Uniquely, Pakistan’s Army Not Involved in Political Transition

Defying predictions about its continuity in office and amid all sorts of political troubles, Pakistan’s ruling People’s Party led by President Asif Ali Zardari successfully completed its fixed term in office this week.

In the beginning and middle of its term, the administration faced resistance from various quarters. That made many political pundits wonder about the future of Pakistani democracy. But things did not become worse and visceral situations for democracy were politically managed by the parties. The Muslim country has found a new form of democratic competition: ideologically different political groups joined hands against their common enemy, the army. The leading parties acted in unison to protect Pakistan’s democracy against the possibility of another military coup. Read more “Uniquely, Pakistan’s Army Not Involved in Political Transition”

Border Incident Sparks India-Pakistan War of Words

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012 (MEA)

As usual, after the military tension at Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month, India and Pakistan have reengaged in a verbal spat.

The first causalities of the recent tension were senior citizens from Pakistan who wanted to pay a visit to India. Their visa request was put on “hold,” which in pragmatic terms means denied by the government of India.

The second victims were Pakistani hockey players who were in India for games. They were sent back to their country due to ruckus created by right-wing fringe elements during the opening ceremony of a tournament in Mumbai.

The third mistake was committed by Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik who suggested that India should provide better security for its famous film star Shahrukh Khan who was invited to Pakistan by a known terrorist. “We are capable of looking at the security of our own citizens,” said India’s home secretary, Raj Kumar Singh, in response. “Let him worry about his own.”

Khan wrote in Outlook magazine that he had sometimes “become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India.” The actor also expressed his concern about the rising sectarian sentiments in India where the majority Hindu and minority Muslim populations seem to be growing further and further apart.

Rehman Malik’s statement revealed that the Pakistani establishment, 65 years after the partition of India, still thinks of itself as custodians of India’s Muslims — an affront to the leaders in New Delhi.

The recent tension began with a border incident in early January when Indian and Pakistani army forces opened fire on each other at the Line of Control. The situation seemed on the brink of escalation when Indian media reported that a solider had been decapitated and abused by Pakistani troops. Nationalist and right-wing commentators and politicians in India demanded that Pakistan be taught a “lesson.”

One person who kept her cool was Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. She proposed bilateral talks almost immediately to prevent the situation from escalating further. She also demanded third party mediation to resolve the Kashmir dispute which many, including herself, seem to believe is the “core” of Indo-Pakistani bellicosity.

However, even if the Kashmir dispute were resolved, decades of antagonism and warmongering on both sides are unlikely to simply go away. India and Pakistan have been rivals since partition. In order to reach a long-term peace, Kashmir is but one issue that has to be solved.

Khar’s offer to talk was rejected by India, specifically because of the demand for third party mediation in the Kashmir dispute. The two countries agreed in Simla in 1972 to resolve the issue bilaterally. But Pakistan is now in a much weaker position. It has lost three wars against India and copes with a tribal insurgency in its western frontier region. It insists on the involvement of a third party in peace talks to provide a necessary balance.

India-Pakistan Engagement Set Back by Border Dispute

In modern international relations, states are expected to act rationally and responsibly. Looking into the behavior of South Asia’s great powers, however, it can hardly be said that the two act rationally and certainly not responsibly.

The region is in turmoil. The United States are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. The Taliban are hoping to return to power there. But instead of trying to meet those challenges, India and Pakistan were at it again in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The arguments are familiar. Pakistan wants the United Nations to look into an alleged breach of the ceasefire agreement. India does not. While the present standoff may not lead to another war, it does affect the pace of bilateral engagement between the two countries.

Trying to lay responsibility for the recent fray is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? Certainly on both sides of the border there are stakeholders who benefit from perpetuating the enmity between the two nations. As happened in the past, whenever there was a chance of engagement or a peace deal, some untoward incident derailed the frontier. Read more “India-Pakistan Engagement Set Back by Border Dispute”

Pakistan Releases Taliban for Role in Afghan Peace Process

An American soldier patrols the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan, February 25, 2010
An American soldier patrols the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan, February 25, 2010 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Nicholas Pilch)

During a recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul secured the release of several Taliban prisoners in an effort to push the political reconciliation process forward in his country. The announcement came only a few weeks after Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban prisoners during the visit of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to Islamabad.

