Pakistan crisis: The General in his labyrinth
by Praful Bidwai
After days of uncertainty, dramatic tension and flip-flops, Pakistan's ruling coalition has decided to ask President Pervez Musharraf to resign or face impeachment. This might begin what could be a decisive battle for the assertion of will of the people's elected representatives against unaccountable centres of power — or precipitate a chain of negative events.
The tortuous manner in which the decision was reached — after vacillation, off-now, on-now moments, and the theatrical restoration of eight High Court judges amidst charges of perfidy — raises questions about its solidity and the coalition's ability to accomplish what is an extremely difficult task even in favourable circumstances in mature democracies.
It's also not excluded that Musharraf will strike suddenly to pre-empt or neutralise the impeachment move. Among the reasons that provoked the move was the apprehension that he might dissolve the national and provincial governments.
A confrontation will be averted if Musharraf himself quits in the knowledge that he may not be able to secure the backing of the United States or the Pakistan Army for a confrontationist course. After all, he is no longer in a critical day-to-day policy-making position, nor indispensable to the US-led Global War on Terrorism (GWoT). Besides, Washington cannot relish the prospect of a massive new Pakistan crisis during an election year.
As it appears barely two months after my visit to Pakistan, the situation there is marked by instability and potential for retrogression. As the divided, rudderless civilian political leadership flounders, the business of governance is in the deep freezer. Pakistan's economy is in poor shape. Pessimism and gloom rule.
The military is under enormous pressure from the US to escalate its operations against the Taleban along the Afghanistan border, or to allow the US-led International Security Assistance Force to undertake raids. The army's authority stands greatly eroded and its popular acceptance is low.
Extremist jehadi forces are growing everywhere in Pakistan. On the first anniversary of the Lal Masjid's storming, thousands of women pledged to raise their children for martyrdom in "holy war". Militants are torching girls' schools in the tribal areas.
There is a growing danger now that the gains from the recent trends towards democratisation could be undermined. These trends run against authoritarianism, negatively view the Three A's (Army, Allah and America), and favour moderation and accountability.
Pakistan is regressing into a state of being a hostage to three fundamental tensions from which it uncertainly struggled to free itself: opposition between the imperatives of a modern, moderate state and a religion-based self-identity; imbalance between military and civilian authority; and skewed distribution of power between different regions.
Two recent developments have further complicated the situation. The first was the July 26 notification placing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency under the control of the Interior Ministry, and its withdrawal within 7 hours.
The second is growing evidence that the ISI was involved in the July 7 suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, in which 60 people were killed. This has adversely affected the already tense peace process with India. Mercifully, the process hasn't been suspended. The ISI notification coincided with Prime Minister Gilani's visit to the United States to assure President Bush that the ISI under civilian control would cooperate earnestly with the US's GWoT. Its withdrawal had the opposite effect.
More important, it highlighted the weakness of the civilian government vis-a-vis the military. This is a significant setback to Pakistan's democratisation.
The second development is even more important. On July 12, the CIA despatched its deputy director Stephen R Kappes to Pakistan with evidence of the ISI's links with pro-Al Qaeda militants. This is the first time the CIA has confronted Islamabad with such intelligence.
The CIA's reported assessment confirms what Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has publicly alleged about the attack on India's embassy in Kabul, and his identification of the ISI as the source of violent activities calculated to destabilise his country.
According to The New York Times, "The CIA assessment specifically points to links between members of the ISI and the militant network led by Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, which American officials believe, maintains close ties to senior figures of Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas." Haqqani is the face of the resurgent Taleban.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up the issue with Gilani, who promised to order an independent investigation. However, Musharraf has since accused India of fomenting trouble in Balochistan.
The Pakistani foreign ministry has also charged India and Afghanistan with instigating violence in its tribal areas, and held Afghanistan responsible for its failure to protect its consulate in Herat from an attack on July 31.
Whatever the validity of these charges and counter-charges, there's little doubt that Afghanistan, a ravaged, unstable country, has emerged as a major battleground between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is keen to preserve its influence in that country which it has long regarded as its strategic backyard. It also seeks to deny India influence in Afghanistan.
India, on the other hand, is not only keen to deepen its historic relationship with Afghanistan, which is a legitimate agenda. It also seems to be looking for a vantage point from which to launch low-intensity operations across the border into Pakistan. That purpose is less than legitimate, and risks sucking India into an ugly open-ended confrontation.
India has run one of the largest and most successful aid programmes in Afghanistan. It has just expanded it from $750 million to $1.2 billion. Unlike Western aid projects, India routes its assistance without outsourcing it via numerous middlemen. Indian aid is far better focused than Western assistance and addresses felt needs in healthcare, education, urban transportation, and in the training of civil servants, diplomats, police and the judiciary. This has earned India a great deal of goodwill in Afghanistan.
It would be in India's and Pakistan's own interest to negotiate confidence-building measures, including joint projects, in Afghanistan as a means of defusing a new subcontinental cold war and rescuing the peace process. The alternative is competitive rivalry, which will harm both India and Pakistan-and above all, the Afghan people.
Praful Bidwai is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator