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Published: Monday, 3/23/2009

Pakistan under Zardari lurching from crisis to crisis

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Last week, crisis-prone Pakistan faced a crisis of unprecedented proportion when President Asif Ali Zardari and one-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif locked horns over the restoration of Supreme Court judges that former president and strongman Pervez Musharraf had, in order to perpetuate his rule, dismissed two years ago.

This arbitrary action sparked a countrywide protest by lawyers that eventually led to Mr. Musharraf's resignation and the ascension of Mr. Zardari, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's widower, to the presidency. Soon after the general election in February, 2008, Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, in the spirit of cooperation, declared that within one month the dismissed judges would be restored to their previous positions.

Unfortunately, Mr. Zardari does not possess the political finesse or political acumen of his murdered wife. Prone to palace intrigues and comfortable in an atmosphere of uncertainties, he erroneously assumed that the "black-coat revolution" had run its course and had become a nonissue. He not only reneged on the pact he had signed with Mr. Sharif but went one step further and dismissed the provincial government in Punjab that Mr. Sharif's Muslim League party had formed. It backfired in ways Mr. Zardari and his sycophant advisors had not anticipated.

His actions infused new life into the lawyers' movement and they, together with all the major opposition parties, decided to march on the capital of Islamabad and force the resignation of the president. As the political activists and lawyers across the country marched toward Islamabad, Mr. Zardari panicked.

Instead of entering into meaningful negotiations, he placed many opposition leaders under house arrest, closed roads leading to the capital, and stopped people from traveling to Islamabad. He surrounded the presidential residence and major government buildings with cargo containers as barriers and ordered the closure of a private television station that had been critical of him. This prompted his information minister to resign in protest. He also invoked a Draconian law from the time of the British Raj, which banned the public assembly of more than four people.

The balance was tipped when Mr. Sharif started to lead his 100,000 restive supporters from Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, to Islamabad, 170 miles away. Prompted by his prime minister and prodded by the army chief, Mr. Zardari blinked, agreeing to the restoration of the judges and a judicial review of the sacking of the Punjab government. The march was called off.

One wonders why Mr. Zardari brought the country to the brink of civil war. He knew the armed forces would not take sides if violence occurred and that a political solution was the only way out of the dead- lock. This speaks to his inexperience as a politician and as an administrator and perhaps, if rumors are true, to his mental instability.

Pakistan has weathered this crisis but the problems still facing the country are many and profound. There is a relative breakdown of law and order in parts of the country. Kidnappings for ransom, some carried out by the Taliban and some by criminal elements, are rampant. This insecurity has had an adverse effect on the economy, and were it not for the infusion of U.S. aid, the country would be bankrupt. And then there is the ongoing menace of religious violence.

Pakistan has entered agreements with Taliban groups that dominate different parts of the semi-autonomous tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. The three main factions, until recently at each other's throats, have come together and pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, the elusive Afghan leader who was head of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The alliance, supported by some elements in Pakistan's government, is meant to fight American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. With American reinforcements expected, the Pakistani Taliban have decided to change the focus from Pakistan to the Paktia and Khost areas in Afghanistan where recent Taliban activity has increased by 90 percent.

Even if the focus of the Pakistani Taliban were to change from Pakistan to Afghanistan, it would be temporary. Their ultimate aim remains to control Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, a one-page flyer was widely distributed in Waziristan, a frontier region bordering Afghanistan, that identified President Zardari, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and the United States as the real enemies of Islam. The implications are not hard to comprehend.

Meanwhile, there is sustained low-level terrorist activity in Peshawar and along the entire frontier that keeps people on edge and precludes much of normal activity. Just in the past few days, terrorists torched and destroyed a dozen vehicles and equipment destined for NATO forces in Afghanistan And an electricity grid was blown just outside the city limits, plunging the entire region into the dark.

Most observers believe that a united political front is paramount in tackling myriad problems that the country faces. Given the incompetence at the top, this does not seem to be in the cards any time soon.



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