Feb 21, 2009

Internal divisions?

In his first detailed comment on the situation in Pakistan after his recent fact-finding and get-to-know mission, Special Envoy of President Obama, Richard Holbrooke has revealed more than anyone in Pakistan could have expected. His statement, if indeed what he is saying is correct, suggests divisions between the political leadership and the Pakistani military on the issue of fighting militancy in the country. Clearly, America is not sure whether the Pakistani military and its premier intelligence agency, the ISI, are fully behind President Asif Ali Zardari's commitment and strategy to eradicate Taliban sanctuaries in NWFP and FATA. Other than the more immediate issue of tackling terrorism and extremism head on, this matter also has a much wider ramification. Given Pakistan's chequered history and several instances of military interventions at the expense of elected governments, it suggests a potentially troubling situation. What Ambassador Holbrooke has said in public is unusual in that normally such matters are not revealed to public when they relate to relations between two institutions of a foreign nation, and most certainly not when that nation happens to be a key ally. The point here is that, Mr Holbrooke's remarks are intriguing as they are but the manner and forum on which they have been made are also significant. The ambassador also ended up commenting on the law and order situation in Pakistan, saying that people could not walk their dogs in public and that people avoided driving from Peshawar to Islamabad. While this may seem to some Pakistanis a bit of an exaggeration, the first one, pertaining to a possible division between two major power centres in the country, may to some extent confirm what some sceptics may have been noticing for the past few months. The manner in which the Swat deal was agreed upon and how the presidency afterwards seemed reluctant in endorsing it only add weight to the scepticism. It is possible that during his recent visit to the country, Ambassador Holbrooke found substance to substantiate what he is now saying in public – also something that no political or military spokesman would ever admit to within Pakistan. The fact that he went public with his assessment of the situation may perhaps suggest that private mediatory diplomacy may not have succeeded in bridging the gaps. This explains Holbrooke's emphasis in his statement that the upcoming visit of Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to Washington will be used to seriously pursue this issue, meaning that some blunt talking may be done on whether the Pakistani Army and the political setup can come to an agreed strategy, presumably as dictated by Washington. Having said that, America or no America, the compulsions of an elected democracy demand that the military be at the beck and call of the elected leadership and that it take its orders from the elected government – and not the other way round. In this background, in which the US has publicly conceded that it was "troubled and confused" about the Swat deal, and until the cloud of uncertainty is removed, Islamabad should brace itself for the worst. This means possible delays in the billions that Pakistan urgently needs for economic revival, perhaps till such time that Washington and Islamabad sort out the policy that the latter will need to follow on dealing with the Taliban and combating terrorism. Again, in this regard, America or no America, a point that needs to be made is that fighting the Taliban and militants in general is something that needn't be dictated by America because it is very much in Pakistan's own interests. Yesterday it was Waziristan – today it is Swat – next it could be Islamabad? As a consequence of the US envoy's remarks, the fate of the Swat deal may hang in the balance – because clearly American support and funding may be hard to get if the deal remains.

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