x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pakistan faces multiple crises

Resolution appears to demand break with US "war on terror" as Islamabad confronts multiple crises threatening to overwhelm Pakistan.

Pakistani girls from the Bajur tribal region carry water collected from a water point at the Katcha Garhi camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Oct 19 2008.
Pakistani girls from the Bajur tribal region carry water collected from a water point at the Katcha Garhi camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Oct 19 2008.

ISLAMABAD // A sweeping parliamentary resolution that may turn Pakistan away from Washington's "war on terror" called for dialogue with hardline groups as Islamabad confronts multiple crises threatening to overwhelm the nuclear-armed country. If implemented by the government, the legislation, which was backed by all political parties, would break Pakistan away from its unpopular alliance with the Bush administration in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, but may also introduce further instability in a country facing a spiral of violence and economic collapse.

The vote occurred at a critical moment for Pakistan. The country's economy is heading towards bankruptcy. The government has been disappointed by the slowness of international allies in coming up with the cash to bail it out, and has been forced to approach the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package to save it from defaulting on external debt payments. The country's north-west, especially its tribal border area with Afghanistan, is under the control of the Taliban and al Qa'eda, which are connected to militant groups that have networks stretching across the country. Another US missile attack in the tribal area yesterday, which killed at least nine suspected militants, underlined the intense US pressure for action against the extremists, who threaten the existence of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The global antiterror fight is heavily dependent on the fate of Pakistan. It is believed to be the headquarters of al Qa'eda, while Afghanistan's Taliban use the tribal area and adjoining parts of the country as a sanctuary. Moreover, a Pakistani Taliban movement has been created in recent years that is ranged against both Kabul and Islamabad. "Our country is burning," said Khurshid Ahmad, a member of Pakistan's upper house of parliament for Jamaat-e-Islami, a leading religious party. "We don't want [George W] Bush to put oil on the fire. We want to extinguish this fire."

The resolution, which passed unanimously in Pakistan's parliament late on Wednesday following two weeks of heated debate, seemed to demand an about-turn in Pakistan's alliance with Washington and the abandonment of the use of force against extremists. Instead, it called for a policy of negotiation with militants in what it called "an urgent review of our national security strategy". "Dialogue must now be the highest priority, as a principal instrument of conflict management and resolution," the parliament said. "The military will be replaced as early as possible by civilian law enforcement agencies."

It also said Pakistan would pursue "an independent foreign policy" and, in a pointed reference to US missile attacks inside Pakistani territory and an American ground assault in the tribal area last month, proclaimed that "the nation stands united against any incursions and invasions of the homeland, and calls upon the government to deal with it effectively". However, the 14-point document contained no details and was already being interpreted in different ways, used by those who believe in the existing policy and the majority who demand a radical new course.

Pervez Musharraf, the former president and army strongman, took Pakistan into an anti-Taliban partnership with the United States after September 11. Critics of the new government, led by Asif Zardari, charge that it has continued the same policies. "The resolution clearly says that the three d's, pursued by both Musharraf and Zardari, of 'dialogue, development and deterrence', you will find that 'deterrence' has been deleted entirely," said Mr Ahmad, who was instrumental in drafting the parliamentary accord. "We have a problem of terrorism but we will deal with it on our own terms, not simply as an instrument of the American strategy and policy." Parliamentarians from all sides agreed that having the debate itself was progress, as the issue had never been allowed to come before the assembly under Mr Musharraf. However, the outcome appeared to leave Pakistan in a strategic muddle, with the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government, treating it as an endorsement of its approach. Sherry Rehman, minister for information, said: "All public representatives have unanimously condemned all forms and manifestations of terrorism, including the spread of sectarian hatred and violence, with a firm resolve to combat it and to address its root causes. This be a major signal for terrorists that our nation rejects their agendas." The appearance of unanimity that marked the passing of the resolution looks set to be followed by political deadlock - once the strategy has to be implemented - presaging a fresh political crisis. There are ongoing major military assaults against extremists in the tribal areas and in adjoining North West Frontier Province. The resolution did not spell out the fate of these army operations and ignored the fact that dialogue had already been repeatedly tried with militants, both by the current and the Musharraf governments. It was also not clear what Pakistan was going to do about the US missile strikes. "The army will be disappointed that there was not a clear consensus. I think the army will continue with the current existing policy," said Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst. "But, even if there's no common policy from this resolution, at least there's a realisation that this is a problem - that wasn't there in the past." Despite the talk of security issues, Pakistan's economy is on its knees. A severe shortage of electricity means that some areas have blackouts for 12 hours or more a day, disrupting business and making life miserable for households. Inflation is running at 25 per cent, or up to 100 per cent for staple food items, pushing millions more below the poverty line. Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves are so depleted that they are likely to run out within two months, making a cash injection imperative. The IMF revealed this week that Islamabad had started talks, though Shaukat Tareen, the finance minister, has insisted that no formal process has yet begun. Mr Tareen is still hoping for last-ditch assistance from allies, especially in the Middle East. Mr Zardari will go to Saudi Arabia early next month, while the "Friends of Pakistan" consortium of international partners is due to meet in Abu Dhabi in a few weeks. But analysts believe that even if allies were to lend to Pakistan, they will wait until it signs on to the IMF. Pakistan's IMF programme could amount to up to $15bn, with perhaps $5bn for the first year, much larger than Islamabad's past resorts to the dreaded Washington-based lender, but the scale of the current crisis is also far greater than anything the country has faced in the past. sshah@thenational.ae