Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pakistan and America

Pakistan transformed, really?

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Looking at the election results of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province that hugs Waziristan and Afghanistan, a region notorious for the Taliban and Al-Qaida sanctuary and terrorists’ breeding ground, one might wonder if the earlier intelligence that the whole region has been permanently radicalised and is in the grip of Islamic diehards was nothing but a morbid exaggeration. Religious fanatics do not give up their extremist belief simply because of violence and economic hardship and seek change through the ballot box as the NWFP people have done along with the rest of Pakistan. Wherever there is a free election, people vote in their self-interest. Jihadis have more to fear the ballot box than missile attacks from the United States.

Only five years ago, the frontier people, a majority of them hardy Pathans-Pashtuns who straddle the Khyber Pass and have a shared ethnicity with most Afghans, voted into power an alliance of religious parties, MMQ, letting it form a government dominated by pro-Taliban clerics. With their significance presence in the national parliament, many analysts feared that the MMQ’s influence would spread to the rest of Pakistan. It seemed extremely worrisome that the Taliban and Al-Qaida had finally established a permanent base, a fortress of power from where they would rule the whole region and which would become the source of an endless global supply chain of terrorists.

Although Punjab dominates Pakistan in many ways, the self-governing autonomous region had increasingly become a vortex of chaotic power, a blend of extremism and tribalism, beyond the control of the central government.

The greatest worry has been that the extremist virus might infect the younger madrasa-going generation, about which one might say that the jury is still out. Perhaps because of the Musharraf government’s restrictions on political activities by two major political parties, Sharif’s Muslim League (ML-N) and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistanis had limited political choices, which they exercised by voting for Islamic parties or Musharraf’s own political faction of the Muslim League (ML-Q).

It is argued that Musharraf’s thinking that the military must supple the country’s capable political leaders that could guide and control political processes, did not work out and might have encouraged the spread of extremism by weakening the moderating forces of the two major political parties.

Partly because of the Pakistan military’s ambivalent attitude towards the Taliban, and some delusional miscalculation that it could still be used to influence events in Afghanistan, large areas of the border region, especially in Waziristan, turned into a suicidal war zone, which has made the life of the people a living hell and tied down thousands of troops in a bloody and humiliating hit and run enterprise.

Last week’s ballot showed that voters were not enamoured of Islamic extremists’ ideology and preferred to choose secular parties, including the Awami National Party and Bhutto’s PPP, who are likely to form a provincial government. The challenge before the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, leader of Muslim League (N), and Asif Ali Zardari, PPP’s new leader, as they push and shove to form a coalition government, is twofold. First and foremost, how to cooperate wholeheartedly with the United States and NATO in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaida, who are using the tribal region as their hideout and training camps for keeping Afghanistan in a state of perpetual turmoil and have been extending their tentacles into the rest of Pakistan. During the US presidential primaries, the three leading candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barak Obama of the Democratic Party and Senator John McCain of the Republican Party have expressed their differences about the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but they have been firm in dealing with the Taliban and Al-Qaida in Pakistan. Sen. Obama even suggested bombing the tribal areas of Pakistan if it did not fully cooperate with the United States.

Benazir Bhutto was reported to have no objection if the US troops operated from Pakistan’s territory in hunting down the Taliban and Al-Qaida. The new leadership of Pakistan cannot afford to belittle the US interests in the region, including Afghanistan and Central Asia. The second major issue of course is the fate and the political role of President Musharraf, whose political party, Muslim League (Q), got a terrible beating at the poll, including the defeat of its 23 cabinet ministers. Benazir had agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with him, which allowed her to return to Pakistan, unfortunately, as it turned out, to meet her tragic end. Mr Sharif, who returned from his Saudi exile but was barred from fighting elections, is at present dead set against any accommodation with Mr Musharraf and wants him to be impeached. Bringing back the old judiciary hastily might aggravate the situation and trip the apple-cart.

If the coalition has a two-third majority in parliament, Mr Musharraf could be impeached but whether it will be politically wise to do so is a different matter. The greatest need of Pakistan today is to form a secular, progressive government with a strong economic agenda that can sustain the remarkable economic growth of more than six per cent achieved during the last several years of the Musharraf administration; and resume the dialogue with India to bring peace and stability to the entire subcontinent.

The continuation of Mr Musharraf as President albeit with diminished political role will allow the diplomatic, economic and political processes to continue, apart from assuring the United States that war against terrorism will not be adversely affected. There is no indication that the Bush administration has lost its confidence in Mr Musharraf (and the Pakistan military), and whoever occupies the White House next January will build upon the gains of the Bush administration and increase the US influence with the civilian government as well as the military establishment, where Mr Musharraf continues to have a loyal and powerful network.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University and is working on a new book, This is the American Way)

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