News & Current Affairs

September 12, 2008

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

The residents of Sheikh Yasin camp are not celebrating the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president.

Taheer, a farmer now resident in the Sheikh Yasin camp
The army’s killing people because America gives it money to fight terrorists, so it has to show it’s doing something
Taher, a farmer now resident in Sheikh Yasin camp

They jostle each other as they wait for hand-outs of bread and queuing for soup, ladled out from huge vats under a canvas tarpaulin crusty with flies.

More than 2,000 people have fled to the camp to escape an army bombing campaign against the local Taleban in the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border. More civilians were killed than militants, they say.

For many Pakistanis, this is what the “war on terror” has brought: displacement and death. There is resentment and anger.

Double game

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high price that Pakistan has paid since 9/11, there’s no consensus in the country about how to confront Islamist militancy.

Now with a new president and a relatively new government, once again questions are being raised about the country’s counter-insurgency policy.

Pakistan’s former military leader Pervez Musharraf swung between military offensives and peace talks with militants.

Neither worked, and the general, although a key American ally, was accused of playing a double game by maintaining links with the Taleban.

It’s not clear if it will be any different under the new civilian President, Asif Zardari, who took the oath of office this week. During his party’s short six months in government, it has also tried both war and peace.

But at his inaugural press conference, Mr Zardari seemed to signal a new line. He shared the podium with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting the Taleban.

They pledged co-operation against the militants, something for which Washington has long been pressing.

‘America’s man’

“I think so far Mr Zardari has been more forthright and more articulate [than Musharraf] in his belief that the war on terror has to be fought with greater intensity and sincerity,” says Tariq Fathimi, a former ambassador to the United States.

“He has also been very categorical in stating that the war on terror is something that’s in the interest of Pakistan, and that must be something that pleases the Bush administration.”

resident of Sheikh Yasin camp

For Sheikh Yasin residents, the ‘war on terror’ has brought only misery

But for many in Pakistan, his performance has only strengthened impressions that he’s America’s man, and that’s a problem.

Most Pakistanis are opposed to their government’s participation in what they call America’s war. And a recent surge in US air strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s border region has not helped the new government.

“It is making things rather impossible for us,” says Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, “because when the people hear of an alien attack, nobody likes it, we’re talking about the sovereignty of our country.

“So we are fighting our war… and now we are asking the international community to help us.”

It’s not just the people – Pakistan’s army is also angry, and it’s still the country’s most powerful institution. Any new policy or approach by Asif Zardari would need its backing to be successful.

Analysts say the army is unsure about Mr Zardari but willing to work with him, especially if he can deliver clear parliamentary support for military action.

Pakistani soldiers in NWFP

The army is eager to get the government’s support

That source of popular legitimacy was sorely lacking under the previous administration. But the US air strikes complicate the relationship with the government.

“Within the army there is strong thinking that we are being let down by the government if it doesn’t respond,” says retired General Talat Masood.

“Because then, what would the people of Pakistan think about the army, which is just allowing national sovereignty to be violated in such a gross manner?”

There’s no doubt Pakistan is facing a huge problem of Islamic militancy. But many are convinced it can’t tackle this if it’s seen to be acting at America’s behest.

“Probably the only way to reverse it is to initiate a parliamentary debate,” says Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn Newspaper, “to have a home-grown policy to deal with militancy and religious extremism, which is somewhat de-linked from the American demand to have an international campaign against terrorism.

“Unless they are able to do it, it will be nearly impossible to deal with this menace of terrorism.”

Asif Zardari may have signalled that he’s willing to work closely with America. But as a democratically elected leader, he also says he’ll be directed by parliament.

How he handles that is crucial. His challenge is to truly make this Pakistan’s war.

September 6, 2008

Pakistan votes for new president

Pakistan votes for new president

Asif Zardari

Asif Zardari – one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians

Voting has started in Pakistan to elect a successor to Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president last month rather than risk impeachment.

The winner is expected to be Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Voting is being held in both the national and provincial assemblies.

The next president will have to tackle an Islamist insurgency and an economic crisis which are threatening the country’s stability.

Controversy

Mr Zardari was thrust into the center of political power by the killing of Ms Bhutto last December after which he became head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

WHO VOTES FOR PRESIDENT?
Total votes: 702
National Assembly 342 votes
Senate 100 votes
Four provincial assemblies 65 votes each
Winner needs simple majority of votes

What Pakistanis think

‘Master plan’ to save Pakistan

Q&A: Presidential poll

Send us your comments

Mr Zardari is regarded by many as the de facto prime minister and he is now almost certain to become president.

