Why Pakistan’s Political ‘Crisis’ Isn’t One

December 30, 2010

President Zardari meets with MQM delegation

President Zardari meets with an MQM delegation to discuss their concerns.

Despite Chicken Little headlines declaring the government in ‘crisis,” the political negotiations in Pakistan are a natural part of parliamentary politics and, some analysts suggest, point to progress in the nation’s democracy.

The decision by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party to leave its seats in the federal cabinet – but remain on the treasury benches – has surprised political analysts who see the move as strategically questionable.

Leaders from the nation’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), have exchanged harsh words with the MQM following their decision. In fact, the two parties are historically less politically aligned than the MQM-PPP alliance, and many suspect that MQM, with 25 seats in parliament, would have less influence under a coalition headed by the PML-N.

Still, the government is taking MQM’s concerns quite seriously. President Zardari has forbidden party officials from speaking ill of coalition members, and has reached out to MQM chief Altaf Hussain to assure him that the PPP will address his party’s concerns. Sindh Home Minister Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, who earlier this month accused MQM activists of perpetrating political violence in Karachi, has offered to take a back seat to ease MQM concerns.

While some suggest that the move could result in mid-term elections, that does not seem likely. Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida notes that a no-confidence vote in the parliament is mathematically impossible without PML-N support, a position opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar has previously dismissed.

With the ongoing threat from extremist groups, a fragile – albeit improving – economy, and a struggling energy sector, one would not be surprised to see the PML-N decide to let the PPP finish its term if only to bolster their own chances in the 2013 elections.

Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, president of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce–USA, writes for Pakistan’s Daily Times that mid-term elections would be counterproductive at this late stage in the government’s tenure.

Mid-term elections will just be a game of musical chairs between the existing cadres of leaders but will cost the nation a lot of money and loss of productivity in the economy. There are only two years left in the term of the current government, which is not a long time to wait. During this time, the local bodies’ elections should be held so that an institution for future leaders is reinstated. These elections will be a litmus test of the nation’s choice for the next government in the province and Centre.

All things considered, it is not unusual to see internal coalition politics get messy, especially in countries with relatively young democratic systems. An editorial in today’s Dawn explains that the political dance is not unusual in coalition politics, and the way that all parties are handling themselves is encouraging.

With the PPP about a third of the way from having a majority in the National Assembly, the role of the supporting cast is crucial, and that was always going to be fertile ground for uncertainty. However, in a welcome sign that perhaps Pakistani politicians have matured somewhat, not a single political player of any significance has suggested his intention is to remove the government or perhaps even derail the democratic process.

Though the US is not a parliamentary democracy, I’m sure that President Obama can closely sympathize with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Zardari’s situation. Trying to hold together a coalition of politicians eager to demonstrate their independence and with their own political ambitions is no easy feat. That he’s managed to do so despite the challenges his government has faced is a testament not only to President Zardari’s staying power, but to an often underestimated political astuteness. As coalition partners negotiate, one things looks clear – the present government is navigating the tumultuous waters of democracy quite well.

Helicopters for Pakistan

December 23, 2010

Apache Helicopters

On Monday I wrote that the answer to whether or not the US can trust Pakistan can be found in the answer to a related question: Can Pakistan trust the US? Like an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, each side is searching for an equilibrium of cooperation despite a past of defections. The Tuesday New York Times article speculating that the US wants to expand raids over the Pakistani border didn’t help matters, instead seeming to confirm Pakistani fears of American duplicity. While the US immediately rejected the Times report, the US needs to give more than verbal assurances to our Pakistani allies. We need to give helicopters.

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Can the US trust Pakistan?

December 20, 2010

US President Barack Obama with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari

Following the release of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review last week, and then a New York Times article suggesting ISI involvement in the outing of the CIA station chief in Pakistan, some are wondering if Pakistan is a trustworthy ally in the fight against al Qaeda and other extremist militants. While many evaluate this question based on discreet metrics such as the number of Pakistani military offensives, a better way to find the answer is to ask whether the Pakistanis believe they can trust us.

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"Doing More" In Context

December 17, 2010

Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton, and General Cartwright at the White House

The White House released the unclassified “Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review” yesterday followed by a press conference. In addition to the conclusion that the US is making progress against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the review and statements of Secretaries Clinton and Gates point to a comprehensive and long-term partnership between the US and Pakistan as a fundamental part of American foreign policy.

Secretary Gates was explicit in his answers to Charlie Cook and others who pressed the officials on whether Pakistan was doing enough to target militant sanctuaries in the remote tribal regions along its Western border.

The growth of local security initiatives is helping communities protect themselves against the Taliban, while denying insurgents sanctuary and freedom of movement. At the same time, Pakistan has committed over 140,000 troops to operations in extremist safe havens along the border in coordination with Afghan and coalition forces on the Afghan side.