Both countries have also agreed to provide a safe passage to travel for talks and work jointly to get at least key leaders of the Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.

Pakistan, through these talks, is attempting to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan and once again using the Afghan Taliban to facilitate it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban, whatever its past experiences with them, still form the only political faction in Afghanistan that could possibly ensure its interests there.

Pakistan, however, does not expect the Taliban to be capable of securing a military victory or controlling the country as it did before the 2001 invasion. It is unlikely that Pakistan itself would want to see complete Taliban domination in Afghanistan in the future either. A broad based government representing the various political factions, including the Taliban, would be more acceptable.

Thus, by showing an eagerness to assist the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking to secure a place for the Taliban in a future representative political setup without a protracted armed struggle that could see the insurgents completely excluded from the process.

At the same time, by maintaining control over the release of the prisoners, Pakistan can ensure that only Taliban members who are amenable to its interests get to play a prominent role in the talks. Hence its refusal to release Mullah Baradar, despite repeated requests from the Afghan government, as he is believed to be staunchly opposed to Pakistan.

Moreover, the playing of a “constructive” role in the process helps Pakistan achieve the additional objective of somewhat allaying the allegations of its duplicity in the Afghan war and thereby ease the international pressure on that count.

Pakistan has always wanted to play a role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation efforts and resented attempts to isolate it from them. Mullah Baradar, for instance, was arrested when he rouched out to the Afghan government on his own.

It is possible that the release of further prisoners or any assistance in the peace talks depends on Pakistan’s own sense of its level of involvement.

The belief that Pakistan would be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is based on the assumption that it holds a massive sway over the group. This influence may be overestimated. Pakistani relations with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the faction with which the Afghan government and the United States wish to negotiate, are tenuous at best and restricted to the provision of physical refuge. The relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government were similarly strained. It may not be possible for Pakistan to play a bigger role than it already is.

Pakistan’s significance lies more in its capability to play a destructive role than a constructive one. It is capable of scuttling the peace process and can stoke violence by supporting groups like the Haqqani network and engineer attacks against the government or foreign troops in Afghanistan.

It is therefore worrying that Pakistan has yet to provide access to the higher echelons of the Taliban leadership as demanded by the Afghan government. Nor has it released all of the high-profile Taliban prisoners which the administration in Kabul believes can play a crucial role in reaching a final settlement.

Any progress with Pakistan on these scores would be contingent on how both countries deal with their deep rooted mutual distrust. There is a widespread skepticism, even hostility, in Afghanistan toward Pakistan and its role in fomenting violence. The continuous volley of accusations back and forth of providing safe haven to insurgent elements and traditional border disputes flare up from time to time and could derail the progress.

Singh, Zardari Deserve Admiration for Détente

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8 (MEA)

The leaders of India and Pakistan are embroiled in scandals at home but can be applauded for at least keeping the dialogue between the two rivaling nations going.

Various scams have been unearthed during the most recent months of Manmohan Singh’s premiership in India. Several of his cabinet ministers are deeply involved. In Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari is in conflict with the judiciary for allegedly siphoning off public money.

Nevertheless, their governments have kept up negotiations, particularly about trade instead of more contentious and time consuming issues like terrorism and Kashmir.

In February, India’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma visisted Pakistan to finalize a trade agreement with his Pakistani counterpart. As a result, integrated border checks have been set up to facilitate and increase commerce. This month, the government of India allowed Pakistani investment, albeit in limited sectors of the economy.

No unfortunatele incidents have taken place since India’s external affairs minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Qureshi engaged in a verbal duel on the former’s first visit to Islamabad in 2010. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s incumbent foreign affairs minister, paid a visit to New Delhi soon after assuming her post and received a warm welcome there. The two explored the possibility of engagement on commercial instead of security issues which appears to be bearing fruit.

This month, Krishna paid his second, much anticipated second visit to the Pakistani capital, again focusing on trade issues but also hinting that Indo-Pakistani relations would not be held hostage by disputes over the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which India suspects were carried out with Pakistani assistance.

The main problem in Indo-Pakistani relations is not terrorism or border disputes, rather a lack of trust and, sometimes, outright hatred between the two sides. Tension will remain, no matter how many issues are resolved, if this mutual suspicion persists. Public debate in both countries unfortunately fuels the distrust, tempting politicians to toe the line of nationalists and radicals instead of improving bilateral relations through compromise.

