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Dangerous Uncertainty in Pakistan

By: 
Junaid S. Ahmad
Date Published: 
January 28, 2012

With relations between Pakistan’s civilian government and military incredibly tense, speculation is ripe in the local and international media that the threat of a military takeover looms large. The military is allegedly buoyed by the support of the Supreme Court and the country’s business and political elite. It seems that the days of Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition government are numbered.

The tensions reached their tipping point on January 11th when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani alleged that the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were unlawfully interfering in a controversial court case involving the government. This essentially amounted to accusing the heads of the army of defying the constitution and the democratically elected government. The military was quick to retort that there would be “very serious ramifications” and “grievous consequences” if the government continued its confrontational posturing.

Later that day, the Prime Minister again found himself on the receiving end of the ire of the army when he sacked the Defense Secretary, retired General Nareem Khalid Lodhi. The Defense Secretary is a pivotal position since the person acts as the liaison between the military and the government. Mr. Lodhi was also a very close confidante of Pakistan’s Chief of Armed Services, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Mr. Lodhi’s dismissal stemmed from his support of the military in the “memogate” case. This court case revolves around the scandal that emerged from a memo written to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in the aftermath of the illegal raid by American forces at Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in the city of Abbottabad. The memo sought the help of the US government in order to topple the military leadership and to replace it with personnel that would be compliant with the wishes of the US. While the authenticity of the memo remains moot, its implications for the already volatile political landscape of Pakistan were explosive. Since the memo was made public, the government has been under severe fire, leading to a petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding the matter.

A clash of institutions followed where the PPP government tried to deal with the crisis internally, via a parliamentary committee to investigate the matter, but was sidestepped by the Supreme Court which decided to take matters into their own hands. The leader of the opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), filed a petition to the Supreme Court, which in turn claimed jurisdiction over the matter. The court enjoys the full support of the army leadership, as both Kayani and Lieutenant-General Ahmed Pasha, the Director-General of ISI, have filed briefs with the Supreme Court that support the court’s jurisdiction. The military’s indignation is not only rooted in their belief that the memo is treasonous but that it will severely dent the morale of the armed forces.

Hypocritical military

The ire of the military seems hypocritical since the military itself has for decades been in cahoots with Washington. It has been involved in proxy wars in Asia, especially in the Middle East, in exchange for the backing of the US. This US support has allowed the military to maintain its hegemonic position in Pakistani politics, as the US lent its full support to several military coups and dictatorships.

The Supreme Court’s confrontation with the government started well before the memo case, however. The Court, in recent weeks, has demanded that the government petition Switzerland regarding the reopening of corruption cases potentially implicating President Zardari. This National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) case, as it is known, is another cause for concern for the civilian government. The Supreme Court delivered a historic judgment in the case which withdrew immunity of thousands of politicians, including President Zardari. This effectively enables the courts to entertain corruption proceedings regarding government officials and politicians. The courts and the government have been at loggerheads over the government’s repeated assertion that the President enjoys constitutional immunity.

The Supreme Court made its intentions clear when it severely chastised Prime Minister Gilani regarding his failure to reopen the Swiss case. It also warned that he could be stripped of his title as Prime Minister if he continued to defy the Court. The Court went as far as to say that because Gilani has knowingly disobeyed the court and put his “party over the constitution”, “prima facie … he may not be an honest person on account of this not being honest to the oath of office.”

While Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikthar Muhammad Chaudhry has vocally proclaimed that the days of the Supreme Court rubberstamping the actions of the army are over, it seems that the Court has, intentionally or unintentionally, been providing judicial cover for another possible military take-over.

There is no denying that the NRO was an all-out unconstitutional and undemocratic document. It was the product of the Bush administration’s desperate attempt to broker a deal between then-President Musharraf and the PPP in order to ensure the reelection of the US-friendly Musharraf. However, the Court’s persistent pursuit of the NRO case is contradictory. While it has been more than happy to implicate politicians, and rightfully so, it has made no attempt to prosecute those in the military and bureaucracy who doctored the 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power.

