Commentary

Like Sand between Their Fingers

Pakistan’s civilian leaders have failed their country yet again. The fragile coalition government between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) split when leaders disagreed over how to restore 60 judges, including Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice, sacked last November by President Pervez Musharraf. Some political observers remain focused on the constitutional impact of the disagreement, which unless resolved, will allow Musharraf to hold sweeping powers over all other government institutions. But the true danger of the disagreement is not constitutional, but territorial. The judge issue continues to take attention away from the militant insurgency on Pakistan’s western frontier, a development that slowly threatens the integrity of Pakistan itself.

By all indications, the insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas will keep making steady progress. Although the virus of radicalism is the country’s most pressing crisis, the civilian government has allowed the judge issue to dominate the political scene. Asif Ali Zadari, head of the Pakistan People’s Party, wanted to reinstate the judges, but many openly speculate that Zadari wanted to have them reinstated as long as he could weaken their power to resume corruption charges against him. While Zadari also wanted to include in the constitutional package a measure to impeach the president, that move would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the PPP and PML-N cannot muster. The other main party, Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, wants the judges restored through a simple resolution. But Sharif says he will not support a constitutional amendment that clips the wings of the judiciary. The issue remains unresolved, even though the government had originally promised to reinstate the judges by April 30th.

Either way, the longer the judge dispute remains unresolved, the more Islamabad will be distracted from confronting the militants intent on destabilizing the central government.

Several weeks ago, Baitullah Mehsud, head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a jihadist movement that operates as Pakistan’s version of the Taliban, held a press conference announcing that his followers will continue to cross Pakistan’s highly porous border with Afghanistan to kill U.S. and NATO troops. Mehsud and other insurgents have become more brazen after the Pakistani government entered into a series of peace deals with militant groups. Shortly after Mehsud’s press conference, Pakistani officials announced a truce with the Taliban in the lawless Mohmand Agency, the same tribal agency where last October militants publicly beheaded six alleged criminals and punished three others by lashing them in public. Just two weeks before that, the Pakistani Army thinned out its troop presence in the Kotkay and Spinkai Raghzai regions of South Waziristan as part of a peace agreement made with top Al Qaeda leaders. And that deal came on the heels of yet another peace agreement between the Pakistani Army and another militant group known as Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM). Some observers contend that the militants have no viable path to national power; nevertheless, militants are intent on seizing Pakistani territory district by district.

The only way Pakistani leaders can stop their country from resembling a moth-eaten fabric is to focus on increasing, rather than reducing, the footprint of the Pakistani Army in the tribal areas. Yet Islamabad instead focuses disproportionately on going after Deobandi and Shia militant groups that do not share the government’s objectives vis-à-vis its chief rival India. By some accounts, Islamabad also avoids targeting the senior leadership of the Taliban, not only given the decades-long support the group enjoyed by Pakistan’s Army and intelligence personnel, but the Taliban’s possible assistance as a future proxy force against Hamid Karzai’s regime in Afghanistan, which Islamabad accuses of being pro-India. But such an objective makes very little sense — Pakistan can barely protect its own sovereignty, let alone advance an ambitious regional hegemonic foreign policy.

Rather than capitulate to the wishes of an India-obsessed Pakistani Army and the Musharraf presidency that implements its goals, Pakistan’s civilian leaders need to unite to reinstate the 60 judges and develop a strategy to restore the authority of the Pakistani state in the tribal areas. A complete transition from the previous military government to the new civilian leadership will not be complete until both developments are addressed. Luckily, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, says his government will suspend talks with tribal chiefs in both South and North Waziristan. Hopefully he can hold his word. Until then, Pakistan’s domestic power struggles and ceaseless political infighting will continue to overshadow a menace more sinister than legislative rivals.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.