Who will save Pakistan?

The attack on Sri Lankan cricketers underlines the risk to an already fragmented state of becoming an international outcast

Simon Tisdall

The audacious attack on Sri Lanka's cricket players as they travelled through Lahore has underscored fears that politically fractured, economically destitute and militarily challenged Pakistan, if not already a failed state, is heading rapidly towards the status of international outcast.

The virtual certainty that Pakistan's days of hosting Test cricket are over for the foreseeable future is the least of the country's problems. The attack in the heartlands of the Punjab, the army's traditional stronghold and the most populous province, looked like a deliberate throwing down of the gauntlet to army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

It is barely six months since the democratically elected civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari succeeded in ousting General Pervez Musharraf, a Kayani predecessor who had ruled the country for nearly a decade following a 1999 coup d'etat. But Zardari and his Pakistan People's party (PPP) are mired in domestic controversy and appear increasingly unable to manage Pakistan's multiplying problems.
Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics, a pledge he reportedly renewed during talks in Washington last week on a new, combined military and political strategy for what the Americans call "Afpak" – Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the Obama administration's confidence in Zardari, as with the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, is wearing thin.

If Kayani and his fellow generals felt obliged to step in "for the good of the country", then Washington, more concerned about defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida than preserving a democratic system that daily appears to be more and more of a travesty of itself, might well go along. After all, it wouldn't be the first time.

Like other Pakistani commentators, author and journalist Ahmed Rashid pinned blame for the attack against the Sri Lankan team squarely on Islamist militants with whom Pakistan is fighting a spreading battle along its north-western flank. Involvement of Baluchi separtists or Tamil Tiger renegades from Sri Lanka itself was largely discounted.

There was also broad consensus about the purpose of the attack, which was widely compared, in terms of tactics and aims, to that carried out by the Punjabi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, in Mumbai last November. "I think this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the government at the time when there is a huge political crisis in the country," Rashid said. "They are trying to create a vacuum of power in which eventually they can take over."

If internal chaos is the aim of the jihadis, they are being ably aided and abetted by Pakistan's mainstream politicians. It is only a year since civilian governance returned to Islamabad, with the principal parties promising to work together.

That was then. The vicious infighting now under way between Zardari's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League is strongly reminiscent of the epic battles between Sharif and Zardari's murdered wife, Benazir Bhutto, that led directly to Musharraf's coup. If unchecked, it may not only encourage the militants; it may also open up a path to power to Pakistan's religious parties, in alliance with or separate from Sharif.
Last week's supreme court ruling barring Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab, from elected office, was widely seen as a political putsch engineered by Zardari. His decision to sack Punjab's government and imposed direct rule recklessly upped the ante even further. Now the Sharifs and their angry supporters are planning to lead a massive protest march on the capital on March 12.

The march will commemorate the dismissal two years ago of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who Sharif says should be reinstated. It is being organised by a lawyers movement but will also be supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party which wants sharia law adopted throughout Pakistan. This is an unholy alliance, even by Pakistani standards. The potential for a violent confrontation, and for a further, possibly fatal weakening of Zardari's grip on power, is not inconsiderable.

The president's authority is already under fierce fire on several other fronts, not least the impenetrable north-western tribal areas where Pakistani Taliban groups are variously reported to have formed an alliance to fight Nato in Afghanistan, to be in the process of reneging on a recent truce, or to be giving up the fight in agencies such as Bajur.

This confusion is typical in a region where alliances shift as quickly as the winds blowing off the Hindu Kush. But one thing is certain: the government in Islamabad is not in control of events and, more often than not, is a victim of them. For instance, Washington's anger at the peace deal in Swat allowing the introduction of sharia law there is tempered by the expectation that, like previous agreements with the ungovernable Pashtun hill tribes stretching back to the days of the Raj, it will not stick.

The US is offering massive new infusions of economic aid, in addition to conditional military assistance, to help root out the jihadi menace. But at a time of growing febrility, there's little doubt US pressure, increasing under Barack Obama, is also making matters worse, at least in the short term.

The rise in cross-border attacks by US forces using Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles since Zardari took power has further alienated tribal leaders and encouraged radicalisation, Pakistani officials say. Washington argues the policy is necessary in the absence of better answers from Pakistan. Critics say Zardari has secretly sold out the country's sovereignty in return for Obama's support.

Pakistan's economic troubles, compounded by a fast expanding population, chronic poverty, high unemployment, and lack of education, have added to a sense that the country is isolated and in danger of imploding. Islamabad was obliged to accept a $7.6bn emergency IMF loan package in November. It may yet need much more to stave off collapse.

Heightened tensions with India following the Mumbai attacks, friction with Afghanistan's government over security, China's rising alarm over its neighbour's predicament, and international worries about the safety of Pakistan's unregulated nuclear weapons stockpile form the wider context to this dramatic, apparently ineluctable descent.

Pakistan's disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?