Changing Indian and Pakistani perceptions of their neighbors is no simply task. The relationship has been marked by conflict since independence. But it is the only way to stabilize ties for the long term. It is the responsibility of leaders in both countries to take the first steps toward peaceful coexistence.

Haqqanis Classified as Foreign Terrorist Organization

After extensive dialogue and discussion within the Obama Administration, the State Department has formally placed the Haqqani network on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that the Haqqani network “meets the statutory criteria of the Immigration and Nationality Act for designation as a foreign terrorist organization.” The decision was reportedly made just two days before Clinton submitted her opinion to the Congress, illustrating how long it took the administration to wrap up the process.

On the face of it, designating the Haqqanis as a terrorist organization should have been an easy decision to make. The group is, according to American military officials in Afghanistan, the most sophisticated branch of the Afghan Taliban insurgency, responsible for the deaths of perhaps hundreds of servicemen and -women. Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed in bombings that Haqqani fighters planned and carried out. Many of them, including the July 2008 suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, have targeted Afghan government installations.

NATO central command headquarters, the United States embassy and Afghan ministries have all been targeted by Haqqani militants over the past three years, all of which have been embarrassing for the coalition as it attempts to secure the capital from insurgent violence.

Nevertheless, officials worried that a formal designation of the group would rankle the feathers of the Pakistani government which has maintained contacts with the Haqqanis for decades. Pakistan is now the closest it has ever been to the “state sponsor of terrorism” category.

The United States are loath to make the connection but the connection is there. The Obama Administration will now have to justify why Pakistan is not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Given the damning remarks that former American military officials have made on the Pakistan-Haqqani link, it will have to make that case quickly and effectively.

Will the label hurt the Haqqani group in any substantial way? The answer is debatable, for most of the group’s senior leaders are already designated as individual terrorists. The likelihood that the Haqqani business empire will now be targeted in the Persian Gulf, where most of the organization’s profits are made, has increased. Those who were previously working with the Haqqanis on financial matters may think twice about engaging in similar business transactions. But the ruling may not do much to stop the many businesses that Haqqani leaders conduct illegally, including extortion, illegal tax collection, kidnapping and smuggling.

Time will tell on whether the terrorist organization label will make it more difficult for the group to mount attacks in Afghanistan and shelter other militants in Pakistan. But if the past record is any indication, the Haqqanis will still remain a powerful force inside of Pakistan’s tribal regions, secluded from American and NATO ground forces.

Saudis Alarm Pakistan with India Outreach

The Washington Post reports that Saudi Arabia hopes to improve ties with India by deporting an Indian national who is accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and planning to extradite another.

“For years, India watched helplessly as many of its most wanted terrorism suspects traveled freely to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan with new identities and passports and without fear of arrest,” the newspaper writes. No more, it seems.

The deportations are part of a charm offensive on the oil kingdom’s part. After Saudi king Abdullah visited New Delhi in 2006, the two countries signed cooperation agreements in 2010 on counterterrorism, energy and narcotics. Last year, Riyadh agreed to double its oil exports to India to help it reduce its reliance on Iran.

Iran looms large over Indian-Saudi ties, writes Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest. The Saudis “want India’s help in putting pressure on Iran and are helping India replace any oil lost as a result of declining purchases from what Saudi thinks of as the hated Persian heretics.”

Western pressure on India to reduce its oil buys from Iran, which is suspected of developing a nuclear weapons capacity, has failed to produce much more than cautious statements of support from New Delhi. India is still highly dependent on Iranian petroleum exports.

As a key American ally in the Persian Gulf region and Sunni power in competition with Shia Iran for regional hegemony, Saudi Arabia fears that a nuclear capable Iran will upset the balance of power in its rival’s favor. Saudi officials have warned that if Iran reaches the ability to build nuclear weapons, their country will seek to attain the same.

India has not been able to escape the deepening fray between Iran and the West, despite its attempts to stay neutral. In February, an assassination attempt on an Israeli diplomat occurred in its capital, one for which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly blamed Iran.

Helping steer India away from its reflexive “nonaligned” opposition to Western power projection is another reason for Saudi Arabia to seek closer ties with India, writes Mead. It “helps clear the path for what many Saudis deeply hope will be an effective Western military strike that puts Iran in its place.”