Though we believe the Pakistanis can and must do more to shut down the flow of insurgents across the border, it is important to remember that these kinds of military operations in the tribal areas would have been considered unthinkable just two years ago. And the Pakistani military has simultaneously been contending with the historic flooding that has devastated much of the country.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, echoed this sentiment on Twitter during the press conference saying,

It is only matter of time & operational capacity before we take on all terrorist, extremist & militant groups

It’s also important to note that Secretary Gates does not mention the need to do more only in regard to Pakistan’s military, but also mentioned this with regard to American troops.

I’d like to close with a special word of thanks and holiday greetings to our troops and their families, and especially to those who are serving in Afghanistan. It is their sacrifice that has made this progress possible. I regret that we will be asking more of them in the months and years to come.

Read in context, it is clear that Secretary Gates is praising Pakistan’s military for taking the fight to militant groups on the Afghan border and simply stating the obvious – the fight isn’t over, and there’s more to be done. The greatest obstacle to doing more is not a matter of will, but a matter of resources.

A military official in the US Embassy that spoke with David Ignatius agrees:

The U.S. military official, standing at his map, says Washington should realize that the Pakistanis “are unable to conduct significant new operations without additional troops. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality.” This official notes that the Pakistani military has lost 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers fighting the extremists, with three to four times that many wounded. Civilian casualties are in the tens of thousands. If America experienced this level of casualties, he says, “we would probably call it a second American Civil War.”

Much of the doubt about Pakistan’s willingness to fight these militant groups comes not from the actions (or lack thereof) of Pakistan’s military, but from concerns leftover from the Musharraf era. Gen. Musharraf had forged close ties with then-President George W. Bush while covertly continuing support for domestic militant groups who he considered strategic assets as proxy fighters against India in Kashmir.

But Pakistan’s policy toward militant groups took a dramatic change with the election of the present democratic government according to Secretary Clinton.

If you had – when we came into this administration, we had very little in the way of an understanding with Pakistan that the extremists who threatened us were allied with extremists who threatened them, and that in effect they were creating a syndicate of terrorism. And in fact, when we came into office, the Pakistanis had agreed to an ill-conceived peace agreement with the Pakistani Taliban that was consistently and persistently expanding their territorial reach. And we pointed out firmly that this was not a strategy that would work for them, and in fact we had very strong objections to it because it would provide greater and greater territory for al Qaeda and their allies to operate in.

So what happened? The Pakistanis took an entirely different approach. They moved, what, 140,000 troops off the Indian border. They waged an ongoing conflict against their enemies who happen also to be the allies of our enemies. They began to recognize what we see as a mortal threat to Pakistan’s long-term sovereignty and authority. That was not something that was predicted two years ago that they would do. They’ve done it.

The consensus in the White House and the Pentagon is clearly in favor of Pakistan’s efforts to target and defeat radical militants within their borders. While this is a relatively recent development, a change that coincides with the election of the democratic government in Pakistan, the country has made great sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and continues to do so. Unfortunately, the fight is not over. Though American and Pakistani forces are doing much to win this fight, there is more to be done before we will see peace. Working in close cooperation, though, we can be assured that the security of Pakistan and the world will be defended from extremist militants, and peace will return to South Asia.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, 1941 – 2010

December 14, 2010

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke with children in Pakistan

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke with children in Pakistan

America, Pakistan, and democracy all lost a close friend last night when Ambassador Richard Holbrooke died last night at age 69.

Ambassador Holbrooke truly loved Pakistan. When he visited the country, which was often, he did not hide out in diplomatic enclaves. He introduced himself to and listend to the people. I was always impressed with how often photos from his trips included snapshots of him with groups of children. New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof noted that in his work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke knew that peace could not be achieved through military means alone, that it required economic development that would provide a future for the next generations. Ambassador Holbrooke knew that his legacy was with those kids – it was their future that he fought for until the very end.

Ambassador Holbrooke’s life is a lesson of service not only to his country, but to the cause of democracy and justice throughout the world. In his work, Richard Holbrooke represented the best of American foreign policy – a dedication to democratic principles founded in a deep respect for the people’s right to choose their own leaders, to lead themselves. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remembered Ambassador Holbrooke as “the consummate diplomat, able to stare down dictators and stand up for America’s interests and values even under the most difficult circumstances.” Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab in Pakistan, wrote last night that he “will always remember [Ambassador] Holbrooke as the man who saved the Muslims of Bosnia.” Ambassador Holbrooke was no imperialist. He may, actually, have been one of the greatest anti-imperialists of all time.

