Posts Tagged ‘ Asif Ali Zardari ’

Pakistan’s Dangerous Elections

As Reported by Fasih Ahmed for The Daily Spin

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A self-confessed peddler of nuclear weapons, a sport star turned messiah, a Saudi proxy who once wished to declare himself the Shadow of God on Earth—these are just some of the candidates in Pakistan’s upcoming national elections.

Much rides on the May elections, which, if they take place as planned, will mark the first-ever transition in Pakistan’s history from a fully civilian elected government to another. The path to revival or ruin for this nuclear-armed nation of some 180 million will depend on the results of what is shaping up to be a highly contentious—and dangerous—race. At stake is how Pakistan will deal with the looming withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, where Pakistani generals fear India will establish a foothold. Then there is the issue of the state’s inchoate policy toward the al Qaeda and Taliban terror franchises that has cost Pakistan some 49,000 lives since the 9/11 attacks. Add to that the economic mess—food and fuel shortages, unemployment, inflation, mounting costs from the war on terror, running deficits from voter-pleasing social welfare and development schemes—and the electorate’s not surprising loss of faith in Parliament.

And terrorists, especially the Pakistani Taliban, have threatened to disrupt the elections through intimidation and assassinations. Among their avowed targets: President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (and their political allies, which are also deemed liberal and pro-American) as well as former president and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, who recently ended his four-year self-exile and returned to Pakistan.

The Election Commission has pleaded with the Army to help keep the peace on May 11. But already, the violence is taking its toll. On Sunday, a bomb disrupted the campaign office belonging to a Zardari ally in northwestern Pakistan. Two were killed, and at least five injured. The Pashtun-dominated party is also being bloodied by drive-by bombings in Karachi. Earlier this month, the district election commissioner of Quetta was shot dead, and pamphlets warning citizens against voting have been menacingly strewn across Baluchistan province.

At the same time, terrorists have promised not to disrupt the prospects of cricket legend Imran Khan or the Pakistan Muslim League (NAWAZ), a party strategically allied with sectarian and terrorist groups for electoral muscle.

Pundits have speculated that threats from the Taliban as well as the weight of incumbency will suppress turnout and that the goal of “free, fair, and peaceful” elections mostly will remain an unfulfilled aspiration. But the 85-year-old chief election commissioner of the country, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, thinks otherwise. During the last election, voter turnout hovered around 40 percent. But Ebrahim says several factors–including a vibrant media culture, a generation of young idealistic voters, and an empowered civil society—could bring a surprising turnout as high as 60 percent of the electorate. “When I see the enthusiasm of the people, I am inclined to think it is possible,” he told The Daily Beast. “No one can promise that the democratic exercise will be completely free and fair,” he says. “But I am confident the 2013 elections will be different.”

This time, 86.1 million Pakistanis—more than a third of them between the ages of 18 and 30—are registered to vote at polling stations across the country. The Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to run, allotting symbols to each party to help voters who cannot read. Nuclear salesman A.Q. Khan’s party, for example, has been given a missile; Imran Khan’s, a cricket bat.

With more than 10,000 candidates nationwide, the polls will present Pakistanis with a range of options to choose from. The left—which wants social freedom and liberties, peace with India, a laissez-faire approach to Afghanistan, continued strong relations with the U.S., and curbs on the Army’s power—is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies. The right—anti-India, anti-America, and preaching the importance of religion in political life—is represented by Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; Saudi-backed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, as well as smaller religious parties. The fringe is occupied by Musharraf, A.Q. Khan, and the political divisions of militant groups that have also been allowed to run.

According to the most recent polls, if elections were held today, they would yield a hung Parliament, and thus require expert coalition building. That in turn would mean that candidates spearheading smaller parties—candidates such as Imran Khan—will become kingmakers, handed disproportionate power to decide Pakistan’s future. 

Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan. He won a New York Press Club award for Newsweek’s coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Ahmed was also the inaugural Daniel Pearl fellow and worked at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau in 2003. He graduated from Columbia University and lives in Lahore.

Return of an Erstwhile King

As Reported By The Economist

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PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, a former army dictator and president of Pakistan, returned from London on March 24th to the country he once commanded, after an absence of more than four years. He finds not a trace of the power and significance he once wielded.

He came, he said, to contest elections, scheduled for May 11th, and “to save Pakistan”. Though the country could certainly do with rescuing, Mr Musharraf faces stiff competition among those offering themselves as saviour. They include a former prime minister and his bitter enemy, Nawaz Sharif, and a notable cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. Meanwhile, the outgoing government of the Pakistan Peoples Party achieved little, but its re-election is not out of the question.

A small crowd of supporters gathered at Karachi airport to welcome Mr Musharraf. “I cry when I see the state of Pakistan today,” he blustered. The rally his people had planned that evening had to be cancelled, apparently for security reasons. That may have been just as well: participants looked likely to be few.

Mr Musharraf lacks popularity and a political base. He also faces threats from the Pakistani Taliban and allied extremist groups. In office, he survived two well-planned assassination attempts. He will now have nowhere near the level of security that saved his life then. The Pakistani Taliban threatens a special squad that will “send Musharraf to hell”. When Benazir Bhutto returned from exile to Pakistan in October 2007, extremists bombed her motorcade after it left Karachi airport, killing around 140 people. She was unhurt in that attack. But a suicide bomber at a rally assassinated her two months later.

Mr Musharraf seized power in 1999 after the prime minister at that time, Mr Sharif, tried to sack him as army chief. He ruled Pakistan, first just as a general and later as president, until 2008, when rising unpopularity forced him to hold elections that his party lost.

He also faces a series of court cases in Pakistan and was careful to arrange pre-arrest bail before arriving. He is accused in the Bhutto murder case (though no direct evidence implicating him has emerged), as well as over the killing of a tribal leader, Akbar Bugti. And then he faces charges of treason, too, for staging his coup in 1999.

It was under Mr Musharraf that extremists turned on the state, after the attacks of September 11th 2001 led him to forge an alliance with America. Yet Mr Musharraf never turned on all militant groups, some of which operated with a degree of latitude. The Pakistani Taliban even seized a territory in the heart of the country, Swat.

Pakistan enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth during his time in office, but it was a bubbly time for Pakistan, and the bubbles burst as Mr Musharraf was leaving office. At least he managed to keep prices under control, especially for food.

Mr Musharraf is a big name internationally, but within Pakistan he now seems an irrelevance. His presence may become a sideshow in this election season.

More watched now will be the campaign of Imran Khan, who staged a huge rally on March 23rd in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city. After suddenly growing wildly popular in late 2011, with a promise of a new politics to break the established and corrupt two-party system, Mr Khan has lost much momentum in recent months. His showing in Lahore was an attempt to regain the initiative—and it proved that he can still pull a crowd. Mr Khan will win votes across the country but, with Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system, it may not translate into many seats.

This election, assuming it takes place, will mark the first time that one elected government completes a full term and hands power over to another. That is something, but the job of saving Pakistan remains, as ever, up for grabs.

Pakistan-Iran pipeline work ‘to begin on 11 March’

As Reported By The  BBC

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Work on a gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan will begin on 11 March, Pakistani officials say.

The project has led US officials to warn that it may fall foul of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The long-delayed project is seen in Pakistan as a way of combating the country’s chronic energy shortages with supplies of Iranian gas.

Officials told Pakistani media they hoped the presidents of both countries would attend a ceremony on 11 March.

President Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran earlier this week, meeting his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and finalised the multi-billion dollar deal.

Officials say the pipeline on the Iranian side of the border has been completed, and that this month will see the start of work on the project in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the US warned Pakistan to “avoid any sanctionable activity” in connection with the project.

“We think that we provide and are providing the Pakistani government and people a better way to meet their energy needs,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters on Wednesday.

Last year Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar insisted the pipeline was “in Pakistan’s national interest and will be pursued and completed irrespective of any extraneous considerations”.

Power shortages have become a major issue in Pakistan, with the government ordering an investigation into a nation-wide power cut on Sunday blamed on a technical fault in a plant in south-western Balochistan province.

More Than 300 Killed in Pakistani Factory Fires

By Zia ur-Rehman and Salman Masood for The New York Times

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

Rescue workers said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, and many of the survivors sustained third-degree burns. As firefighters advanced into the wreckage during the day, battling back flames, they found dozens of bodies clumped together on the lower floors.

One survivor, Muhammad Aslam, said he heard two loud blasts before the factory filled first with smoke, then with the desperate screams of his fellow workers. “Only one entrance was open. All the others were closed,” he said at a hospital, describing scenes of panic and chaos.

Mr. Aslam, who was being treated for a broken leg, said he saved himself by leaping from a third-floor window.

Hundreds of anguished relatives gathered at the site, many of them sobbing as they sought news. Some impeded the rescue operation, and baton-wielding police officers tried to disperse the crowd but failed.

“If my son does not return, I will commit suicide in front of the factory,” one woman shouted before news cameras as relatives tried to console her.

The death toll rose quickly. By evening, the Karachi commissioner, Roshan Ali Sheikh, said that 289 people had died, most of them men. The provincial health minister, Sagheer Ahmed, put the toll at 248, which he said was the number of bodies accounted for at major hospitals. The number was expected to rise further.

In the shoe factory fire in Lahore, 25 people were reported killed and dozens wounded. Officials said that blaze had been set off by a generator that caught fire and ignited chemicals stored nearby in the factory, illegally located in a residential neighborhood. Most of the victims were men under 25.

The fires immediately revived long-running questions about the regulation of Pakistan’s manufacturing sector, centered in Karachi, and of the vital textiles industry in particular.

Textiles are a major source of foreign currency for Pakistan, accounting for 7.4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2011 and employing 38 percent of the manufacturing work force. Pakistani cotton products are highly sought in neighboring India and form the backbone of a burgeoning fashion industry that caters to the elite. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has often called on the United States to drop tariff barriers to Pakistani textile imports, which it says would be preferable to traditional aid.

But the industry suffers from weak regulation, characterized by lax oversight and corruption. Business owners often put profits over safety, workers’ rights advocates say.

On Wednesday evening the police raided the home of the owner of the Karachi factory, Abdul Aziz, who appeared to have gone into hiding. According to an online business information service, his company, Ali Enterprises, manufactured denim, knitted garments and hosiery and had capital of between $10 million and $50 million.

His nephew, Shahid Bhaila, the chief executive officer of the company, was also being sought for questioning. The police said both men had been placed on the exit control list, barring them from leaving the country.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the most powerful political party in Karachi, announced three days of mourning. The city electricity company said it would cancel all outstanding bills for the families of those affected as a good will gesture.

The cause of the fire remained unclear. Geo News, the largest news channel, speculated that it had been started by extortionists, reporting that Mr. Aziz had previously faced a demand for a shakedown payment of more than $100,000, which he refused.

But others said an electrical fire was more likely. Wali Muhammad, a former electrical inspector, said that most accidental fires are caused by short circuits in equipment. But since 2003, he said, inspectors had been forbidden by law from visiting factories in Karachi and Punjab; it was not immediately clear why.

“This is criminal negligence,” he told Geo News, referring to the ban.

Another mystery surrounded the locked factory doors. Some survivors said the exits had been shuttered to prevent workers from slipping out early; others said it was the consequence of a recent break-in.

A majority of the garment workers came from Orangi Town, a poor working-class neighborhood in Karachi. Seventeen of the victims came from the same street, local news media reported.

The factory building suffered severe structural damage in the blaze, and officials feared it would collapse on rescue workers during the day.

While many distraught family members set up camp near the factory, others moved between city hospitals, seeking news of loved ones. One man said he was looking for his cousin, who earned $70 a month as a cashier. “He’s still missing. I’m afraid he may have been working in the basement,” the man said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called on the government to mount an immediate investigation. “The head of the firefighting operations in Karachi has noted that the factory was dangerous, flimsily built and had no emergency exits,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the rights group. “Why did all of that escape official attention earlier?”

Workplace safety is guaranteed under Pakistan’s Constitution, but labor leaders say that government oversight has crumbled rapidly in recent years, along with a general decline in governance.

Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, a labor rights group, said that 151 workers died in accidents in 2011. The state was partly responsible for the deaths, he said, because its civil servants “silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.”

Pakistan and India to Resume Cricket Matches

By Michele Langevine Leiby for The Washington Post

Whatever their differences, Pakistanis and Indians love their cricket. Their armies might fight wars and their governments may deeply mistrust each other, but sports fans and politicians in both countries see a diplomatic bright spot: a series of matches this year between the historical rivals.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India announced last week that the country would resume matches with Pakistan for the first time in five years. They will be the first bilateral games between the countries since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India says were launched by Pakistani terrorists who have been protected from prosecution by Pakistan’s government.

Although dates and the venue are still being worked out, the prospect of a renewed sporting rivalry has stirred optimism for rapprochement in both capitals.

“I think this will be further cementing the bilateral relationship, which is improving by the day,” Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said. Krishna is planning a visit to Islamabad in September.

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing hope that reviving cricket matches would improve trust between the two nations, the newspaper Dawn reported.

Pakistani cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan also weighed in. “Anything which can bring both the countries to negotiations and normalcy is very good, and we must appreciate that,” he said.

Khan, who is running for prime minister, captained the Pakistan cricket team to its 1992 World Cup championship.

Young Pakistanis and Indians — aided by social media and unhampered by the long and contentious history — have found other ways to interact. Facebook pages such as “Romancing the Border” offer a forum for college students from both sides to learn about each other.

But online messaging and cricket diplomacy may not have much impact on a fundamentally hostile relationship; India and Pakistan fought three wars and remain locked in conflict over control of Kashmir. Their militaries are faced off on the disputed Siachen Glacier, described as the world’s highest battleground, where more men are lost due to the brutal conditions than to actual combat. In April, an avalanche at the entry to the glacier buried dozens of Pakistanis, most of them soldiers.

Pakistan Elects ‘Rental Raja’ as Prime Minister

By Ben Doherty for The Sydney Morning Herald

A turbulent week in Pakistani politics has ended with the election of a new prime minister, but one who appears unlikely to stay long in the top job.

The past seven days have seen a long-serving prime minister sacked by the Supreme Court for contempt, his putative replacement felled by an arrest warrant for drugs importation and, finally, a stopgap candidate elected, with the country now almost certainly headed for early elections within months.

The new prime minister is Raja Pervez Ashraf, a 61-year-old from Sindh, who was water and power minister in the previous government. That job made him unpopular in a country stricken by chronic power shortages that only worsened on his watch. Some parts of the country are blacked out 22 hours a day. Mr Ashraf has also been accused of corruption over the importation of short-term power stations. Known as ”rental power” projects, they were costly and produced little power.

He is accused of making millions on the side from the deals and his derogatory nickname ”Rental Raja” was shouted by opponents in Parliament yesterday even as he was showered in rose petals on his election. Mr Ashraf won the parliamentary vote for prime minister 211 votes to 89.
In his first speech to Parliament, Mr Ashraf called on Pakistani Taliban militants to lay down their arms. ”The irresponsible behaviour of religious extremists has ruined Islam and Pakistan. I, as prime minister of Pakistan, appeal to them to lay down arms and join the mainstream of life.”

And he said his government would look to rebuild its relationship with key ally and aid donor, the US. ”We will develop cordial relations with the United States and international community on the basis of equal rights and dignity,” he said. Relations between the countries have rarely been worse, and show little scope for improvement.

Pakistan is refusing to reopen its border to Afghanistan to American trucks, after a botched US attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. And the US will not countenance abandoning its drone attack program in Pakistan’s north-west.

Regardless, few in Pakistan believe Mr Ashraf will have time to deliver even a fraction of what he promised in his maiden address. His government has, at most, nine months before elections are due, but they are expected now before the end of the year. ”This year will be the year of new elections, and we are going for the elections,” senior Pakistani People’s Party member Khursheed Shah said.
Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, said Mr Ashraf was a ”cynical choice” for PM. ”Whoever takes over as prime minister will be in for a very short time. Obviously the Pakistan People’s Party will not choose its best for this stint. They will choose people who can be dispensed with.”

On Tuesday, the former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, was dismissed by the Supreme Court for refusing a direction to write a letter allowing Swiss authorities to investigate corruption allegations against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (the same demand is likely to be made of Mr Ashraf). Then, the man tipped to fill the PM’s post, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, had an arrest warrant issued for him over the illegal importation of the chemical ephedrine, used to make methamphetamine.

Pakistan Probe Says Ex-Envoy to US Wrote ‘Treasonous’ Memo to Washington

By Asif Shahzad for The Associated Press

A judicial investigation has concluded Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S. did write a secret letter to American officials requesting their help in reining in the powerful army last year, a lawmaker and state media said Tuesday. The finding could lead to treason charges against the envoy.

The former envoy Husain Haqqani was a close aide to President Asif Ali Zardari and a member of his party. Zardari himself could be threatened if any evidence surfaces showing he ordered, or knew of, the memo.

Haqqani, who resigned from his post after the scandal broke and currently lives in America, has denied he wrote the memo and said the commission’s report was “political and one-sided.” Many independent observers have also concluded that the probe was politicized.

The commission was investigating politically explosive allegations that Haqqani sought U.S. assistance last year in warding off an alleged army coup in the aftermath of the U.S raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. The scandal pitted the weak civilian government against the army, and drew in other the feuding power brokers in Pakistan — the Supreme Court, the opposition and the media.

The dispute over the letter and other politically driven clashes between Pakistani state institutions, as well as an increasingly hostile relationship with Washington, have intensified strains on the shaky elected government as it struggles against Islamist militancy and economic stagnation. Some analysts have predicted events could end in a destabilizing stalemate, conditions that in the past have led to coups and other military interventions.

Allegations of collusion between Washington and Pakistani officials may also complicate American efforts to rebuild security cooperation with Pakistan, thrown into disarray in November by U.S. airstrikes that accidentally targeted Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border and killed 24 of them.

The United States wants Pakistan to resolve its political turmoil and focus on fighting militancy and helping in its campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. But anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan, and few politicians are willing to publicly help Washington. Pakistan has yet to reopen supply lines for NATO and US troops that it blocked after the November airstrikes. On Monday, US officials said a negotiating team in Pakistan seeking to get the supply lines reopened was returning home, the latest sign of stalled relations between the two countries. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, on a visit to Pakistan, said his government wanted to see the supply lines reopened.

“Those lines of communication affect us as well,” he told reporters, but added it was an issue for Islamabad and Washington to resolve.

The commission called witnesses and sought telephone records from Haqqani, who did not appear before the probe. Many other Pakistani observers have been skeptical of the investigation. Haqqani’s chief accuser in the case was an American-Pakistani businessman with a history of making unsubstantiated allegations and who once appeared in a music video featuring naked female mud wrestlers.

The commission read out its finding in the Supreme Court. Opposition lawmaker Khwaja Asif, who was present, said it concluded Haqqani tried to undermine Pakistan’s constitution and was not “loyal to the state.” The court ordered Haqqani to appear before it after two weeks.

Retired Justice Nasira Javed said the commission was working on orders from the Supreme Court and criminal proceedings against Haqqani on treason charges could now begin.

