January 22, 2021
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Dropping Off The Edge

The collapse of Pakistan's five-month old coalition on August 25, 2008, a week after General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf resigned as the President, has not only enlarged the political vacuum in Islamabad but has also aggravated the multiple insurgenci

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Dropping Off The Edge

The collapse of Pakistan’s five-month old coalition on August 25, 2008, a week after General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf resigned as the President, has not only enlarged the political vacuum in Islamabad but has also aggravated the multiple insurgencies across the length and breadth of the country. In the long run, the developments of the past weeks are bound to have immensely dangerous ramifications for the entire political and economic structure of Pakistan.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced, on August 25, that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), had decided to quit the coalition due to differences with its coalition partner, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), on the issues of the reinstatement of deposed judges and the unilateral nomination of PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari as a presidential candidate. In a combative mode, Sharif told the media in capital Islamabad that the PPP had not honoured promises, in particular, on the issue of the judges. "When written documents are repeatedly flouted, trust cannot remain… We cannot find a ray of hope," he said, an indication that the pull-out could be irreversible.

The PPP leadership reportedly has fears that, if all the judges sacked by Musharraf in November 2007 are reinstated, some of them may invalidate an amnesty which led to the return of Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan in October 2007. Among others, the amnesty had absolved Zardari of multiple corruption charges. Any undoing of the amnesty agreement would now leave Zardari open to prosecution on these long-standing charges. The powerfully independent minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry was among approximately 60 Supreme Court and High Court judges suspended by Musharraf. Zardari has, unsurprisingly, indicated that he does not want Chaudhry back on the bench. On its part, the PML-N has said that Zardari, in failing to agree to Chaudhry’s reinstatement, has broken a written agreement made with Nawaz Sharif on August 7 to restore the judiciary to its pre-November 3 position.

The PPP has sufficient support in the National Assembly to maintain a simple majority, but with the PML-N now on the Opposition benches, the government under Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani will incline to instability. The PML-N has nominated its own candidate, Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a former Chief Justice, to challenge Zardari in the September 6 presidential election. Also in the fray is the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) candidate Mushahid Hussain Sayed. The Electoral College comprises members of the two Houses of Parliament – the National Assembly and Senate – and the four Provincial Assemblies. Hectic political activity is currently underway in Islamabad and elsewhere in the country in the run-up to the election. Immense acrimony has also now crept into the political discourse, a natural outcome of the fact that the PPP and PML-N, historical rivals, had just momentarily buried their differences. With the removal of their common opposition to Musharraf as the adhesive to their coalition of opportunity, both parties are back at their competitive best.

This bitter politicking pushes Pakistan into further turmoil and will only intensify the socio-political faultlines and exacerbate militancy. It will also deepen the ramifications of the current economic gloom, and bodes ill for the country’s future stability. An expanding vacuum will suit the already emboldened Taliban-al Qaeda combine, which has not only augmented its presence and activity in its existing strongholds, but is also gradually bringing the war to urban areas and hitherto stable parts of the country.

A survival-fixated government led by Gilani has also come under immense and multiple pressures. Prominent among these is the enduring militancy across the country and the concomitant failure to stem the progression of entrenched forces of extremist Islam. In 2008, so far, it has been unambiguously demonstrated that the flag of extremist Islam continues to flail vigorously and violently across Pakistan, even as state agencies appear less in control, and more vulnerable. There have been some 3,220 militancy-related fatalities across Pakistan in 1,810 incidents in 2008 (data till August 31). This includes 1,118 civilians, 451 security force (SF) personnel and 1,651 militants. By comparison, the whole of 2007 witnessed approximately 3,599 killings, including 1,523 civilians, 597 SF personnel and 1,479 militants. In fact, August 2008 with 1,247 fatalities, including 339 civilians and 784 militants, has been the most violent month on record (according to the ICM database). [It is useful to reiterate that, given Islamabad's understated accounts, the suppression of the Press and erratic reportage from all the conflict zones, the actual numbers of fatalities could be considerably higher than those indicated above].

All the peace processes initiated by Islamabad in the aftermath of the elections and installation of the new government have collapsed, and reports now indicate that massive operations have been initiated by the Army in virtually the entire militancy-affected zones in the NWFP, FATA and Balochistan. Rehman Malik, the Prime Minister's Advisor on Interior Affairs, has rejected the Taliban offer of a cease-fire and vowed to continue military operations against militants without any concessions. Whether this constitutes a decisive course correction or is merely a continuation of the flip-flops that have dominated Pakistan counter-terrorism strategy remains to be seen. 2128 people have been killed in the conflicts across the country since Gilani assumed office as Prime Minister on March 25, 2008.