As we pause to remember Ambassador Holbrooke, let us remember him not for his well-known reputation as a tough negotiator, but as a man who was driven by an unwavering belief in the values of democracy and justice – not as American values, but as universal values, as Pakistani values; a man who worked tirelessly until his very last fighting tyranny across the world not for fame or fortune, but so that the children who sat at his feet in villages across the globe would have the opportunity for a brighter future – one which they, themselves decided.

Strong US-Pakistan Partnership Benefits Both Countries

December 13, 2010

A strong US-Pakistan partnership can and should benefit both countries. That was the message of Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, at a speech before the City Club of Cleveland last week.

Haqqani pointed out that Pakistan is a nation of 180 million consumers and is about twice the size of California.”Such a country needs goods, services, infrastructure, motor vehicles, railway wagons, passenger aircraft, a communications network, power stations, dams, bridges and roads etc,” he said.

Pakistan offers tremendous economic opportunity. Even in these difficult times many multinational US companies are doing good business in Pakistan, Haqqani said.

There were also larger political dividends to the US investment in Pakistan, the ambassador argued while remarking that Pakistan is one of the few genuine democracies in the Muslim world.

While US-Pakistan relations tend to focus on discussions of security, the fact is that broad cooperation between the two nations can have wide-ranging positive impacts. Pakistan’s economic potential remains largely untapped by American investment and ingenuity. While the security and stability of Pakistan’s democracy will continue to be a priority, we must begin to look beyond short-term goals and act on long-term opportunities that will help secure economic and social partnerships well into the future. For both countries, that’s a winning plan.

President Zardari Calls for Review of Blasphemy Laws

December 12, 2010

President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, called for a full review of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and necessary action taken to protect the rights of religious minorities reports the English-language daily Dawn.

MPA Pitanbar Sewani, speaking at the meeting on ‘Communities vulnerable because of their beliefs’, organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the president had responded to a point raised by him during a meeting held at the Sindh Chief Minister’s House.

He said he had raised the issue with the president that the blasphemy law was being misused and was a cause of harassment to the minorities and that it might be amended.

He said the president said: “The federal government may examine it and take necessary action.” And that action on this was to be taken by the federal law minister.

President Zardari has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities during his two-year tenure. Speaking on ‘Minorities Day’ in August, President Zardari reminded people of the sacrifices made by Pakistan’s minorities and their vital role in founding and building the nation.

“The Quaid’s vision is contained in his historic speech on this day in 1947 that laid down the foundations of a modern, tolerant and progressive Pakistan in which everyone will have equal rights regardless of creed and gender.”

In his 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, stated that, “the first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State.” He went on to express a vision of Pakistan’s future in which “all these angularities of the majority and minority communities…will vanish,” and made clear his belief that Pakistan was founded on the principle that “there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another.”

President Zardari’s call for a review of the blasphemy laws and the protection of religious minorities demonstrates a courageous political move amidst increasingly violent threats from Pakistan’s right-wing religious lobby. That his call to action is a reflection of the vision of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah is not lost on the world community, and we fully support President Zardari’s move to protect the rights all of Pakistan’s citizens equally under the law.

Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws Institutionalize Injustice

December 11, 2010

Pakistanis protest the country's blasphemy laws

The case of Asia Bibi has commentators in Pakistan’s media speaking out against the nation’s blasphemy laws, archaic leftovers from Gen. Zia-u-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a relic more of Zia’s strategy to secure his grip on power than any personal religious zeal.

While no legal execution has occured under these laws, dozens of individuals are sitting on death row, and over a thousand people have been convicted of violating these laws. Worse, the laws are often used to justify violent acts of vigilantism. The threat of accusation, conviction and death hangs over the heads of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

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Supporting Democracy & Stability Key To Reducing Corruption

December 10, 2010

Transparency International makes headlines every year when they release their Corruption Perception Index.

The causes of official corruption are many – from historical roots that can be traced to the Mughal empire to the pervasiveness of petty bribery in daily life. Earlier this week, however, Transparency International identified one are of particular interest: political instability.

This is not an uncommon problem. A study of political corruption in Africa pointed to a situation that may be familiar.

From east to west, the pattern is drearily repetitive. Keep just enough at home to rig the next election/pay off the army/build a garish palace (complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool and helicopter on the lawn). Stow the rest in offshore bank accounts in Uncle Binzi’s name, buy flats in the most expensive districts of Brussels, Paris and London – the kids, after all, will need a base in between terms at Eton and Harrow – and set up a handful of offshore companies. Whatever you do, get the money out of the country and never bring it back.

