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Zardari’s peculiar passivity

Publication Date : 30-10-2012


In a curious turn to the Pakistani militancy tale, the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, says his country cannot launch any fresh operations against militants operating in (or from) Pakistan. It has become impossible to do so because of the lack of political will on the part of the country’s opposition parties that do not wish to be seen as part of the campaign against militancy. He chooses not to mention the army’s refusal to perform the task.

Zardari accuses the principal opposition party, the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of being the main nay-sayer. That Zardari should have openly accused opposition parties of pandering to the country’s rightist Islamist gallery owes much to the fact that elections to the National Assembly of Pakistan are due in the next few months.

Zardari ascribes the reluctance of the PML-N to join the drive against terrorists to its obsession with what he calls the “rightist vote”. The PML-N and other opposition parties, including the one headed by the cricketing icon, In Khan, find it convenient to overlook militant excesses in the country, even when innocent citizens, including school children, are targeted by armed goons owing allegiance to various militant outfits. And Pakistan can easily boast of at least half a dozen major militant outfits, most of these with well armed and well trained fundamentalist youth.

Whatever the reason for Zardari’s attack on the opposition--apart from the upcoming elections--it’s a fact that any government would at the very least try to iterate its commitment to uproot the terror machines known to be operating within and from its territory? Zardari is probably doing just that. If only to retain the loyalty of his party’s vote bank in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, he must be seen opposing the rise and rise of militancy in his country.

His hands are full even otherwise. There is his old running battle with the judiciary, which after ensuring the ouster of one prime minister is pursuing the successor with the demand for the replacement of the letter presented to the Supreme Court at the last hearing which the court insisted be reworded and sent to the Swiss courts to seek Zardari’s arraignment in alleged cases of corruption against him.

With the judiciary at his heels, Zardari obviously cannot open another front by asking army chief General Parvez Kayani to act against the domestic militants. The General has already refused to oblige the government in the campaign against the tribal Pakistani Taliban operating from bases in the north western region of the country’s border with Afghanistan.

The opposition parties in the given situation seem to be a tempting target for the President, a target that may find favour with his People’s Party constituents in the country. He has cited past occasions when the opposition had joined the People’s Party government in evolving a consensus on the fight against militancy as was witnessed, according to him, in the operations in the Swat Valley last year.

The consensus according to the president has disappeared. The opposition obviously does not want to be embroiled with the deeply entrenched militant outfits within the country. Nawaz Sharif, lest you forget, was the chief minister of Punjab who gave away 35 acres of land at Muridke outside Lahore to the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba, the outfit headed by Hafiz Saeed, who even with a million dollar bounty on his head, moves across the length and breadth of Pakistan carrying the fundamentalist message with him.

The Lashkar headquarters at Muridke is a virtual terror factory producing highly-motivated armed militants, some of whom have over the years found their way in to Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India as well.

Zardari has said he finds it useless to ask the opposition to cooperate with his government. “I know and you know the opposition is banking on rightist vote.” For his part, Zardari is convinced, though, that his country has to face the challenge of the militants which may mean greater chances of militant backlash. It’s a decision that the people would have to make; they must face the reality. His eyes are set on the upcoming elections and hence his appeal to the “people” directly.

His direct approach, in the face of the opposition’s decision to be non-committal on the militant phenomenon, he obviously believes would carry weight with civil society and more importantly, arouse the People’s Party activists in Sindh and Punjab.

Ironically, as Zardari bemoans the apathy of the opposition, his own foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar was, almost at the same time as Zardari was un-burdening himself of the problems facing him, assuring the visiting US diplomat Marc Grossman of her country’s will to counter the militant menace and repeating her country’s “resolve” to continue to work together with the USA in efforts to build a strong, stable Afghanistan.

There was nothing about stopping the Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan counterparts from using Pakistan territory to unleash terrorist acts in that war-torn country. General Parvez Kayani, the army chief, did not go beyond assuring Grossman of his country’s commitment to help stabilise Afghanistan.

And General Kayani has made it abundantly clear that he does not want Pakistan’s army to get involved in the fight against domestic militancy and that he was less than willing to fight the American battle against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army spokesman had very little to say after General Kayani’s meetings with Grossman. Issues related to peace and stability in Pakistan were discussed. For the record, the Americans, regardless of their wish list, would not have been particularly upset by what General Kayani told their messenger.

Obviously, the Obama administration, its term just about to end, would be content for the present if the status quo is somehow maintained.

Zardari’s admission of helplessness in countering domestic terrorism and its growth in his country should alert us to the danger of a fresh adventure in Kashmir and other parts of the country. Even Pakistani politicians may be interested in reviving the Kashmir bogey around the polls in their country.

I remember the Pakistan Prime Minister of the day Nawaz Sharif assuring Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in Davos of his resolve to settle all outstanding disputes bilaterally at the earliest. And the first thing that Sharif did on his return to Islamabad from Davos a day later was to announce the observance of February 5 as a “black day” to express solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims.

One could multiply such instances of double-speak by Pakistani leaders over the years. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sued for peace at Shimla only to go back on his more significant bilateral commitments. I was in Shimla then and I was also in Islamabad when at a colourful press conference at Aiwan-e-Sadr, Rajiv Gandhi was promised the sun and the moon by Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir.

Sadly, nothing came out of the exercise as well apart from a lot of good humour and lively banter.

The writer is a veteran journalist and former resident editor of The Statesman


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