Zardari's War

Pakistan's president is finally turning his sights on his most bitter foe. The trouble is, it's not the Taliban or al Qaeda he's after -- it's his chief political rival.
Family feud: Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari's rivalry threatens to overshadow the fight against terrorism.
Last week, Washington was abuzz with a remarkable act of three-way diplomacy. Upbeat Pakistani and Afghan delegations streamed in and out of government offices, enjoying the rare experience of being included in the United States' policymaking process.

Unfortunately, back in Pakistan, politics was taking a nasty turn, one that could be far more consequential than any of the meetings in Washington.

This time, it wasn't Islamist militants or al Qaeda stirring up trouble. Rather, Pakistan's government -- elected in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation -- has gone to war with itself.

The country's Supreme Court is once again implicated in the action, having disqualified from office the leaders of Pakistan's main opposition party: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the sitting chief minister of Punjab. Soon after the court's decision, President Asif Ali Zardari imposed governor's rule, effectively placing his own man in charge of his country's most populous and politically dominant province.

In response, the Sharif brothers accused Zardari of manipulating the court and have vowed to take their case to the streets. This is no idle threat. According to public opinion surveys, Sharif is now Pakistan's most popular politician. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), might well succeed in mobilizing violent street rallies that would test the capacity of state security and could even deliver a deathblow to the coalition government in Islamabad.

In short, Pakistan's major political leaders are now in a no-holds-barred contest for political power. The time for unity and compromise appears to have passed; the era of stable democratic governance (and a loyal opposition) was fleeting.

Where does this leave U.S. President Barack Obama's bid to revive flagging U.S. fortunes in the region? As long as Pakistan's political leaders are struggling for their own survival, they will have little time for fighting the Taliban along the Afghan border or for rooting out the networks of extremist militants like those who attacked Mumbai last November. And as long as Pakistan's politics remain deeply unsettled, the United States will have a hard time building sustainable partnerships to confront the region's underlying challenges, from poverty and poor education to inadequate judicial and security structures.

Despite the claims of Pakistan's many conspiracy theorists, the United States cannot dictate political outcomes in Islamabad. Judging from the recent history of Bush administration efforts to navigate the messy end of the Musharraf era, Washington's leverage in the tussle between Zardari and Sharif will be limited. Still, the Obama team should be clear on the potential outcomes of this political clash and should do its utmost to avoid the worst.

At the moment, U.S. diplomats are most likely trying to help put a lid back on the crisis, urging both sides to retreat from battle and identify a compromise that could keep partisan competition out of the streets and inside the constitutional process. To the extent that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke can support this effort, they should; a Zardari-Sharif compromise is unquestionably Washington's most appealing outcome.

But three other, less pleasant outcomes are now more likely. First, Zardari could succeed in quelling Sharif's protests, effectively sidelining his primary opponent and consolidating his own national standing. Second, Sharif could leverage street protests and existing cleavages within Zardari's party to claw his way to power. Third, destabilizing violence and prolonged political uncertainty could convince the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to reassert control and sideline both civilian contenders.

Of these outcomes, the Obama team will find it most natural to resist the third -- return to military rule -- having just witnessed the perils of undemocratic governance and knowing that it would throw a major wrench into plans for a closer partnership and increases in U.S. assistance. Washington should encourage Kayani to keep his men in the barracks, but if the violence gets out of hand, U.S. entreaties will fall on deaf ears. The United States must therefore prepare for that unwelcome contingency by formulating a list of its highest-priority demands for any new military regime, including, but not limited to, a timeline and plans for Pakistan's return to constitutional democracy.

And there might be even worse things than military rule in Pakistan. Sharif's well-publicized Islamist ties may not determine his policies, but from a U.S. perspective they are troubling. Washington should work to avoid the worst-case scenario, in which a Sharif-led government would curtail partnership with the United States in ways that undermine critical U.S. counterterrorism goals. To some degree, Sharif's behavior will depend on whether he feels resentful or threatened by the United States, on which political allies he brings with him to Islamabad, and on how he conducts relations with Pakistan's top military and intelligence leaders. If Sharif's stock continues to rise, Washington should move quickly to share its primary strategic concerns with him directly and then assess his response accordingly.

If, on the other hand, Zardari weathers the immediate political storm, his government could veer dangerously toward unconstitutional and illiberal measures to ward off waves of popular protest. Washington's too-close association with an unpopular or repressive Zardari regime would prove no more effective than its recent association with Musharraf. Obama would then need to strike a difficult balance between closer bilateral cooperation on issues of common interest and the appearance of overdependence upon Zardari and his party. In particular, the Obama administration might need to rethink or condition apparent plans for vast increases in nonmilitary assistance, a policy intended to support Pakistan's ongoing democratic transition, not civilian authoritarianism.

There are many situations around the world bidding to become Obama's first major foreign-policy trial. But addressing the political drama in Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed state whose cooperation on the war in Afghanistan is essential -- should be high on his agenda. At the very least, the Pakistani turmoil will test the new administration's ability to avert or mitigate a crisis while it plots a comprehensive strategy for one of the world's most dangerous and complicated regions.