American pressure

The failure of the government to combat economic woes, exacerbated by IMF-imposed austerity measures and the ‘AfPak’ war, has strengthened the military’s hand significantly. However, the PPP government’s ineptitude is not the only reason for the military’s latest intervention in Pakistani politics. Increased American pressure on Pakistan to “do more”, coupled with mass opposition to US foreign policy, has pushed the army to make sure it exercises untrammeled control over Pakistan’s relations with Washington.

The Pakistani elite also fear that the current government lacks the legitimacy and the ability to institute economic restructuring needed to win the confidence of the IMF and foreign investors. Furthermore, the Pakistani elite seem to be exasperated by the PPP government’s monopoly over corruption and patronage. This is a chronic disposition amongst Pakistan’s oligarchs, who feel that when a government is “too corrupt” its appetites need to be tamed and other elites need to retrieve their ‘fair share’ of the pie.

The PPP, it should be remembered, did not wholeheartedly back the mass protests against the dictatorship of President Musharraf, as its former slain leader Benazir Bhutto felt that the feelings of discontent would escape the party’s control and be directed against the Pakistani elite. This prompted the PPP to instead approach President Bush directly in order to convince him that the PPP would be a more suitable ally in the ‘War on Terror.’

Both the civilian government and the military high command are eager for cordial relations with the US. The alliance has been the bedrock of the geopolitical and class strategy of Pakistani rulers for the past six decades. These interests, however, have been undercut due to the mass antagonism to US imperialism. The increasingly deteriorating ties between the civilian government and the army have also acted as a roadblock for a united foreign policy from the Pakistani establishment.

Since coming to power, the PPP government has bent over backwards to please Washington, proving it is more pliant to US demands than the military or any other political party. However, it seems that the American government has not returned the favor. While it pays lip-service to the need for a democratic government, it continues to privilege the military as a key player in Pakistani politics, prompting the US to talk exclusively to the military top brass in major strategic discussions.

While US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that the Obama administration was concerned with the political developments unfolding in Pakistan and voiced support for a “democratically elected civilian government” in Pakistan, it is doing nothing to stem the tide against the government. The writing is on the wall as the courts and military, under the garb of constitutionality, push for the need for a transition to a supposedly “more representative government.”

Drone war

As Pakistan swims in perennial uncertainty, the US is launching drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This resumption of attacks comes after the NATO attack on a Pakistani military check-post in November, taking 26 lives. Following the uproar in Pakistan, the Pentagon conceded to the fact that errors were made, yet remained unapologetic about the attack – claiming it was justified under “self-defense”. The failure of the Obama administration to specify who was being targeted with the drone strikes brings home the fact that this is “business as usual” and that Pakistani sovereignty was subservient to the routine predatory interests of the US.

The drone attacks came after the New York Times published a report that claimed that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, among other insurgent groups, had been bolstered by the halt in American drone strikes. The article concluded that that the break provided an opportunity for a coalition between the Taliban and sympathetic militias based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Furthermore, it was claimed that the hiatus opened the door for a peace deal between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.

This article – and the larger imperial discourse it feeds into – acted as the perfect pretext for the US military-security establishment to push forward their bellicose agenda over and above those in the Obama administration, who were attempting to rebuild some trust with Islamabad.

While American security interests continue to justify the drone attacks as an efficient way of removing “terrorists”, the horrific human cost of the strikes is lost on the corporate media. The lack of any sense of morality or empathy is perfectly encapsulated in the impersonal nature of the attacks. Hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent villagers have lost their lives due to these assaults. The rate and intensity of the attacks can be gleaned from the report by the pro-US “Long War” website, which conservatively estimates that US forces carried out more than 180 drone missile strikes in Pakistan in 2010 and 2011.

Whether Obama has brought “change” to America is uncertain. But he certainly brought change to Pakistan – for the worse.

Junaid S. Ahmad teaches in the Dept. of Law and Policy, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan.