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Four months after elections, Pakistan is in a leaderless drift

Four months after elections, Pakistan is in a leaderless drift
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First Published: Tue, Jun 24 2008. 11 23 PM IST

Heading nowhere: Asif Ali Zardari (right), widower of Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, arrives with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for a meeting in Lahore on 20
Heading nowhere: Asif Ali Zardari (right), widower of Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, arrives with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for a meeting in Lahore on 20
Updated: Tue, Jun 24 2008. 11 23 PM IST
Islamabad: Pakistan is in a leaderless drift four months after elections, according to Western diplomats and military officials, Pakistani politicians and Afghan officials who are increasingly worried that no one is really in charge.
The sense of drift is the subject of almost every columnist in the English-language press in Pakistan, and anxiety over the lack of leadership and the weakness of the civilian government now infuses conversations with analysts, diplomats and Pakistani government officials. The problem is most acute, they say, when it comes to dealing with militants in the tribal areas that have become home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Although the political parties and the military all seek a breather from the suicide bombings and nascent insurgency, there are fundamental disagreements over the problem of militancy that they have not begun to address, Pakistani politicians and Western diplomats say.
The confusion is allowing the militants to consolidate their sanctuaries while spreading their tentacles all along the border area, military officials and diplomats warn. It has also complicated policy for the Bush administration, which leaned heavily on one man, President Pervez Musharraf, to streamline its anti-terrorism efforts in Pakistan.
If anyone is in charge of security policy in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Pakistani politicians and Western diplomats say, that remains the military and the country’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which operate with little real oversight.
While the newly elected civilian government has been criticized for dealing with the militants, it is the military that is brokering ceasefires and prisoner exchanges with minimum consultation with the government, politicians from the government coalition, diplomats and analysts said.
Politicians in both the provincial and central governments complain they are excluded from the negotiations and did not even know of a secret deal struck in February, before the elections.
“You see a lack of a coordinated strategy between the federal level and provincial level, and that includes the ISI and the military, who are clear players,” said one western diplomat with knowledge of the tribal regions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Since coming to power in February, the fragile coalition government, run by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has been busy with internal wrangling over removing Musharraf.
The coalition is barely functioning after half its ministers left the cabinet in May in a dispute over whether to reinstate 60 high court judges dismissed by Musharraf last year.
For now it is just accepting the military’s decisions regarding the militants, said Talat Masood, a retired general who is now a political analyst. He characterized the country as suffering from “institutional paralysis and a dysfunctional government, signs of which are showing already.”
The American commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) forces in Afghanistan, Gen Dan McNeill, also described the government as “dysfunctional” before leaving his post earlier this month.
“I have a feeling that no one is in charge and that is why the militants are taking advantage,” Masood said. “It is a very dangerous situation because what is happening is the Afghan government is getting desperate.”
The frustration is such that Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened this month to send troops into Pakistan to pursue militant leaders.
Heading nowhere: Asif Ali Zardari (right), widower of Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, arrives with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for a meeting in Lahore on 20 June.
That Pakistan’s government appears broken is not surprising, analysts say. Pakistan’s civilian institutions were atrophied by eight years of military rule, and major political parties were left rudderless by the absence of their leaders, who lived in exile much of that time. Bhutto’s assassination in December left the PPP in even deeper disarray.
The military remains the country’s strongest institution, having ruled Pakistan for about half of the country’s 61 years of independence. But it is proving to be an increasingly fickle and prickly partner for Washington. The US and Nato officials are still struggling to decipher the intentions of the army’s new chief of staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
At the time of his appointment, American officials spoke approvingly of Gen Kayani, who seemed well aware of the threat the militants posed to Pakistan, and of the dangers of peace deals that have allowed the militants to tighten their grip in the tribal areas.
But despite at least $12 billion (Rs51,480 crore) in aid from Washington for the fight against the militants since 2001, Gen Kayani has shown a reluctance to use the military for counter-insurgency operations, suggesting that the task be left to the much weaker tribal force, the Frontier Corps. He has encouraged the government to take the lead.
Part of the confusion stems from the shift in power from military rule to the new civilian government, one Western military official said. “Kayani is being careful not to get too far out in front and is trying to determine who is in charge,” he said. “We all are.”
The uneasy balance between civilian and military authority was demonstrated this month when finance minister Naveed Qamar revealed details of the military budget to parliament for the first time in 40 years. While Qamar called it a “historic moment,” the document was a mere two pages.
Parliament, tied up with budget negotiations until next month, has not discussed security or militancy.
Meanwhile, the military under Gen Kayani has quietly pursued its own policies, politicians, diplomats and analysts say. The military and ISI negotiated a little-known truce with the tribes and militants of North Waziristan days before the 18 February polls, a senior government official in Peshawar confirmed.
The deal was so secretive that few in the government know its contents. “The civilian government is in the back seat, or not even in the back seat,” said the Western diplomat, who did not want to be identified because of the critical nature of the remarks.
The military also began negotiations with Taliban commanders Baitullah Mehsud in January, weeks after the government accused him of masterminding Bhutto’s assassination. An official agreement with the Mehsud tribe has not been completed, but the military has already pulled back from some positions, put in place a ceasefire and exchanged prisoners with the militants.
Western officials are suspicious of the deal. Mehsud is accused of sending scores of suicide bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the agreement initially included no prohibition on crossborder attacks. Only after strong pressure from the US and other allies did the military insert such a clause this month, according to a senior official close to the negotiations. In the meantime, cross-border attacks increased by 50% in May, Nato officials in Afghanistan say.
The government in the North-West Frontier Province also has reservations about the deal. Officials from the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party that leads the government in the province and which is also part of the national coalition, complained that they have not been included in the decisions. “Our main demand is that we should be included in negotiations,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a party official. “We don’t know with whom they are talking.”
More fighting and violence is almost certainly on the horizon. What the plan will be then, no one seems to know.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Tue, Jun 24 2008. 11 23 PM IST