It has been quite an eventful few days for Pakistan. First, following the end of the lawyers’ “Long March” [see related post] this past week, the movement’s top leader, Aitzaz Ahsan promised more protests today. Although he did not provide a future date for these protests, “his comments indicated that the lawyers did not intend to ease their campaign for the restoration of the judges – a subject that threatens to split the new coalition government and hasten the demise of the unpopular president,” reported the Associated Press. Ahsan asserted to the news agency, “There will be other marches … there will be bigger marches.” The recent Long March, which culminated in Islamabad late Friday, “was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital’s history.”
How successful was this Long March and what purpose did it serve? According to the Daily Times, the march essentially “ended without any roadmap for future strategy leaving many, who wanted the leadership to announce an indefinite sit-in until the reinstatement of the sacked judges, flabbergasted.” The intent of this rally was to pressure the ruling coalition to restore the judiciary, a subject that has been both contentious and polarizing for the country since President Musharraf fired dozens of judges last year. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has already pulled his party members out of the Cabinet over the issue, and has subsequently allied himself with the lawyers’ movement. Like Nawaz, noted the AP, “The lawyers have said restoration of the judges should precede and not be linked with any changes to the constitution.”
Two Dawn columnists had very interesting takes on the Long March and the overarching issue today. In a piece by Irfan Husain, entitled, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose,” the columnist wrote,
The idealists out on Islamabad’s streets make the point that we cannot have real democracy without an independent judiciary. True. But equally, we cannot have an independent judiciary without democracy. So if the long marchers succeed in toppling the frail democratic government that is struggling to establish itself in Pakistan, who gains?
Husain goes on to write, “If the standoff between the lawyers and the government continues, and the resultant paralysis in Islamabad persists, I have little doubt that we shall soon hear voices calling for the army to take over yet again. Those left out in the cold, and those who have traditionally fed on the crumbs from the table of military juntas, are probably already sharpening their knives.” Another Dawn columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee expressed a similar sentiment today, [you can also read CHUP’s recent interview with him]. He asserted,
How much has this ‘long march’ which was not a march but a drive…burdened this deprived nation and its thirsty and hungry people? If street thinking or street power is to be believed, the funds for the lawyers’ movement and for this culmination have emanated from the coffers of Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brand of Muslim League, whose coffers were and are filled to the brim with the nation’s money.
In an assessment by the Daily Times today, the newspaper’s editors wrote, “The movement is clearly converging to confrontation with the PPP, which will create undue instability and hurt the economy currently being discussed in the National Assembly. After the PML-N ducked out of it, the PPP emerges as the sole custodian of the budget 2008-09, and the hardship it promises even as it tries to alleviate the suffering of the poor with concessions will weaken Islamabad’s will to fight all the battles facing it.”
We all obviously recognize the symbolism of Pakistan’s judiciary, the merits of the lawyers’ movement, and the wrong in initially firing the chief judges. However, at what point do we also recognize the detriment that such a movement is having on our nation’s economy? The potential detriment to the already fragile democratically elected coalition? Yes, the lawyers’ movement and their supporters want justice, but at what cost? This is not to say we should abandon such a cause, but instead reevaluate our approach.
Another noteworthy development from this weekend occurred on Saturday, when Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, a politician from Balochistan, announced that he would be “willing to represent only the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and not other Baloch forces, in talks with the government,” reported the Daily Times. However, Marri added that if the BLA asked him to talk to Islamabad, “as an elder of the Baloch nation,” he would present his terms and conditions as, “the Punjabis must vacate Balochistan.” He told the news agency from his Karachi residence yesterday, “The other issues are all domestic and could be discussed later on…I can coexist with a pig but not with a Punjabi.” Currently, no one knows who heads the BLA, a militant tribal organization whose stated goals include driving the Pakistani and Iranian military personnel out of the province, so that a sovereign Baloch government can be established. Although some suspect that Marri may be “the real force” behind this movement, he told the Daily Times on Saturday, “Why are you asking me to confess my guilt at this old age? If I were younger, I would not be giving you an interview. I have always said that the real fighters are the ones who are doing it with weapons. I wish I were younger so that I could go straight to the hills and fight for the Baloch cause.” Although not much media attention has been paid to the conflict in Balochistan, Marri’s comments this weekend exemplify the underlying tensions still evident in this province, and their potential ramifications for the entire country, [For more background on the Balochistan issue, read this past post.]
Finally, in other security-related developments, media outlets on Sunday reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send his forces into Pakistan “to fight militants operating in the tribal areas there.” BBC News reported, “His concerns about their increased infiltration into his country are shared by many of Afghanistan’s allies.” Moreover, such concerns were exacerbated further by statements released by Beitullah Mehsud and other Taliban-linked leaders, who have vowed to send fighters across the border into Afghanistan to combat Afghan and foreign forces, [see related post]. When asked to comment on these threats, Karzai told Reuters, “This means that Afghanistan has the right of self defense…When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same…” The Afghan president has long pointed to the Pakistani tribal areas as the root of the Taliban problem, although the BBC reported that his statements Sunday were the most harsh to date.
Karzai’s statements today were significant given the string of recent assessments on the situation in the tribal region. Last month, a spokesperson from NATO noted that attacks in Afghanistan rose by 50% compared to the same period last year, a development partly due, he said, to the recent deals between Pakistan and militants. This assessment was echoed in a recent Pentagon briefing by the top outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, “who criticized what he called the lack of pressure on militant groups operating from Pakistan’s tribal areas,” reported the BBC. According to the Washington Post, McNeill asserted during the press conference,
…although record levels of foreign and Afghan troops have constrained repeated Taliban offensives, stabilizing Afghanistan will be impossible without a more robust military campaign against insurgent havens in Pakistan.
The Post added, “McNeill criticized Pakistani efforts to crack down on that threat, and — offering his unofficial view — described the political situation in Islamabad as ‘dysfunctional.’ He also criticized efforts by the Pakistan government to negotiate peace deals with insurgents on the frontier, saying past agreements have led to increased attacks across the border in Afghanistan.” He told reporters, “What’s missing is action to keep pressure on insurgents.” For example, noted the Post, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani “has for four months failed to agree to attend a meeting that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have held in recent years on border problems.”
How has Pakistan responded to Karzai’s threat so far? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told media outlets Sunday that the country “would not tolerate any violations of its borders,” adding, “Pakistan did not interfere with other countries and would not allow any interference in its affairs.” BBC News quoted him stating, “We want a stable Afghanistan. It is in our interest. How can we go to destabilize our brotherly country?”
The question that remains is how can Pakistan respond to this mounting criticism of its government’s current policy with militants? Yes, there is pressure from Afghanistan and its allies to take a stronger hand with these militants, but there is also increasing pressure on this new democratically elected government to distance itself from Musharraf’s past policy with the United States. Moreover, anti-U.S. sentiment in the country only grows with incidents like we saw this past week, [see related post], making it increasingly more difficult for Islamabad to appease all sides.
If this post shows anything, it is that this new government is overwrought with issues that only promise to increase over time. Not only does Islamabad have growing tensions with Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States, but also a number of problems at the domestic level. What should the government address first? Moreover, what problem can this coalition ultimately solve?