The release of the findings came just hours before the Supreme Court heard testimony from a billionaire property developer who claimed that the son of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry accepted $3.5 million worth of shopping and foreign trips to influence judges at the court. The case is embarrassing for Chaudhry, and is seen by some as part of a campaign by supporters of Zardari’s government to tarnish his image. Chaudhry recently convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, an ally of Zardari, of contempt of court for not opening corruption charges against the president.

Alluding to that case, ex-envoy Haqqani said the “commission’s report has been released to distract attention from other more embarrassing developments.”

Supporters of Haqqani and the government accuse the Supreme Court and the army of working against Zardari and the political party he heads. His movement claims a long history of persecution by the army in Pakistan

US-Pakistan Tensions Deepen as Obama Snubs Zardari at Nato Summit

As Reported By Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian

The rift between the US and Pakistan deepened on Monday as the Nato summit in Chicago broke up without a deal on Afghanistan supply routes.

Barack Obama, at a press conference to wind up the summit, made no attempt to conceal his exasperation, issuing a pointed warning to Pakistan it was in its wider interest to work with the US to avoid being “consumed” by extremists.

Seldom in recent years have the tensions between Washington and Islamabad been on public show to the extent as at the Chicago, overshadowing the two-day Nato summit.

The main point of friction is Pakistan’s closure of Nato supply routes to Afghanistan in protest over drone attacks and a US air strike in November that killed two dozen Pakistani troops.

Obama refused to make time during the two-day summit to see the Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari for a face-to-face bilateral meeting. In a press conference, Obama made a point of stressing that the only exchange he had with his Pakistani counterpart was short. “Very brief, as we were walking into the summit,” Obama said.

The US president said he “did not want to paper over the cracks” and that there has been tension between the US-led international force in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last few months.

But ultimately, it was in the US interest to have a stable, democratic and prosperous Pakistan, Obama said, adding it was in the interest of Pakistan to work with the US to ensure it is not consumed by extremists.

There are fears in the US that the Pakistan government is unstable and that the government could fall, to be replaced by hardliners. The risk for Obama is displaying his annoyance with Pakistan at the Chicago summit is that Zardari could leave the summit feeling humiliated and even less willing to play a positive role over Afghanistan.

Obama declined to meet Zadari one-to-one because Pakistan is refusing to re-open its Afghanistan border to Nato, which means the US and others are having to resupply their military forces through the slower and more expensive routes from the north and Russia.

The president claimed that he never anticipated the Pakistan supply line issue being resolved at the summit and, taking a more optimistic view of the stand-off, he said they were making “diligent progress”.

“We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. Neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues,” Obama said.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, at a press conference in Chicago, reflected the irritation with Pakistan, describing the blocked routes as “frustrating”. Cameron said he expected a deal eventually but not at the summit.

In its final communique, Nato formally committed to its withdrawal of the 130,000-strong force from Afghanistan based on a timetable agreed earlier by Obama and Karzai. All international combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014. But the communique said a smaller force would remain to help “train, advise and assist” the Afghan army.

The communique does not say how many troops will be left but US commanders in Kabul are looking at a Nato force of around 15,000-20,000. Reflecting the public mood in Nato countries tired of the war, the comminque said the withdrawal timetable is “irreversible”.

Obama, at the opening of the second day of the Nato summit on Monday morning, showed his displeasure with the Pakistan government by singling out for mention the Central Asia countries and Russia that have stepped in to replace the Pakistan supply route and made no mention of Pakistan. Zardari was in the room at the time.

To ram home the point, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, also held a meeting at the Nato summit with senior ministers from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Panetta expressed his “deep appreciation” for their support.

Zardari has demanded an apology from the US for the killing of the 24 Pakistani troops in November in return for reopening supply lines. He is also proposing that the tariff for each vehicle be raised from $250 to $5,000. The US is bitter about this, noting the amount of American military and other aid that goes to Pakistan annually.

In his wrap-up press conference, Obama stood praised the Chicago police for their handling of the demonstrations but also defended the rights of the protesters. “This is part of what Nato defends: free speech and freedom of assembly,” Obama said.

Panetta to Confront Pakistan at NATO Summit on Transport Costs

By David Cloud for New York Daily News

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta heads to this weekend’s NATO summit prepared to confront Pakistan over what he considers price-gouging for transport of supplies to Afghanistan and hoping for a “consensus” among allies over the war effort.

In an interview before his arrival in Chicago, where the summit is scheduled to begin Sunday, Panetta all but ruled out paying Pakistan $5,000 for each truck carrying supplies across its territory for NATO troops waging the Afghanistan war. Pakistani officials have demanded that amount as a condition for reopening supply routes that have been closed to the alliance since fall.

“Considering the financial challenges that we’re facing, that’s not likely,” Panetta said of the demand.

Before the supply routes were closed in November after a mistaken U.S. attack on two remote Pakistani border posts that killed two dozen Pakistani troops, NATO convoys were paying an average of about $250 a truck, a senior U.S. official said.

