable to the state of Pakistan for having killed its security personnel. Under the Nizam-e Adl law, the Malakand qazi courts would be literally autonomous and appeals against their verdicts would lie within the system dominated by the Taliban, and not the NWFP High Court or the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
But all protest from outside Pakistan has been brushed aside by the NWFP Governor who says, This is our problem. Islam is our religion and we are Muslims. The state is responding to the aspirations of the people. But criticism is also coming from within Pakistan, although it is highly politicised and also subject to intimidation that most Pakistani politicians pretend not to admit. The coalition at the centre is divided. The MQM has not voted approval of the Nizam-e Adl in Parliament and has expressed fears about the extension of the pro-Taliban law to Sindh, a fear that is not totally ill-founded. Civil society, heretofore united behind the lawyers movement, is also divided, and the debate over some TV channels became almost abusive on Wednesday night.
The patron of the new legal system, Sufi Muhammad, has made it clear that the Nizam-e Adl system is sealed against the higher law in the country and that the Taliban, led by his son-in-law, will be retroactively exempted from its operation. He wants the provincial and federal governments to compensate the people who have been hurt by the disorder of the past two years rebellion but refuses the jurisdiction of the government to set responsibility for the damage done to the people of Swat. What arouses fear among liberal circles inside Pakistan is the nature of the sharia represented by courts supervised by Sufi Muhammad and his executive arm led by the warlord Fazlullah. Soon, it will become clear if the courts can get the women of Swat to retrieve their rights to education and free movement that they had lost under the Taliban.
Have the Taliban relented in their menace to the writ of the state? Those who favour the new laws in Swat would be disappointed to discover that the terrorist attack at Charsadda on Wednesday that killed 18 people, including nine policemen, was planned in Malakand-Swat and the terrorists who drove the dynamite-laden vehicles came from that direction. The ANP government of the NWFP and Governor NWFP will have to continue their efforts at improving the capacity of the police to face up to the army of warlord Fazlullah despite the fact that they, with full support of the PPP in Islamabad, have made a peace deal with Sufi Muhammad.
Of course, no one can blame the people of Swat for celebrating the enforcement of Nizam-e Adl. After being completely disappointed with the capacity of the state to protect them against the onslaught of the Taliban, their minimalist approach is justified. They have decided to subject themselves to the authority of the Taliban and will restart their lives at the cost of the freedoms they had in the past. Maybe this is an experience they have to go through before they become finally disabused of the dubious memories of the Sharia of the Wali of Swat.
But we can be sure of one thing. The state will be punished for having allowed terrorist elements to rule Swat. In the coming days, the Taliban will institutionalise their presence and convert the region adjoining Swat into a satrapy completely insulated from the rest of Pakistan. The consequences of that will be predictably destructive for the state of Pakistan.