Dire Straits for Pakistan

With an intensifying battle with terror in the tribal regions, a severe winter made worse by an equally severe energy crisis, and a weakened government plagued by corruption and unwilling to embrace transparency, the public has had enough, Naveed Ahmad writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN Security Watch

While the war on terror rages in Pakistan’s tribal regions, with attacks claiming more and more civilian lives and US drone strikes complicating matters further, the country faces a multitude of other problems, including a catastrophic energy crisis in the midst of a severe winter, a dire financial crunch, and a weakened government whose president is facing an insurmountable credibility conundrum.

Recent developments in the country’s ongoing corruption crisis are now adding to the public’s quickly growing disillusionment with the government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, who is proving to be little, if any, improvement over his much-maligned predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

In a 17 December decision, the Pakistani Supreme Court reversed a controversial corruption amnesty law put in place under the regime of former military president Musharraf, clearing the way for massive corruption and criminal cases against top politicians, bureaucrats and generals.

Today, around 8,500 corruption and other criminal cases against high-profile figures, including Zardari, are awaiting hearing.

Zardari is alleged to have misappropriated a total of Rs 24.14 billion ($1.5 billion) along with his late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, while another 246 politicians and bureaucrats are alleged to have embezzled an estimated Rs 25.18 billion ($1.6 billion).

The Pakistani interior and defense ministers, along with the ambassadors to the US and the UK, are also facing serious corruption charges.

“The accused may even be jailed should the executive belatedly decide to implement the apex court decision in letter and spirit,” Ahmer Bilal Soofi, a senior lawyer based in Lahore, told ISN Security Watch.

In its most recent survey, Transparency International ranks Pakistan as the 42nd most corrupt state in the world, saying that some $6 billion was embezzled during the last year of Benazir Bhutto’s Peoples’ Party-led government.

And Zardari, in what appears to be an attempt to keep the Supreme Court’s recent anti-corruption move from being implemented, has launched a pressure campaign against one of the PPP’s key rivals, the Nawaz League, headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

“Zardari is doing no favor to the country or democratic system by attacking a provincial government only to silence the rival opposition party from seeking implementation of  the Supreme Court decision of opening of corruption cases,” Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a veteran politician and former Punjab governor, told ISN Security Watch.

So far, quiet US shuttle diplomacy through Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special envoy in Pakistan-Afghanistan, is being credited for keeping the temper of the Nawaz camp from flaring. However, a recent trip to Lahore, where Zardari verbally attacked the provincial governor, Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, will certainly be viewed as an act of aggression by the Nawaz League, and is likely to compound the political crisis.

Fishing for handouts

In the meantime, Zardari is using Islamabad’s financial woes to make a case for a new ‘Marshall Plan’ to help the country boost its efforts in the war on terror.

“We have to persuade the world to give us the resources to take on the monster of terrorism,” Zardari told an audience at the Governor’s House in Lahore on Monday.

But this seems unlikely.

“Who can agree to back a Marshall Plan-style scheme for Pakistan if corruption-tainted politicians continue to hold power with no regard for transparency and accountability,” an EU diplomat told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity.

Undoubtedly, more civilians died in terrorist acts in Pakistan during 2009 than in Afghanistan. A careful compilation of news reports suggests that over 3,204 people were killed in at least 90 terror attacks in Pakistan. By comparison, the New York Timesquoted a UN report that put terrorism-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan at 2,412.

Ironically, the mounting human and financial costs of the war on terror in Pakistan have offered the Zardari government an opportunity to seek more relief assistance. However, some independent analysts believe that the government is overstating the terror threat in an attempt to hide its administrative weakness and corruption and to seek increased western support.

“Despite inadequate and old-fashioned security arrangements in the capital Islamabad and elsewhere, terrorists do not have the ability to launch big attacks in urban centers thanks to successful military operations,” security analyst Rashid Mafzool Zaka told ISN Security Watch.

That said, a massive military operation in any town or village in turn triggers a serious displacement of the local population, with over 2.5 million internally displaced during last year’s Malakand operation, creating additional security concerns.

As the cost of war escalates beyond calculations for Pakistan, the spillover of displaced families from the troubled tribal region seems never ending. Though most of the 2.5 million IDPs from Malakand operations may have returned to their homes, over 1.2 million newly displaced have arrived from the Waziristans, Orkazai agency and other areas amid severe winter conditions.

“The military operations not only eliminate militants and their infrastructure, but also destroy standing crops, irrigation system and even roads […]. There are no businesses left intact in Waziristan,” Rustam Mahsud, a paramedic in a Mansehra hospital, 150 kilometers from Islamabad, told ISN Security Watch, adding that it was not only the worst winter in some time, but that poverty was at a all-time high.

While there is no official financial support system for those affected by terrorist attacks and military operations, the resolve of the tribal peoples is further tested by missile attacks from US drones.

A drone attack on Sunday was the 17th such attack in the past 10 days. In that strike in the Shaktu area of South Waziristan, according to Pakistani officials, 15 to 20 people were killed. Pakistan’s Daily Times reported that 20 Taliban, including three foreigners, were killed and that the death toll could rise as the militants were digging bodies out of the demolished compound.

The primary target of the recent attacks, Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud, appears to have evaded death. A recent audio tape features what is allegedly the Taliban’s leader’s voice in an attempt to prove that he has not been eliminated. Hakimullah Mahsud replaced Baitullah Mahsud who was killed in a US drone attack last summer.

The government typically remains mute on such attacks, refusing to either confirm the killing of alleged terrorists or to protest the use of US drones on its sovereign territory. Many analysts believe that the government privately condones the strikes, but cannot afford to do so publicly, as anger against the Zardari-led coalition continues to mount.

Opposition parties accuse the PPP-led government of towing the pro-US line, much the same way that Musharraf did.

Credibility crisis

With the implementation of the Supreme Court corruption ruling shelved for the time being, and the rift between the government and the military growing, Zardari and his coalition are quickly losing credibility both at home and abroad. And at home, disillusionment is running dangerously high.

“The common man is faced with a serious economic and resource crunch, with the worst shortages of food, energy and employment over the last two years,” economist Irfan Shahzad told ISN Security Watch.

Indeed, scores of Gallup polls reflect public demand for the removal of ministers and other government functionaries facing corruption charges. Though Zardari has immunity from prosecution under the constitution, public calls for him to resign are at an all-time high.

Submission to the Supreme Court decision would signify respect for the rule of law and transparency, and allow Zardari to regain some lost credibility among the public. But, much like his predecessor, he will not budge.

The severe instability of the government and Zardari’s inability to regain lost credibility amid a costly and intensifying war against terror will surely spell disaster for the country’s 170 million people.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides reporting for Pakistani TV channel, Geo News and Germany’s DW-TV, he also strings for newspaper in the US and Middle East.