U.S. officials say they remain hopeful they can resolve the dispute, perhaps at the summit. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari accepted a last-minute invitation to attend the meetings, although he is not expected to meet one-on-one with President Obama, officials said.

Thousands of trucks a day carrying supplies would go through multiple border crossings from Pakistan to Afghanistan, making the fees a potentially massive source of revenue for the cash-strapped government in Islamabad.

The U.S. has shifted deliveries to different routes through Russia and other countries to Afghanistan’s north. But the massive withdrawals of equipment due to unfold over the next 21/2 years as troops leave the country will be “significantly” more difficult if routes in Pakistan aren’t used, the Pentagon acknowledged in a report last month.

The Obama administration hopes the two-day summit will highlight what Panetta called a “consensus” within NATO about how to disengage militarily by the end of 2014. Exhausted after more than a decade of war, the U.S. and its allies want to hand off responsibility for fighting the Taliban to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, even though its army and police remain well short of being able to stand on their own.

“Everybody in the alliance recognizes that for this to work, we can’t pick up and leave. We’ve got to remain there to provide support and to assist them in that effort with training, with assistance, with advice,” Panetta said.

But he acknowledged that there would be difficulties, both on the battlefield and within the alliance. Those splits are exemplified by the new French president, Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader who campaigned on a vow to withdraw all 3,300 French troops by the end of this year. Hollande met with Obama at the White House on Friday.

Panetta, who plans to meet the new French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Chicago, indicated that the U.S. hopes France will agree to keep some forces in a noncombat role in Afghanistan for the next 2 1/2 years, even if they withdraw all combat troops early.

Yet a more rapid exit by France than planned could lead other allies to speed up their own troop withdrawals.

“There are some countries — Canada, France — that want to bring their combat operations to an end on a faster time track, but that doesn’t have to mean they won’t accept the responsibility to continue to provide the needed support,” Panetta said.

Panetta acknowledged that U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to make long-term financial pledges to fund Afghanistan’s army and police, a key objective of the two-day Chicago summit, is running into difficulties.

“Of course, it’s not easy considering the financial difficulties that a lot of these countries are going through,” he said. “Many of them have come forward and said they would be willing to make a commitment, and I really do think we will be able to achieve the support levels we need.”

In an effort to secure more pledges, the U.S. is asking other countries to commit to providing aid for only three years, though Afghanistan’s armed forces are expected to need foreign assistance for at least a decade, a Western diplomat in Washington said.

A year ago, the Obama administration was hopeful it could draw the Taliban into peace negotiations with Karzai’s government, but Panetta acknowledged that he didn’t see a deal to end the conflict happening “any time soon.”

Why President Zardari’s Visit Is A Small Bonus

By Soutik Biswas for The BBC

Hope is not a policy, but neither is despair, as South Asia expert Stephen Cohen says in a recent essay on Pakistan.

So it is with relations between India and Pakistan.

The past few days have shown how fragile the relationship can be – even as India welcomed President Asif Ali Zardari’s private trip to India on Sunday – the first by a Pakistani head of state for seven years – and PM Manmohan Singh invited him for lunch, the $10m US bounty for Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, provoked the cleric to openly launch a fresh attack against India (and the US).

But people live in hope, so Indian media is gung-ho about Mr Zardari’s visit.

They say the Pakistani president must be applauded for trying to end trade discrimination against India, easing petroleum imports from across the border, and moving towards a liberal visa deal.

“Under Mr Zardari’s watch, India and Pakistan are considering a sweeping agenda for economic co-operation for the first time in decades. The prime minister has every reason to welcome Mr Zardari warmly and consider the next steps in consolidating the unexpected movement in bilateral relations,” the Indian Express wrote.

Analyst C Raja Mohan believes Mr Singh must make an official trip to Pakistan after his meeting with Mr Zardari. “For his part,” he wrote, “Mr Singh should convey to Mr Zardari his readiness to move as fast and as far as the Pakistan president is willing to go.” Others like Jyoti Malhotra actually find Mr Zardari’s visit to the shrine of a famous Sufi Muslim saint in Rajasthan loaded with symbolism in these troubled times. “Clearly, Mr Zardari has stolen an imaginative moment from the bitter-sullen history of India-Pakistan, by asking to come to pay his respects to a cherished and much-beloved saint across the Indian subcontinent,” she wrote.

The relations between two neighbours remain complex. A 2010 Pew survey found 53% of the respondents in Pakistan chose India as the greater threat to their country, and only 26% chose the Taliban and al-Qaeda. At the same time 72% said it was important to improve relations with India, and about 75% wanted more trade relations and talks with India.

Pundits like Mr Cohen believe that it will “take the [Pakistan] army’s compliance, strong political leadership, and resolutely independent-minded foreign ministers to secure any significant shift of approach towards India”.

None of this appears to be in much evidence at the moment.