Militancy-related Violence in Pakistan
April-August 2008

* Between March 25-31 

It is not only the security situation that has deteriorated under the new government. Pakistan is also facing a severe economic crisis. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, "the cash outflow to pay debts, depriving the country of $350 million to $400 million each week from its reserves, is pushing the country fast towards the old days of 1998-99 when it was about to default." Analyst Syed Fazl-e-Haider notes that "Since the beginning of this year, the local currency has lost value against all major international currencies, declining as much as one-fifth against the US dollar." According to him, "The economy is virtually in a shambles. In July, the first month of the current fiscal year, the current account deficit rose to $1 billion, compared with $816 million 12 months earlier. Low inflows have made it difficult for the country to arrange more dollars for external payments."Daily Times reports that foreign exchange reserves have fallen to USD 9.9 billion in August 2008 from USD 16.7 billion in June 2007. Last week, international rating agency Moody's Investors Service said Pakistan risked a further downgrade of its "B2" sovereign credit rating due to the decline in foreign exchange reserves. "If the government remains unable to govern effectively, then discordant policies and their weak implementation could further set back investor confidence… This would damage Pakistan's balance of payments stability as well as the government's fiscal financing prospects," the US-based ratings company said. And the government, which has other ‘pressing concerns’, appears to have little time for economics.

In an interview with the BBC published on August 24, Zardari said Pakistan and the world were losing the war against the Taliban. "I think at the moment [the Taliban] definitely have the upper hand," he said. And the war is stretching from the tribal areas to Pakistan’s urban centres. In the recent past, militants have targeted Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta and Karachi, among other towns and cities. On August 21, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) in the high security cantonment town of Wah, around 30 kilometers from capital Islamabad, killing at least 70 persons in what was described as the deadliest attack on a military installation in the country’s history. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack. The POF at Wah is a cluster of about 20 industrial units producing artillery, tank and anti-aircraft ammunition for the Pakistani armed forces. It employs around 25,000 to 30,000 workers.

There is now considerable evidence that the proscribed militant groups have re-grouped and are gradually beginning to re-emerge openly. On August 21, Daily Times reported that some groups were reopening their offices in Karachi. The Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT, which is also known as Jama’at-ud-Da’awa), had an office at Salman Terrace, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, near the National Stadium, but it was closed after the ban (in January 2002). However, the LeT has opened a temporary office at the Jamia Darasat al-Islamia, opposite Safari Park in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and after Musharraf’s resignation, the office at Salman Terrace has also been reopened. The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), another outlawed group, also reopened its office in Manghopir on August 20. Before its proscription, the JeM had its office in Nazimabad and that remains closed. The outlawed Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP, now known as Ahle Sunnat-wa-al-Jamaat Pakistan), had its Karachi headquarters at Masjid Siddique-e-Akbar near Nagan Chowrangi in north Karachi and after the ban it remained active from the same area. Although, the office was closed, SSP leaders have reportedly been conducting meetings at this office in the more recent past. According to the Dawn News channel, sectarian slogans, flags and posters of banned sectarian groups are visible on walls across Karachi. The SSP, its Shia rival Sipah-e-Mohammed Pakistan (SMP) and Mukhtar Force are the most conspicuous groups, the report added. The channel quoted its sources as saying that the sealed offices of these groups have reopened, working under different identities. Some of the groups have reportedly held meetings in Qayyumabad, North Karachi and Soldier Bazaar.

A top US military officer also disclosed that al Qaeda militants in Iraq were moving to safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, stated:

We do see more foreign fighters now, though, I think, coming to Pakistan and operating in Afghanistan than we're seeing in Iraq... no intelligence agency would say this, but it may be that there's been a refocus… the influence and the presence and the numbers of al-Qaeda in Iraq are very much diminished and they had to go somewhere, and my guess is, my belief is that they probably have gone to that safe haven in the FATA.

It is evident that the direction Pakistan adopts in the post-Musharraf era will have a significant impact on how the campaign against terrorism progresses in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Militants are currently attempting to harness the benefits of a political power vacuum, economic crisis and a battle fatigued security establishment. In fact, there is grave instability and a growing void in both ‘frontline states’ in the war on terror.

