Zardari in a dilemma

By Fazal Mehmood

 Has the Pakistan president Asif ali Zardari been deposed by the army and forced to flew out of the country. The other reason given by Islamabad is that Zardari has gone to Dubai for treatment of his heart ailment. A US magazine has come out with report that he may resign from his post under pressure from the army following the memogate scandal, in which he pleaded with US president Barack Obama to save him from the onslaught of General Kayani.

As rumours of coup swirl Pakistan is simmering with anger and humiliation over the attack on its posts in the Mohmand Agency by NATO troops killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.

This attack was the proverbial last straw in what are seen as a series of violations by the United States starting with regular drone attacks on Pakistani targets, the Raymond Davis incidents, and the unilateral attack on the Abbotabad hideout of al- Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and as the Pakistani’s say, “now this.” No one is in a mood for compromise, from the truck driver to the strategic expert.

And while sections of the print media are advising levels of caution, the television channels have gone into a frenzy urging strong arm action against the Americans. Despite the pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai as well as the US and European leaders, the Pakistan top brass has decided to stay away from the Bonn conference making it clear that there was need for a full apology and concrete assurances that Pakistan’s sovereignty would not be violated again.

The Pakistan army, that has lost 24 officers, has taken a hard line that rules out compromise at this stage. In a briefing the Director General of Military Operations Major General Ishfaq Nadeem did not mince words in describing the attack as an “unprovoked act of blatant aggression.” The Pakistan army is clear that one, the exact locations of the posts that were attacked were known to the ISAF and NATO; two, the area under the supervision of these posts was cleared of militants and there was no cross- border activity; three, the four border communication centres to coordinate operations against militants were completely bypassed.

According to him, two or three helicopters arrived in the area and started firing on the post ‘ Volcano. All communications systems were destroyed and in response the second Pakistan border post Boulder fired at the helicopters, which then attacked this post.

General Nadeem was clear that despite “repeated requests” no information about the attacks was shared and “even when it was it was inaccurate and incomplete.” The evident anger is shared by all sections of Pakistan society, including the liberal pro- US elite. Demand for strong action is tempered by some sections, reflected in the print media, with the need for caution with the pointer that Pakistan was dependent on the US as well and was not in a position to cut off links altogether. However, the “patch- up” that seems inevitable is not going to be very easy with the consensus being that reconciliation with the US government without adequate concessions on the issue of national security and sovereignty will bring down the Zardari government.

President Zardari does not inspire trust in his people. The absence of confidence is apparent as Pakistanis are watching his every move; with several admitting that they are not sure what compromise he will agree to. Those close to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are clear that the government will not be able to survive if it is now seen to be giving any concessions to the US without an apology and concrete assurances that Pakistan’s sovereignty will be protected at all costs.

The Pakistan army claims that it is determined not to allow the US use of the Shamsi base again. The US army has been given two weeks to vacate the base, and while there have been statements from Washington that this is not a major blow; military analysts say that US operations in Afghanistan will become far more cumbersome and expensive.

The blockage of supply lines to the US/NATO troops is an issue of immediate concern, however, with the current focus being to open the routes again. Presently photographs of hundreds of tankers blocking the highways have appeared in sections of the Pakistan media that claims that the outer deadline for supplies to run out is two weeks.

Currently both the US and Pakistan governments are finding it difficult to overstep their domestic constituencies.

US President Barack Obama has had to harden his approach by refusing to apologise to Pakistan, given the Republicans strong anti- Pakistan campaign. His election will be jeopardized if he is seen as reaching out to Pakistan, a country that has become the object of Republican vilification in more ways than one. Similarly, President Zardari and his government cannot concede ground to the US without the apology and concrete assurances as the swell of public anger will spill out on to the streets and create a major crisis for the government.

As a first step the Pakistan government has had to cancel its participation in the Bonn conference. This despite the pressure exerted on it by the US, Europe and of course Afghanistan. The Pakistan media that has been giving a blow by blow account of developments since the border incidents has been exerting sufficient pressure as well, with the entire Opposition in the country united on this issue as well. The Bonn conference thus, has been reduced to a fairly meaningless exercise with one school of thought in Pakistan keen to convert the attack into an opportunity to review relations with the US so that Pakistan can at least climb into the front seat, if not the drivers seat, for a slightly more equal relationship with the US. Currently the Pakistan government is being attacked as a “slave” of the US with newspaper cartoonists having a field day.

All in all pressure on the Zardari government is tremendous, with the Pakistan military too having decided to take a very hard line. This is clearly essential to prevent complete demoralization in the ranks, and reclaim some of the space that Pakistan has lost to the US and NATO.

However, a great deal will now depend on the coming days and weeks and the ability of the Pakistan army to take a more independent line, regardless of President Zardari’s positions. Pakistan’s army chief Kayani is still known to be a little more independent in his political alignments than his predecessor, and remains more of a Pakistani soldier than an international, or for that matter, a political player. INAV

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