Our correspondent says that in recent months Mr Zardari has shown skill by forging a large coalition and using it to peacefully unseat the former military ruler, President Musharraf.

Mr Zardari is one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians.

For years he has been hounded by allegations of massive corruption – although he has never been convicted.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took his PML-N party out of the governing coalition last week, accusing Mr Zardari of breaking key promises.

Many in Pakistan fear the country is facing a return to an old-style politics of confrontation at a time when urgent action is needed to improve the economy and deal with a raging Islamist insurgency.

Juggling demands

Mr Zardari is seen as pro-Western and supportive of Washington’s self-declared war on terror.

Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s coalition with Mr Zardari did not last long

If he becomes president, he will have to juggle the demands of the United States, Pakistan’s powerful army, and strong anti-American sentiment in the country.

Our correspondent says Mr Musharraf tried to do that and failed. She adds that Pakistanis hope that Asif Zardari will have more success, but they see little in his past to encourage them.

The other candidates are Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge who has the backing of Mr Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who was nominated by the PML-Q party that supported Mr Musharraf.

In the Islamabad parliament, members of the upper house, the Senate, are voting first, followed by the lower house.

Voting is being held in a similar fashion in Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

There is only one round of voting and whoever has most of the 702 votes wins. Results are expected late on Saturday.

September 3, 2008

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Shots have been fired at the motorcade of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, although it is not clear if he was in the convoy at the time.

Two bullets from an unidentified gunman hit the PM’s car as he was traveling from Islamabad airport into the city, his press secretary told.

But security officials say the car was on its way to collect Mr Gilani.

Mr Gilani’s government is grappling with a growing threat from militants in the country.

It is not clear who fired the shots but Islamist militants based in Pakistan’s border regions have threatened to kill various government ministers, and have carried out deadly suicide bombings against army and government targets.

The incident represents a major lapse in security. In December former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed at an election rally in Rawalpindi.

Shattered glass

“I can confirm the prime minister’s convoy was fired upon while returning from [Islamabad] airport,” his press secretary Zahid Bashir told.

Bullet marks

Two bullets struck the window of one of the front doors

“The prime minister was coming back from Lahore. The firing took place on the Islamabad highway. At this point, we believe the firing was from a small hill on the roadside.”

A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said: “Of the multiple sniper shots fired on the prime minister’s vehicle, two hit the window on the driver’s side.

“However, because of the robust and comprehensive security measures, the prime minister and all the members of his motorcade remained unharmed.”

Television pictures showed the shattered glass of the driver’s door.

Officials say another car in the convoy was also hit by several bullets. There are no reports of injuries.

However, there was confusion when the interior ministry gave a different account of the incident, saying that Mr Gilani was not in the car at the time of the attack.

The government information minister, Sherry Rehman, supported that account: “The convoy was going to receive the prime minister,” she told state TV. “Those who had designs, have failed.”

Mr Gilani had been in Lahore to canvass support for Asif Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s widower, ahead of presidential elections on Saturday.

Ms Bhutto had been favorite to win Pakistan’s general elections and become prime minister for a third time before she was killed on 27 December. The elections were subsequently postponed until February.

Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the winners and formed a coalition with the PML-N party of another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Mr Gilani, himself a senior PPP member, became prime minister

The coalition broke up amid political acrimony late last month.

Confident

One of the biggest challenges facing Mr Gilani’s government comes from Islamist militants who control large areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Gilani

Mr Gilani became prime minister after February’s elections

The army has been engaged in a major operation in recent weeks in the district of Bajaur which is estimated to have displaced up to 300,000 local people.

This week the government said the Bajaur operation would be suspended during the holy month of Ramadan.

Last year militants grew increasingly confident and carried out a series of attacks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the country’s main garrison town.

And last month a double suicide attack at a munitions factory in the town of Wah in Punjab province left nearly 70 people dead.

The loose alliance of militants that calls itself the Pakistan Taleban claimed responsibility for the Wah incident, the heaviest attack on a military installation by a militant group in the country’s history.

Mr Gilani’s PPP and Mr Sharif’s PML-N have spent much of their time since February arguing over issues such as the power of the presidency and the reinstatement of judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf.

During that time the economy has taken a further battering, with the Pakistani rupee falling to an all-time low, while food and fuel prices have risen sharply.

August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

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