It is the Pakistan Army which is the lead agency in the counter-terrorism campaign in the FATA and NWFP, backed by the paramiliataries and the Police. In urban areas, the roles are reversed, with the Police and para-militaries piloting CT responses. While the Army is a relatively well equipped force, hamstrung Police forces face a grim challenge fighting the militants. Emboldened by their successes in the tribal zones, moreover, the extremists are increasingly directing the conflict into the urban space. Efforts towards improving the fighting capacity of the law-enforcement agencies have been severely lacking. In the Islamabad Capital Territory (with a current population of approximately 1.207 million), for instance, on an average, the ratio of Police constables to the population stands at 1:873 – a fraction of the ratio needed for peacetime policing, and utterly inadequate to meet the augmenting terrorist threat. The Islamabad Police reportedly lacks even explosive detectors and other equipment to trace a suicide attacker and overwhelmingly relies on manual checking at sensitive places. Commenting in Daily Times, an unnamed source disclosed: "Due to lack of explosive detectors, the capital Police have never succeeded in detecting a single suicide attacker. Only Diplomatic Protection Department of the capital Police, which is responsible for security for a few diplomats, has been provided the necessary equipment by the Interior Ministry." He added, further, that the Police force were protecting a few VVIPs at the cost of the entire city, which was evident from the fact that 3500 Policemen and women were performing duties with the VVIPs, leaving behind only 1,500 police officials to guard a population of over one million. The capital Police had reportedly set up around 54 pickets across the city but those manning them did not even have metal detectors. There have been five major terrorist attacks in Islamabad in 2008, in which 111 persons have died and more than 115 persons were injured..

The Punjab province, which has the biggest Police force of the country with a strength of 161,350 personnel, has its own share of problems. According to the National Police Bureau, "On average, one constable corresponds to 543 people which is quite insufficient to meet the crime challenges." Apart from the provincial capital Lahore, the Punjab Police also has to counter extremism in urban areas like Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Multan.

In the violence-wracked NWFP, the Police struggle with severe shortcomings. According to the National Police Bureau’s Annual Report, 2006, the NWFP Police operate under significant constraints including paucity of funds (only 12 per cent of the annual budget is available to meet Police development requirements); Shortage of Police strength (50 per cent deficit); half of the existing Police Stations lack their own buildings; half of the Districts are without proper Police Lines; less than half of the required/sanctioned authorized transport is available.

For any effective counter-terrorist strategy, Pakistan will have to invest substantial resources in its currently weak and vulnerable Police force. At the operational level, it is the Police that have to identify and neutralize the foot-soldiers of the jihad and the terrorist cells located in urban concentrations, madrassas (religious seminaries) and other public places. But the long period of military rule has immensely weakened the Police forces across Pakistan, who have always functioned under the shadow of the Army – an experience that has generated a crisis of confidence and authority.

Tactically, the increasing reliance on air power to strafe militant targets in the FATA and NWFP has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, data for which is currently unavailable. The multiple conflicts across Pakistan have now also led to the issue of large scale displacements. Bajaur Agency alone has generated more than 300,000 refugees just over the months of July-August 2008.

Further, any regaining of territory by the armed forces has proven momentary, with the militants swiftly recovering lost spaces. The state does not have a civil administrative system worth its name in FATA, NWFP and Balochistan, and efforts to hold and sustain territorial gains rely almost exclusively on the presence of the armed forces.

There is also uncertainty over what constitutes the state leadership in Pakistan at the moment. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, the ISI and the military establishment are all competing for power, with each of these players complicating the situation even further in the pursuit of divergent personal and partisan agendas. As the country faces mounting jihadist violence and enveloping insecurity, these complexities and contradictions severely undermine capacities for governance and for the restoration of order.

While the situation under Pervez Musharraf was bad enough, the US administration will now find it even more difficult to secure co-operation in prosecuting the campaign against radical Islamists under the new and confused dispensation at Islamabad. Amidst rapidly changing political alignments, US hopes rest essentially on the fact that a "democratically-elected regime will be a more natural partner than the military." While such a formulation may have some intuitive appeal, it does not correspond well with the realities of the ground, with the collapse of the PPP-PML-N coalition. The PML-N, now in the Opposition, will predictably adopt an adversarial orientation on every aspect and issue. The anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, moreover, is not entirely restricted to the jihadis.

Pakistan is expected to have a new President within a week, but, as in the past, the country’s tribulations can hardly be expected to vanish with a mere change in personalities.

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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