Musharraf sent thousands of Pakistani troops to the Swat Valley earlier this year [PBS Frontline noted it was actually in November 2007, see yesterday's post for more details] to quell the campaign of violence launched by Swat’s “radio mullah.” According to the Associated Press, “The army claims it has dispersed thousands of his militant followers, but attacks persist. Last week, a roadside bomb hit a wedding party, killing 12 people.” Today’s funeral blast of a slain police officer is reminiscent of similar attacks targeting funerals in Iraq, the most recent one in Baghdad on January 2, 2008 that killed 36 people. Funerals are often targeted by militants because of the large number of people present at the gatherings.
Archive for February, 2008
Rashid ultimately blamed Musharraf for having an inconsistent policy toward extremists in Swat and in the tribal areas along the Afghan border – sometimes he appeases militants by offering truces and payoffs, sometimes he cracks down on them. The PBS Frontline episode was significant because it emphasized that these extremists don’t have the support of the people in the area – in fact, their campaign of violence and terror has largely caused the population to turn against these groups. However, the government’s inconsistencies and inefficiency only succeeded in demoralizing the populace. A newly elected coalition government, in my opinion, must regain the trust of the people, especially in the northern areas. Although there have been indications that the government might sit down and negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, the new regime must remember to practice consistency – not just with its own policies but with the actions of the military, who needs the support of the country to succeed in its campaign in the north.
The plot thickens. On Monday, news sources reported that YouTube, which is owned by Google, said that many of its users could not access the site for about two hours on Sunday because of an error caused by Pakistan’s efforts to block domestic access to the site. Pakistan subsequently rejected these claims, and Shahzada Alam Malik, the head of Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) told BBC News, “We are not hackers. Why would we do that?” The Financial Times noted, “According to reports, a command to reroute all Pakistani web traffic destined for YouTube was accidentally replicated by one of its upstream providers, Hong Kong-based PCCW, causing traffic to the site across much of the world to be redirected to a so-called ‘black hole’ for about two hours on Sunday. PCCW said yesterday that it was investigating what had happened but declined to elaborate.” The FT also cited statements by Abdullah Riar, Pakistan’s information technology minister, who called any global fallout completely “unintentional,” and further defended the country’s decision to block the website, noting, “We have a difficult situation in our country. If we had not stopped YouTube there would have been a bigger backlash. We have seen such reaction in the past.”
The Daily Times reported on Pakistani reactions to the ban, noting that although most condemned the “blasphemous act,” the majority criticized the government’s way of “dealing with the issue.” Human rights activist Nighat Saeed Khan told the news agency that any act of blasphemy against any religion was condemnable, but the government had no right to ban the entire website. She asserted, “I think the government should have complained to the YouTube website staff instead of blocking it.” A student at Government College University told the Daily Times, “This certainly is not due to blasphemous material on the website. It is because of all those election videos that showed what kind of free and fair elections Pakistan was conducting. You can find blasphemous contents all over the Internet. YouTube videos of the All Parties Democratic Movement’s February 16 rally and those against President Pervez Musharraf were relevant to the action taken by the government.”
The PTA also blocks websites that show controversial drawings of Prophet Muhammed, reported the Christian Science Monitor, due mainly to the twelve cartoons published in 2005 by a Danish newspaper that sparked riots and outrage among Muslims. The remnants of that incident still persists today. The Monitor noted, “In the latest in a series of demonstrations over the cartoons in Pakistan, hundreds of hard-line Islamists in the southern city of Karachi torched effigies of the Danish prime minister and the cartoonist on Sunday.”
Pakistan is not the only country that blocks YouTube – Turkey blocked the site after video clips allegedly insulted Kemal Attaturk, and Thailand and Morocco banned it last year. However, given the current atmosphere in the country, especially over the issue of free press and freedom of speech – could such a ban still have a detrimental impact on Pakistanis’ perceptions towards the government? Does the potential outrage over blasphemous video clips outweigh the potential/current outrage over freedom of speech issues? Do you agree with the government’s decision? [Image from AFP]
The event, all together, was an insightful talk on what should happen next in Pakistan. It seemed based on the questions following the panel talk that people are truly interested in where we should go from here – should a relatively moderate coalition government negotiate with extremist elements in the country? Can forces like Tehreek-e-Taliban be tamed? Moreover, what role does and should the United States play in this process? It is obvious that the U.S. has and will always have a strategic interest in the country – therefore, how can we further this interest and at the same time address the anti-American sentiment raging in the country? A great article in today’s LA Times, entitled, “Islamists’ Loss in Pakistan isn’t a U.S. Win,” reported that despite secular party wins in the parliamentary elections, Pakistanis are still unlikely to rally behind the U.S.-led war on terror. The news agency added, “To many Pakistanis, the armed confrontation with Islamic radicals remains ‘America’s war,’ one whose cost in blood has been borne by Pakistani troops with little perceived benefit to this country.” As a result, the new parties in power are pushing for a political solution to the problem, rather than the oft-used military solution.
The panel discussion, much like a Magic 8 ball, provided an “Outlook Good” depiction of the country’s future – do you agree or is that far too simplistic?
While a PPP/PML-N alliance may be the primary coalition in the government, it is not the only one. None of the country’s parties won a majority of the National Assembly, “and negotiations are continuing between rivals keen to forge a coalition big enough to hold power in the 342-seat parliament.” PPP has reportedly also been in coalition talks with the MQM, and, most notably, with the Awami National Party (ANP), the secular political party that essentially replaced the religious coalition, the MMA, in NWFP. On Saturday, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the top leaders of both the PPP and ANP agreed to form a coalition government in that province, since the two parties had gained a majority.
