Pakistan heads toward crisis as coalition flounders

U.S. looks on with alarm as key Western ally's inability to deal with jihadist menace threatens to destabilize region.
ISLAMABAD -- Almost a year after elections were held in Pakistan, which restored democracy after more than eight years of military rule, growing Islamist violence, a crisis of governance and an economy in a tailspin threatens this key Western ally with collapse.The new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has made Pakistan one of its foreign policy priorities. Aides say that the U.S. President is "scared" by what he sees in Pakistan, a country that is crucial to meeting his goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and routing al-Qaeda. Next week, Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy just appointed to handle Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrives in Islamabad on a fact-finding mission, which is expected to be followed by swift action by Washington.Critics say the Pakistani government is gripped with paralysis, as patronage, not policy, occupies Islamabad under President Asif Zardari. Some see echoes of the last period of civilian rule in Pakistan, between 1988 and 1999, when a series of floundering governments were repeatedly toppled by the army amid allegations of massive corruption and misrule.Already the military and civilians are privately blaming each other for inaction as jihadists push ever deeper into the country from the northwest, with a de facto extremist mini-state now existing in Swat, a valley just 160 kilometres from the capital, Islamabad. Along the border with Afghanistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy a safe haven, undermining the international coalition's fight against insurgents in Afghanistan.
"The civilian leadership is weak and fearful of the inevitable in Pakistan, that it oversteps the mark and runs the risk of being removed [by the army]," said Rashed Rahman, a political analyst based in Lahore. "It is a non-functional government. There is no legislative program. Parliament was always a talking shop in Pakistan but they have taken it to new heights."A coalition central government led by Mr. Zardari's Pakistan People's Party is made up of an unwieldy 70 ministers from four different political parties - ranging from the secular to reputed Taliban sympathizers. But power is said to rest with the President, leading to a logjam. Critics say it is simply too much work for one man.Mr. Zardari's government enjoyed no honeymoon period. In a poll taken last October by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. pro-democracy group, just 21 per cent of people responded positively to the government, while Mr. Zardari's personal approval rating was a paltry 19 per cent. Since October, conditions in the country have sharply deteriorated by most measures.The violence seems to mount every week. On Thursday, a bombing of a Shia religious procession in the central town of Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab province, claimed at least 27 lives - the Taliban and al-Qaeda belong to the majority Sunni sect of Islam. Yesterday, attacks by government helicopter gunships killed 52 militants in the Khyber area of the tribal borderland with Afghanistan, the army said.There is little doubt about Mr. Zardari's personal commitment to fighting terrorism, which claimed the life of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. In a speech in Peshawar yesterday, he pledged to "finish off this cancer or it will dictate to us."But the government has been unable to forge a political consensus on the campaign against terrorism, with opinion deeply divided - even within the ruling coalition - between those political parties who favour military action against the extremists and those who want to negotiate with them. As a result, no clear direction has been given to the army by the government."The civilian government just doesn't have enough capacity, especially in security issues," said a retired general with experience of dealing with the government, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "When there's a vacuum like that, it has to be filled, and who else is there but the army?"Worse, there are many in Pakistan, including members of parliament, who question the army's commitment to fighting the extremists, pointing to its apparent helplessness against the insurgency in Swat and its inconsistent actions elsewhere - the military is fighting Taliban in one part of the tribal area, Bajaur, but there are no active military operations in other parts, including Waziristan, the base for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"There is this notion that the Taliban can be an ally," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of the book Military, State and Society in Pakistan. "It's a question of Pakistan's identity: Was it created for Islam? This kind of confusion is a threat to Pakistan's existence as a nation state."The army insists that, after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, it abandoned a policy that had seen it openly patronize the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan-based jihadist groups.The problem, the army says, is a lack of manpower to fight on so many fronts - the border with traditional enemy India to the east is given priority even before the militancy-plagued tribal area on western frontier in Afghanistan - and a lack of key military hardware, including night-fighting equipment.It is unclear whether Pakistani politics is heading toward its familiar meltdown or whether civilian rule is just taking time to establish itself."We have been through a very long military dictatorship. Transitions take time," said Afrasiab Khattak, a senior member of the Awami National Party, part of the Islamabad government.
"Democracy is a messy, noisy business."

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