Both countries have seriously weakened governments that makes them unable to move towards any radical confidence building measures. In the current circumstances, President Zardari’s visit can only be a small bonus. And as scholars like Kanti Bajpai suggest, India must remain patient (even if faced with another Mumbai-style attack), continue to engage with Islamabad, help the civilian government in Pakistan politically, try to resolve a few outstanding disputes like Siachen and Sir Creek, build a relationship with the army and explore the possibility of cooperating with Islamabad on the future of Afghanistan. Despair does not help mend a stormy relationship.

Pakistan PM Prefers Jail to Writing to Swiss

As Reported by Agence France-Presse

Pakistan’s embattled Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Thursday he would rather go to jail than obey a court order and ask Switzerland to re-open graft cases against the president.

Gilani’s remarks revive speculation that he would rather risk losing his job than capitulate in a two-year showdown with the judiciary that culminated last month with him being charged with contempt by the Supreme Court.

He has always insisted that President Asif Ali Zardari is immune from prosecution as president and says the cases against him are politically motivated.

“If I write a letter it will be a violation of the constitution, which is treason and which carries the death sentence,” Gilani told PhD students in central Punjab province, with a few in the audience shouting “do not write, do not write”.

“If I don’t write, I will be convicted for contempt, the punishment for which is six months’ imprisonment,” Gilani said. “It’s better to face six months’ imprisonment than face the death sentence.”

Pakistan’s top court last week ordered Gilani to ask Switzerland to reopen corruption cases against Zardari by March 21.

It was the first time the court asked Gilani personally to write to the Swiss. It previously addressed repeated demands to the government since revoking in 2009 an amnesty freezing legal proceedings against key politicians.

Zardari and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss accounts to launder about $12 million in alleged bribes paid by companies seeking customs inspection contracts in the 1990s.

Playing to the gallery, Gilani asked the students in Bahawalpur district whether he should write the letter, to which the audience shouted: “No, no.”

“Ok, we will send your message to the court and tell them that they should charge parliament with contempt of court because parliament has given immunity to the president. All heads of state all over the world have this immunity.”

Zardari is so tainted by corruption allegations that he is nicknamed “Mr 10 Percent”. He has already spent 11 years in jail in Pakistan on charges ranging from corruption to murder although he has never been convicted.

Pakistan Vows to Arrest Musharraf for Bhutto Assassination

By Reza Sayah for CNN

Pakistani authorities vowed Tuesday to use the international police agency Interpol to arrest former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in connection with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

“The government is moving for his (Musharraf’s) red notice,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, referring to the Interpol’s international arrest warrant.

“We will get him through Interpol to Pakistan.”

Malik made the announcement as part of a progress report of the four-year-long assassination probe that was presented to provincial lawmakers Tuesday in Bhutto’s home province of Sindh. The briefing lasted several hours and was broadcast live on Pakistani TV.

Bhutto was assassinated in a gun-suicide attack in December 2007, shortly after she came back to Pakistan from self imposed exile to take part in the 2008 general elections.

Malik and the head of the investigation team said former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud plotted the assassination and paid the equivalent of about $4,500 to a network of Islamist militants to carry out the killing.

Using a Power Point presentation, pictures and video to outline the evidence they had gathered, authorities said Mehsud had Bhutto killed because she supported the west’s war against Islamist militants. Investigators said they collected much of their evidence from the accused plotters’ cell phone records before and after the killing.

Last November a Pakistani court charged five alleged Islamist militants with aiding the suicide attacker and two senior police officers for failing to provide adequate security.

Musharraf has also been accused of failing to protect Bhutto. In February 2011 a judge issued an arrest warrant for Musharraf after he didn’t show up to court for questioning.

Musharraf has been in self-imposed exile ever since he left Paksitan in 2008. Last August authorities confiscated his property in Pakistan and froze his bank account. The former military ruler has denied having anything to do with Bhutto’s killing.

In Tuesday’s briefing Malik and investigators said Musharraf rejected Bhutto’s request to use a western private security contractor for protection when she returned to Pakistan. They suggested Musharraf intentionally left Bhutto vulnerable because he felt politically threatened by her return.

“It was the duty of the government to provide the prime minister with protection,” Malik yelled at one point. “Why did you not give security? What was the problem?”

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan envoy to US, allowed to travel abroad

By Richard Leiby for The Washington Post

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, was permitted to travel abroad Monday by the nation’s Supreme Court after two months of fending off treason allegations over his purported involvement in a mysterious memo that sought Washington’s help to neuter Pakistan’s powerful military.

The court ruling indicated that authorities seem to have lost interest in continuing to probe Haqqani’s role in the scandal, known here as Memogate, which at one point threatened to bring down the civilian leadership of this coup-prone country.

