Pakistan Politics: A triple crisis

By Cyril Almeida

THE transition to a more democratic system is in peril. A triple crisis of politics, militancy and the economy is the battering ram at the door of Pakistan’s government. Each limb of the crisis is feeding off and compounding the other.

While the vultures may be circling, the victim, the government, is prostrate and making it easier for them.Each week brings a new candidate for the leader of the incompetent — our political class. Last weekend the country bumpkin in the PM House staked his claim. So ghastly was the PM’s performance that damage control has overshadowed a speech that was itself meant as an exercise in damage control of the government’s evaporating reputation. The speech itself though wasn’t the problem but a symptom of what is wrong in Islamabad right now.

Let’s start at the beginning. For better or worse, a space has been created for politicians to govern. So far it has been a baptism of fire. Economic turmoil and rampaging militants have challenged the government mightily. But there is no doubt that space for the civilians to govern exists — for now. The political problem boils down to this: Nawaz wants the judges in and Musharraf out; Asif wants the judges out and Musharraf in. Sure, Asif may not — indeed cannot — really care about the judges and Musharraf’s fate more than his own, but political commitments have forced him to hitch his star to their fate. It is what it is.

So now what? Asif’s strategy has been to wait it out in the hope that Musharraf or CJ Iftikhar will do something stupid and make their positions untenable or that Nawaz will yield. Neither has happened so far. The problem is the economic and militancy crises have not stayed still. But this was entirely predictable. What has been disastrous for the transition is a government that has vacillated in response to its problems.

Economically there is not much the government can do at the moment — our plight may have worsened more quickly than should have been the case, but it is driven by international factors that are out of our hands. Yet international weaknesses have nothing to do with local distortions. The oil pricing mechanism in Pakistan is loaded in favour of oil marketing companies and retailers but they are considered too powerful to be taken on. PM Gilani told us that he knows who the wheat hoarders are but no handcuffs have been slapped on anyone. The stock market fundamentals may be weak but small investors are getting a raw deal from the clubby world of market regulators and the big fish. Targeted subsidies to the poor have been promised but the sense of urgency to get food and cash in the hands of the poor is lacking.

These are not economic challenges, they are political and administrative roadblocks that ought to be tackled in times of crisis at least. You don’t keep fumbling for the keys to your house if it is on fire, you break down the door.

The policy to deal with militants acting with impunity across the country is the other failure. The militants rampaging across the country will not be defeated in a week, a month or a year. The problems are too deep, the system too corrupt and the issues too complex for a ready solution. But a week, month or year of drift in Islamabad can cause long-term damage that years of smart strategy will struggle to undo.

The reason is simple: at this moment the militants are in the ascendant and looking to expand their areas of control. Dislodging militants once they have pressed forward has proved notoriously difficult because it is deeply unpopular politically. That does not mean nothing can be done. The government can fight a more effective battle for the hearts and minds of the public. Right now it is on the defensive — a coy, reticent demeanour presented when what is required is the pounding of fists.

The prime minister talks of talks with militants but the details are vague. This is part necessity and part confusion. It is by design because there is no one cause of militancy. Local and Afghan Taliban; sectarian warriors; followers of different schools of Islamic thought; Al Qaeda; and middle eastern, north African and central Asian militants are fighting the Pakistan state, the Afghan government, the Americans, Isaf and each other in overlapping, confusing local and regional conflagrations. The method of dealing with each aspect of this toxic brew of militancy depends on the local resources — political, military and counterinsurgent — of the state and the degree to which a particular area is currently inflamed. There will necessarily be differences between how Mohmand is handled compared to Khyber or how Hangu is treated compared to South Waziristan.

But what is damaging for the government is the muddled articulation of its anti-militancy strategy and its inability to keep the centre, the NWFP government, the army and the political administration of the tribal areas on the same page. Assume Gen Kayani genuinely intends to have his army follow the political leadership’s directions in the war against militants. Policy confusion will encourage him to think twice. Now assume Gen Kayani does not genuinely intend to have his army yield to the civilians. Policy confusion will give his army the excuse it needs to exert wider, and maybe more direct, control. Either way, the transition to civilian, elected rule is in trouble, fuelled by the government’s deficit of trust and confidence.

Politics affects the economy and militancy; the latter affect politics. Right now all are pulling each other down. But if it’s so obvious, why are the politicians behaving so recklessly?

What’s wrong with Pakistan? The answer: clearly plenty. Depending on who you speak to, the diagnosis will range from the triple crisis to poverty and illiteracy and from politicians to the judges and Musharraf. And befitting a nation of talkers, there are plenty of people with a prognosis, gloomy or otherwise.

But, like our reckless politicians, few seem to recognise that often half the solution to a problem lies in asking the right questions. When the coalition leaders meet, the nation will demand answers on the judges, Musharraf and the price of fuel. But before working on those answers, the leaders should reflect on what the right questions are for Pakistan right now. The transition to a more democratic future for Pakistan may depend on which set of questions they choose to address — the obvious one or the important one. n

cyril.a@gmail.com

Source: Daily Dawn, 23/7/2008

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