Africa’s history of political instability has also played its part. Presidents who knew they could be overturned at any moment rushed to steal as much as they could in the time available to them. In Nigeria, the post-independence elite initially invested their new-found wealth domestically, only to see those assets appropriated by incoming administrations. The likes of the late General Sani Abacha, who sent an estimated $4bn abroad, were careful not to repeat the mistake. “The thinking is always: ‘I am certain to be probed once I leave power, so I had better put everything abroad’,” says a Nigerian banker.

It’s widely suspected that Gen. Musharraf’s London lifestyle is financed in part by funds siphoned from US aid to Pakistan. And he’s not the only former Pakistani leader to face exile, and not the only one accused of funding his exile with looted funds. Former Prime-Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto both lived in exile, and both suffered accusations of official corruption.

We learned from the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks that Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, has asked the United Arab Emirates to allow his family to live there in the event of his death, an event he believes would not be accidental. His concerns are not without merit. A popular theme in the Pakistani media during 2009 was the “Minus One Formula” – an alleged plan by the military to remove Zardari from power.

In the US, we put our ex-Presidents to pasture on book tours and lecture circuits. Pakistan’s political leadership has historically faced less attractive options. Knowing the stakes, it would be irrational for Pakistani political leaders not to make decisions to ensure their self-preservation – decisions that may involve engaging in some level of official corruption as a means to establishing a foreign safety net in the event of a coup. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it a reality.

All of this, of course, reinforces the need to support the democratic process as key to reducing corruption and the perception of corruption in Pakistan. Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida writes for the English-language daily Dawn that Pakistan still lacks political stability and the threat of military intervention, while weakened, still looms in the background of Pakistan’s domestic politics. His solution – stabilizing the nation’s contentious democratic process.

Official corruption is not a problem unique to Pakistan. A recent BBC report claims that the entire world may be more corrupt than it was three years ago. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, says the government considers corruption a form of terrorism, and is taking action to eliminate it throughout the government. Without the assurance of a stable democratic system, though, the temptation to engage in corruption as a means to create a safety net will endure. The US has many options when it comes to helping Pakistan eliminate corruption – the first should be working to ensure a stable and enduring democratic system. Without that foundation, progress will be hard to come by.

Pakistan's People Should Decide Their Own Future

December 4, 2010

Pakistan elections

According to information contained in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, several countries have been working behind the scenes to influence the direction of Pakistan by undermining the democratic government. While the nature of international diplomacy involves influence and persuasion, these nations have been carrying out covert programs intended to destabilize and, in one case, determine the government of Pakistan. The US must support the right of the Pakistani people to choose their own government, and use its international influence to convince other nations to do the same.

According to the leaked diplomatic cables, Pakistan’s then Director General of Military Operations, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, presented evidence to members of Pakistan’s parliament that he had evidence Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates were directly involved providing support to Baloch separatist groups. Other cables reveal that these three countries are not the only ones attempting to interfere with Paksitan’s sovereignty.

Perhaps the most disturbing example is a cable that reveals that Saudi Arabia has attempted not only to influence the Pakistani government, but to overthrow it, the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, saying in 2007 that “We in Saudi Arabia are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants.”

According to Guardian reporter Declan Walsh, the Saudi’s prime motivator appears to be ethnic and sectarian bias.

The anti-Zardari bias appears to have a sectarian tinge. Pakistan’s ambassador to Riyadh, Umar Khan Alisherzai, says the Saudis, who are Sunni, distrust Zardari, a Shia. Last year the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, told Hillary Clinton that Saudi suspicions of Zardari’s Shia background were “creating Saudi concern of a Shia triangle in the region between Iran, the Maliki government in Iraq, and Pakistan under Zardari”.

Whatever the excuse, neither the Saudis nor anyone else but the Pakistanis themselves have a right to determine their government. This, of course, includes the United States ourselves. As a far more cooperative relationship between the US and Pakistan than is often thought.

Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida writes that once you move beyond the rhetoric and “the myth of American influence in Pakistan,” the real issue is that Pakistan’s democratic government is new and fragile.

Various power centres with differing interests competing for power, some centres more powerful than others, but none so powerful as to always dictate the course of history — that, more than a great puppet master at home or abroad choreographing the dance of chaos, is what best describes power politics in Pakistan.

This is where the US can play an important role in protecting Pakistani sovereignty. The United States should use its influence to stop India, Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and any other nation that attempts to influence Pakistan’s internal affairs. Pakistan is a sovereign, democratic nation and the people of Pakistan must be allowed to decide their own future without undue influence from foreign interests.

What the Pakistani government needs is not influence from the outside, it needs space to work and grow on its own. By using our influence in the global community to help provide that space, the US can help ensure the people of Pakistan are masters of their own fate. In the long run, doing so will protect not only Pakistan’s security, but our own.