President Asif Zardari must tender his resignation now or consign Pakistan’s fate to a military takeover or another chaotic attempt by the democratic opposition to remove him from office. Those in search of a middle course to resolve the post-Long March crisis will find no safe harbor. Prime Minister Galini’s March 15 pre-dawn announcement restoring Iftikhar Chaudry as chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court prevented bloodletting in Islamabad’s streets between democratic opposition forces and government troops. But it did not represent a principled compromise nor was the order to ‘stand down’ troops a sign that Pakistan’s democracy has been strengthened. Quite the opposite, the lawyer’s movement and Sharif forces imposed their will on the government and the army. Thus, the events surrounding the Long March have widened Pakistan’s political chasm and expanded the power vacuum in an already fractured society. The question is what comes next?
The issue before the Pakistani people, the region and the west is whose in charge? Zardari? Galani? Kayani’s Army or the ISI? The answer is obvious; there is no maximum leader or governing institution guiding Pakistan’s wayward ship of state. Zardari’s actions to keep Chaudhry under house arrest, pack the judiciary with his own judges, arrest opposition leaders and dismiss Punjab’s provincial government revealed that he is a petty dictator. The lawyer’s movement was and remains the last line of defense against the dictatorships of Musharraf and Zardari. The Army is the only instrument of national power that can prevent a total collapse of order in Pakistan, but at the expense of imposing marshal law and at the risk of provoking a fresh uprising of the democratic opposition.
Zardari is now a spent force with no moral or political authority. Galani lacks the political base, muscle and stature to lead Pakistan out of its crisis. Army Chief Kayani and Pakistan’s western backers want to avoid at all costs another military takeover. Not only would a military dictatorship bring the opposition into the streets, it would paralyze the Army’s already difficult task of containing the al Queda/Pakistani Taliban offensive in the Northwest Territory and FATA.
For all these reasons, former Prime Minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif is surfacing as a force the U.S and Britain must contend with. As leader of the second largest political bloc in parliament and the dominant figure in Pakistan’s most populous and wealthy province of Punjab, Sharif is a power player. With historically close ties to Pakistan’s Muslim political parties, the U.S. has always been uncomfortable with Sharif. Initially raised to power as Prime Minister in 1990 by the stridently Islamists Generals Hamid Gul and Mirza Aslam Beg, Sharif eventually opposed the Generals and their plans to export nuclear technology to Iraq and Iran. However, many believe America’s and Britain’s concern about Sharif’s Islamic ties are overblown. Sharif has moderated his views over the years and his close connection to Saudi Arabia where he was exiled has enhanced his standing.
Upon returning to Pakistan in late 2008, Sharif entered a coalition with his long-time rival Benazir Bhutto to oppose Musharraf’s dictatorship prior to her assassination. To Sharif’s credit he has consistently fought to re-seat Chaudhry and the judges that were illegally removed by Musharraf. He correctly insisted that Zardari give up the extra-constitutional presidential powers he inherited from Musharraf’s corrupt dictatorship. Thus, when Sharif supported the lawyer’s movement call for the Long March on Islamabad, his action cannot be considered as political opportunism. Whether Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz’s disqualification from holding office will be rescinded by the courts is not clear. But one thing is certain; Pakistan’s political crisis will not be resolved without Sharif playing a critical role.
With each passing day, Pakistan is spiraling deeper into the abyss that can only end in a catastrophic collapse. Beyond its unsustainable leadership void, the stress fracture of ethnic separatism is propelling Pakistan toward a dangerous breakup of the state. The Pakistani Taliban and al Queda forces are expanding in the Northwest Territory and SWAT Valley. Kashmir is a contested hot zone of conflict with India and the source of contentious debate among Pakistan’s political factions and especially within the army. A confederation of radical Pashtun tribal leaders, Tajik, Uzbek, Afghan, Chechen and Middle Eastern jihadists control large sections of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Balochistan has long been a rear-guard base area for Mullah Omar’s Taliban forces and Baloch nationalists’ forces opposed the central government’s writ. Indeed, taken as a whole the Northwest Territory, FATA and Balochistan constitutes a virtual Pashtunistan state that operates beyond the government’s writ.
Moreover, the battle lines between Nawaz and Zardari camps have been drawn after Zardari’s draconian dismissal of the Punjab’s provincial government and the controversial nomination of Salmaan Taseer as the new Punjab governor. The takedown of Punjab’s elected government has also exacerbated tension between the Punjab and Singh provinces.
As the central government weakens the influence and power of the separatist movements and radical Islamists is growing. The antagonisms spurned by these separatist movements are splintering the ranks of Pakistan’s military as well. For the neighboring governments of India, Iran, Afghanistan and China the instability in nuclear armed Pakistan increases their need to back various proxy forces and run covert operations inside the country to protect their interests.
The clock is ticking and time is running out on Islamabad. Pakistan’s political insolvency, spiraling economic crisis and the growing pressures of regional/ethnic separatism are leading inexorably toward a violent collision at the center. Last week Nawaz Sharif said the Long March was “a prelude to revolution.” We beg to differ. The revolution started in 2008 when the lawyer’s movement challenged Musharraf’s dictatorial rule. It has proceeded through twist and turns, regained momentum and surged ahead again. The Pakistani people must now sweep Asif Zardari aside, restore Iftikhar Chaudhry and the dismissed judges to their rightful place and reconstitute the Punjab provincial government; all without asking the permission of Washington, D.C and London.