In my coverage of the results of the elections, I have so far neglected to highlight the significance of the MMA defeat in the NWFP. The religious coalition originally held 46 of provincial parliamentary seats, but only won nine on Monday – partly because of the religious parties’ boycott of the elections (with the exception of the JUI), and partly due to the voice of the people, unhappy with the poor governance demonstrated by the MMA. According to a significant piece in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, “It is an important development in the province nearest Pakistan’s tribal areas, known to host Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the new focus of US anti-terror policy. The ANP is expected to marshal all the province’s resources – police, politics, and the law – against extremism, whereas the mullahs had refused even to condemn suicide attacks.”
The Monitor interviewed some NWFP residents, who voted for the ANP not as a veto of religious politics, but as a desire for a government that is both fair and ethical. The Monitor commented on the significance of the province as a whole, noting, “As a province, it cannot set military policy – that is the job of the National Assembly and the Army. Nor does it play a direct role in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where militant warlords rule much of the territory; FATA policy is determined in Islamabad. Yet the NWFP is the first bulwark against the spread of terrorism into the heart of Pakistan, and under the mullahs’ watch little was done to check it.” A member of the ANP’s central executive committee, Lateef Afridi, reasoned, “Everyday you hear about a music store being bombed or such-and-such a place being attacked by the Taliban…That created a panic in the minds of the people.” Moreover, noted the Monitor piece, “The notion of negotiation [referring to negotiating peaceful solutions to the proposed military options in fighting the Taliban] is ingrained in the Pashtun mind – a legacy of the jirgas, or councils, that have ruled Pashtun tribes for centuries – and it has great popular support here. The MMA’s mullahs ran afoul of public opinion by abandoning such principles, residents say.”
Ultimately, the victory of the ANP and the subsequent PPP-ANP coalition in the NWFP is a marked change from a religious coalition that advocated Islamic law and poorly governed the province. What is more significant is that their success represents the success of the political process. In Pakistan, we have never allowed an election cycle to play itself out – on the national level the process has always been disrupted by coups, takeovers, and the like. In Monday’s election, the people of the NWFP, who themselves voted in the Islamic coalition, voted the MMA out of power. Democracy is not just one cycle of elections – it is the accountability of the victors after said elections. The success of the ANP within this context is therefore more noteworthy.
There are several noteworthy events coming up that I’d quickly like to highlight:
An op-ed in today’s Washington Post by Robert Novak further discussed this discrepancy. Although State Department spokesman Tom Casey publicly argued that Musharraf is still the president and expressed hope that “whoever winds up in charge of the new government would be able to work with him,” privately, U.S. diplomats “pushed hard against any effort to dislodge the retired army general who had just suffered a public rejection.” Ultimately, Novak commented, “No Pakistani expects help from Musharraf, who has been repudiated by the public and is not backed by the army now that he has removed his uniform. Only the State Department still takes him seriously.”
Would these coalition governments be as close of a U.S. ally as Musharraf? How vigorously would they support the U.S.-led war on terror, particuarly in relation to Afghanistan, and the subsequent conflict that has spilled over our own border? According to a Boston Globe op-ed today by Graham Allison, “The answer to each of these questions is as unambiguous as it is uncomfortable. A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizens’ views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States.” However much Pakistanis dislike Musharraf, they are perhaps more hostile to the U.S. According to Allison, “When asked to name the ‘single greatest threat’ to their country, 64 percent of Pakistanis named the United States. Historic archrival India, with whom Pakistan has fought five bloody wars, was second, well behind America.”
Ultimately, where does this all leave Musharraf? If the democratic government listens to the constituents who voted them into power, the Pakistani president is left out in the cold. However, if they heed to U.S. pressures and strategic reasoning, his role in the political process is still malleable. The question is, what do you think? This week’s poll, just three days after the much-anticipated elections, seeks to gauge your reasoning on this very pertinent question – What should Musharraf do? Resign, cut a deal with the new coalition government, or (God forbid) overthrow the Parliament and call for new elections. Is there another option? [Image from Reuters]
Note: Last week’s poll results reflected the national elections – PPP won, PML-N came in a close second, and PML-Q trailed with 20% of the vote.
I tend to be a realist, especially when it comes to Pakistan, and while I recognize the great achievements this week, I also acknowledge that the elections left the political landscape far from clear. As the Post noted, neither the PPP or the PML-N gained a clear majority and neither has put forth a concrete PM candidate, “thus opening the door to complicated coalitions and deals.” And lest we forget the political failings of both parties while in power in the 1990s. The NY Times reported, “American officials were particularly skeptical of Mr. Zardari, who has faced corruption charges in Pakistan and abroad and has come to his current position of leadership only through his wife’s death.” Former PM and PML-N head Nawaz Sharif also faced corruption charges during his two terms in power. Although both leaders agree essentially on opposing terrorism and cooperating with the U.S., the two parties have been long-time political rivals. Therefore, their recent talks of a Coalition government is both significant and remains contingent on whether they can put their historical differences aside for “a greater good.” So far, they have announced that they will take a new approach to fighting Islamist militants, “pursuing more dialogue than military confrontation,” reported the NY Times. They also pledged to undo the crackdown on the media and restore independence to the judiciary.
And what about the fate of Musharraf? The AFP reported Wednesday that the President has rejected demands to quit, calling instead for a “harmonious coalition.” The news agency added, “Musharraf was making his first official comments since Monday’s crucial parliamentary vote, which left him fighting for his political life after his allies suffered a heavy defeat.” Despite his call for this “harmonious” alliance, both Sharif and Zardari have called for his resignation.
The bottom line? The elections were only the first step – whether or not these parties can successfully address Pakistan’s multitude of problems remains to be seen. [Image from the NY Times]