The Saudi outreach to India is an embarrassment for Pakistan which India says was involved in orchestrating the Mumbai attacks. American military officials have similarly accused the Pakistanis of deploying Islamic radicals as instruments of their foreign policy which frustrates the NATO war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

“The Saudis are not turning their backs on Pakistan completely,” however, according to Mead.

Ties between the two countries are extremely deep. These two Sunni Islamic states that were aligned with Washington during the Cold War and that cooperated against the Soviets in Afghanistan have a lot of history together. Many observers believe that the Saudis provided financial support and other assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear program, and there are many indications that a range of prominent Pakistani politicians nurture close links with the Saudis, links from which they derive substantial benefits of various kinds.

All the same, policymakers in Islamabad will regard the Saudi rapprochement with their nemesis warily.

Despite the reopening of NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, American-Pakistani relations continue to unravel under the weight of American drone strikes into Pakistani territory and Pakistan’s reluctance to open more fronts against Islamic insurgents. It must seem in Islamabad that it is being abandoned by its allies.

Clinton’s Apology Reopens NATO Supply Route

Pakistan has agreed to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the deaths of Pakistani soldiers during an airstrike last November.

The United States spent an additional $100 million per month to transport supplies to the NATO mission in Afghanistan through Central Asia while the route was shut. The Salala raid, as Pakistan refers to the incident which touched off the closure, topped off a bad year for American-Pakistani relations.

“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton said in a statement that was issued by her State Department. Read more “Clinton’s Apology Reopens NATO Supply Route”

The Great Farce of Pakistani Politics

Recent developments in Pakistan have been variously characterized as a “judicial coup,” a “prelude to a coup” (or not, depending on the commentator), an anti-corruption crusade, a personality clash, a vendetta, an intelligence agency conspiracy and a military-judicial collusion. This plethora of views is best encapsulated by the conclusion to the poem The Six Blind Men of Hindoostan.

So six blind men of Hindoostan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceedingly stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

It is far too easy and a crude oversimplification to blame the “military” for Pakistan’s ills. The problem with Pakistan has always been systemic which is why history repeats itself time and again, usually as a farce, which is what this latest “crisis” is. Read more “The Great Farce of Pakistani Politics”

Coup Unlikely After Pakistani Prime Minister’s Dismissal

Pakistan’s supreme court on Tuesday disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani because he refused to investigate corruption charges against the president, Asif Ali Zardari. The decision was the outcome of a months long struggle between parliament and the judiciary.

President Zardari is known as “Mr 10 percent” because that is what he used to charge for local investments. He was also involved in blatant corruption during the premiership of his wife, the late Benazir Bhuttoo. By accident or choice, he became the head of the state in 2008 after Bhuttoo’s assassination the previous year.

For all the negative press surrounding corruption charges, the Zardari-Gilani years have also seen a major accomplishment for Pakistani democracy in the eighteenth amendment to the Muslim nation’s constitution which prevents the president from unilaterally disbanding parliament. For a country that has seen four military coups since independence and an extremely powerful executive, it marked a break with the past.

Power has also shifted during this government from the central province of Punjab to other parts of the countries which have traditionally regarded Punjabi dominance warily.

Another military takeover after Gilani’s ouster is unlikely. Chief of Army Staff General Parvez Kayani may be ambitious but the current political environment in Pakistan is not in his favor. The parties are determined to keep the army at bay. Elections are due in Pakistan and no party will like to destroy its prospect of coming to power. Pakistani civil society, which has struggled hard to rid itself of the legacy of President Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, won’t like to see a return to old ways either.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party and its allies continue to support President Zardari and favor a democratic solution to the present crisis. Shortly after the supreme court’s ruling was announced, representatives of the coalition met at the president’s house where they expressed their confidence in Zardari’s leadership. They are expected to nominate the incumbent textile minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin to replace the discredited prime minister.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the conservative Muslim League, has also called for a democratic transition. The centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former cricketer Imran Khan and popular with the country’s middle class, is expected to do so as well.

Pakistanis recognize the shortcomings of the current government but they also recognize the benefits of having a democracy. The majority would rather live under a democratic government, however imperfect, than see a return to military dictatorship.