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Further Turmoil

The previous year, even by liberal benchmarks, was appalling for Pakistan. The offensive against the Taliban under American pressure led to the dislocation of hundreds upon thousands of people in Waziristan and the North West Frontier Province, and to severe internal strife. The retaliations that followed created havoc in cities with death and destruction, leading to a state of near anarchy. Now the political bickering between the Presidency, Judiciary and Army Headquarters promises to deepen and will lead Pakistan into further turmoil.

Twelve months ago, an unsteady peace seemed to have been brokered amongst political parties and the Army. A consensus, however fragile, was agreed on national security issues between Parliament and General Head Quarters (GHQ) which translated into a clear message to militants that Pakistan’s establishment would no longer encourage or even tolerate their actions across the border in Afghanistan. But increasingly this consensus seems to be cracking. Over the next few months we expect rising confrontation between the Presidency and Army House. President Asif Zardari is likely to be declared ineligible to hold office and may be forced to step down to face corruption charges. In the very least he would have to surrender his powers in a trade for immunity.

This has wider consequences for India. The larger political establishment and more specifically the Pakistan People’s Party-led alliance has discounted the Army’s paradigm that the bigger threat to Pakistan stems from India. Mr Zardari has generally been pragmatic in his views on militancy and believes it cannot be in Pakistan’s interest to encourage militants with training facilities and money for Jihad against India and Afghanistan. The Army on the other hand remains convinced, perhaps for self-serving reasons, that India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is intended to corner Pakistan with malicious intent. Essentially, the political discord between the Presidency and GHQ is based amongst other things on opposing positions on the country’s national security policy. The resurrection of corruption cases against Mr Zardari may largely be the Army’s response to deal with him.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently passed judgement against the previous National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that the government should investigate an older money laundering case involving the President. This concerned the acceptance of bribes amounting to USD 60 million from a Swiss company and subsequently stashed in a bank in Switzerland. The investigations were initiated by an earlier Nawaz Sharif administration and subsequently pursued by the previous Musharraf regime. However, following the mediation of a deal between Mr Zardari and General Musharraf, the NRO was passed absolving politicians from all cases lodged against them since 1986. Now Pakistan’s Supreme Court, perhaps under Army prodding, has declared the NRO ultra vires to the constitution and consequently all cases involving political corruption have been reopened.

This action will lead to political instability with Mr Zardari being forced to step down and replaced by an individual more amenable to the views of GHQ. The Obama administration which recognises Mr Zardari as being sympathetic to their views (on how militants should be dealt with) will be helplessly out-manoeuvred. The President’s removal from office would appear to be on account of corruption charges and within the democratic framework. The Army would then feel free to adopt its earlier strategy of supporting “non-state actors” and their actions in Afghanistan and India; basically the use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy.

It is possible that the President may manage to find support from Nawaz Sharif who despite his dislike for Mr Zardari strongly detests the military establishment. Mr Sharif has been pressing for an indictment against General Musharraf for over-throwing his elected government and also for ordering the murder of a Baloch leader – the Nawab of Bugti. The Army is understandably concerned about allowing its former Chief to be tried in a court of law, as this would set a precedent affecting future Generals. GHQ may be somewhat hesitant about dismissing the President without the tacit support of his main political opposition. But even in such a situation Mr Zardari may just about manage to hold on to office with little or no powers to influence policy and even less to exercise control. Either way the Army would win, reinforcing the ancient belief that Generals never die – they simply keep coming back. Pakistan itself will face considerable turmoil with a deeply fractured political fabric.

This cannot mean well for India. Indo-Pak relations have generally improved during the short stints by elected civilian governments in Pakistan. They tend to be more objective in their perspective and do not necessarily have the level of mist-trust against India, as army commanders do. The replacement of Mr Zardari or the curbing of his powers will provide ammunition to the military establishment to indulge further in its old mischievous ways.


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