For the last month or so, most of South Asia has been transfixed on the situation in Pakistan. Except for minor diversionary hiccups involving the Islamic State and its victories in Iraq, the subcontinent’s media has been focusing on the shenanigans of Imran Khan and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri — before predictably losing interest and moving onto other things.
In Pakistan, the press found mundane stories to report, such as the forced deplaning of former interior minister Rehman Malik by the irate passengers of a Pakistan International Airlines flight that was delayed because of him. In India, prime ministerial visits to Japan and Chinese presidential visits to India grabbed the headlines while in Sri Lanka, a dispute with trespassing Indian fishermen quickly took over.
The waning interest, even in Pakistan, is symptomatic of the merry go round that is Pakistani politics. What we see is not any real movement to change the status quo but rather the usual shadowboxing of civil-military relations that is now in its umpteenth rerun. Read more “After Month of Unrest, Pakistan Back to Square One”
Pakistani general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani achieved rather little during his six years as army chief while his replacement this week brings back painful memories of past mistakes and missteps.
Kayani was General Pervez Musharraf’s successor as chief of Army Staff. When he took over in 2007, he was hailed, as is usual in the Pakistani press, as a reformer, a realist, apolitical and whatnot. By Pakistani standards he certainly was, given that the country had its first peaceful democratic transition of power under his watch. He is also credited with unverified reports of midnight diplomacy between politicians and judges to stave off a constitutional crisis.
But militarily he was no reformer. Pakistan’s green book, believed to be the core doctrine of army thought, retains its focus on India. This showed in Kayani’s conduct of counterterrorist operations. Pakistani troops remained just as deliberately ineffective in fighting the Taliban and other radical groups. Read more “Kayani’s Succession Follows Familiar Pakistani Pattern”
The BBC reported this week that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are “sitting ready for delivery,” raising the possibility that the oil kingdom acquires such weapons before its nemesis Iran does.
By all indications, Hakimullah Mehsud was a terrorist. Despite his relative inexperience as a youthful, if determined, low level fighter, the Pakistani impressed his superiors so much that in just a few short years, he became the head of a major branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s largest and most feared terrorist group. After a American drone strike killed its top commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the summer of 2009, the Pakistani Taliban’s leader met and selected the younger Mehsud to guide the group through a very challenging time in its history.
Through the use of suicide bombers, large-scale car bombings and coordinated attacks against Pakistan’s army and security forces, Mehsud’s status soon rose to an elite level within the jihadist ranks. While Pakistanis were his primary victims, he quickly gained the attention of the United States as well when a young Jordanian who was thought to be a promising intelligence asset for the CIA blew himself up inside of an agency base in eastern Afghanistan. That strike killed seven intelligence agents and was the worst attack leveled against the intelligence agency since the 1983 bombing of the United States’ marine barracks in Beirut.
After a delay of several months, the United States State Department’s annual report on terrorist activities worldwide — a document that was much anticipated in Washington DC — was released last week. If the final report is anything close to the summary, analysts will discover some interesting trends in the data.
Saudi Arabia is willing to loan as much as $5 billion to Pakistan’s new government, led by the conservative prime minister Nawaz Sharif who was elected to a third term earlier this month. Yet the alliance of the two Sunni powers is increasingly tested by their respective relations with India and Iran.
The Saudis seek to avert unrest in Pakistan, where the government last year posted a deficit equivalent to 8.5 percent of economic output, when they see the country as a hedge against their rival Iran. But it is Saudi trade with Pakistan’s own nemesis India that is booming.
India and Saudi Arabia traded goods and services worth $25 billion between them in 2011 when Pakistani-Saudi trade didn’t exceed $5 billion. Saudi Arabia is India’s main provider of oil while it has had to reduce sales from Iran as a result of international sanctions. Some two million Indian workers are employed in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is building a natural gas pipeline into Iran, a project that is opposed by both Saudi Arabia and the United States which have, so far in vain, tried to dissuade it from deepening trade relations with the Shia state.
Saudi Arabia even offered Pakistan an “alternative package,” Dawn newspaper reported last year, that included cheap oil and a cash loan. Pakistan’s foreign minister nevertheless insisted on building the pipeline “at any cost” in May of last year. Iranian gas could help ameliorate regular power outages which now sometimes last up to twenty hours per day, sparking protests and crippling industries in a country that is simultaneously struggling to suppress an Islamist insurgency in its western frontier region.
Help may yet come from another corner. China’s premier Li Keqiang suggested during a visit to Pakistan on Wednesday that the countries should expand cooperation “in connectivity, energy development and power generation.”
China, which sees India as a future competitor for primacy in Asia, also has a stake in propping up the administration in Islamabad. It is deeply invested in the construction of a port at Gwadar in Balochistan that would allow the import of oil from Persian Gulf producers which could then be transported into China overland via the Karakoram Highway, circumventing the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean.
Despite its shifting economic and strategic imperatives, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to sever relations with Pakistan altogether. It has been Pakistan’s staunchest ally in the Muslim world, backing it during its wars with India and opposing the secession of East Pakistan which became Bangladesh in 1971. It also collaborated with Pakistan and the United States in supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s when Saudi Arabia financed Pakistan’s military modernization. The kingdom was also the only country besides the United Arab Emirates to congratulate Pakistan when it first tested a nuclear weapon in 1998.
Retired Saudi officials have warned that if Iran attains a nuclear weapons capacity, which Arab and Western powers suspect is the aim of its uranium enrichment efforts, their government might seek to acquire such a capacity of its own. Since the United States, wary of proliferation in a politically unstable region, are unlikely to provide it, Pakistan would be the natural partner in such an endeavor.
The political tsunami that Pakistan’s Imran Khan promised, and was so sure of achieving, never came. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, fell almost a hundred seats short of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Muslim League which is now set to form a government.
The former cricketer’s meteoric rise in the past few years was perhaps the most notable feature of this month’s election. The massive turnout at his rallies in politically significant cities including Karachi and Lahore and the apparent appeal of his proclaimed “new Pakistan” led many to believe that he would be able to challenge the dominance of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League.
Two things seemed to work in Khan’s favor: his personal reputation and a general anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan. The latter was restricted not only to the People’s Party government but extended to the entire political system which included Sharif, a former premier. Khan exploited it well by focusing on issues that were bound to find a receptive audience. In particular, he launched a strong critique against corruption, the perks and privileges enjoyed by government officials, especially the unofficial exemption from paying taxes, and Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and the resultant drone strikes on its soil. Read more “Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out”
For the first time in its independent history, Pakistan witnessed a democratic transition of power last week. Despite Taliban bombings and scattered gun violence, millions turned out to vote in a powerful demonstration of democracy. That in itself was extraordinary, even if the outcome was unsurprising.
Opinion polls had predicted a conservative Pakistan Muslim League victory since February. The outgoing People’s Party government was marred in corruption scandals while former cricket player Imran Khan’s anti-establishment party proved unable to stage a major win based on the charisma of one man, winning even less seats than the former ruling party. Read more “Internal, External Challenges for Pakistan’s New Premier”