Haqqani, a confidant of President Asif Ali Zardari, was forced to resign, recalled to Islamabad and ordered not to travel abroad after a Pakistani American tycoon, Mansoor Ijaz, alleged that the diplomat engineered an unsigned missive to the Pentagon hoping to block a coup in the turbulent days after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Haqqani denied involvement and said Ijaz, a onetime acquaintance, cooked up the memo.

In an e-mail to Agence France-Presse, Haqqani said: “I am glad that the Supreme Court has restored my right to travel, which had been rescinded without any charges being filed against me.” He added that he planned to join his family in the United States.

Memogate prompted a showdown between the army and the civilian leadership, which technically oversees the military, and brought an already shaky government to the verge of collapse. The fissures between the two sides now seem to have been repaired, and the incessant political and media interest in the scandal has waned in recent days.

One reason seemed to be the dwindling credibility of Ijaz, who has yet to appear to testify about his role in the memo, saying he fears for his safety. The bulk of evidence has come from Ijaz, who released logs of what he says are BlackBerry message conversations between him and Haqqani.

Since his return to Islamabad, Haqqani has stayed within the walls of the official government residence, saying he feared for his life.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) issued a statement condemning the “harassment” of Haqqani, a former journalist and Boston University professor. They called him a “principled advocate” for Pakistan.

Despite allowing the erstwhile diplomat to travel, the Supreme Court did not drop the matter entirely: It granted a two-month extension to the judicial commission that is probing Memogate. And Haqqani’s lawyer had to guarantee that the former envoy would appear before the court if called, on four days’ notice.

A separate parliamentary investigation is also underway.

The End of a Geopolitical Affair

By Pramit Pal Chaudhri for The Hindustan Times

In Pakistan’s current crisis, why is its military is so reluctant to consider simply seizing power? One reason is that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani cannot count on the US looking the other way. At a minimum, Washington would have to slap sanctions on an economically faltering country. At a maximum, it would be the last straw in a bilateral relationship at its lowest ebb since it was first woven in the 1950s.

Pakistan’s establishment claims it has been used and abused by the US, the most serious violation being that country’s stealth attack on Abbottabad that led to Osama bin Laden’s death. There has been the Raymond Davies affair, the endless drone attacks and the increasingly public accusation of double-dealing by senior US officials – the most notable being Admiral Mike Mullen’s linking of the Inter-Services Intelligence with terrorist groups.

There is some satisfaction for India in all this. It has been persistently claiming the existence of a military-terrorist nexus. Many in Washington agree. After Abbottabad, there is no one in Washington who doesn’t. The US-Pakistan relationship, says Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund, “was really at a historic high for the past decade but is diminishing.” But it might not matter as much to the US if relations fall apart, he says.

Other events are undermining the basis of the US-Pakistani bond. Islamabad had expected the US to totally retreat from Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan’s Taliban allies in charge. Instead, the US will leave a substantial force behind along with many drone bases. The US is talking with the Taliban, but only desultorily with groups that Islamabad patronises.

With the US Congress also pulling the plug on aid to Pakistan, what is left? The answer is nukes. “If Pakistan didn’t have nuclear weapons, with Al Qaeda almost gone, no one would care a fig about that country,” said one ex-US ambassador to the region. As they realise this, Islamabad is getting more paranoid about the security of its “strategic assets.” The more unstable they look, the more willing the US will be to try and do something risky to salvage Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

US officials are talking about a “new normal” in their Pakistan relations. This would cut ties to the bare bones: counterterrorism cooperation, limited military transit requirements, Afghan talks, narcotics and some humanitarian assistance. “We’ll have to work with the Pakistan military on a limited basis while negotiations with the Taliban proceed,” says John Schlosser, a former state department South Asia hand.

There seems to be no real understanding among Pakistanis that their leverage is dwindling or how much Abbottabad vapourised their credibility in the US. A parliamentary committee report on how to change the US relationship bizarrely demanded, for example, a civilian nuclear agreement.

It could get worse. “The relationship will fall further if the US finds [Al Qaeda chief] Zawahiri in Pakistan. Or there are terror strikes on India or the US,” says Bruce Riedel, former AfPak advisor to Barack Obama.

The worst thing is that Washington is decoupling just at a time when Pakistan, economically and otherwise, can least afford to lose their most generous international partner.

Pakistan High Court Launches Contempt Case Against Prime Minister

By Alex Rodriguez for The Los Angeles Times

Dealing a heavy blow to Pakistan’s embattled government, the Supreme Court on Monday initiated contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for refusing to revive a long-standing corruption case against the nation’s president.

Gilani, a top ally of President Asif Ali Zardari in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, must appear before the court Thursday, when the justices will listen to his explanation for not going ahead with the case.

If the court moves forward with the contempt proceedings and Gilani is convicted, he could be disqualified from office and forced to step down. He also could be forced to serve up to six months in jail.

Zardari’s government is locked in battles with the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s powerful military, both of which have had an acrimonious relationship with the president since he took office in 2008. The crisis has stirred talk of the government’s possible ouster, though experts say it probably would happen through legal action taken by the high court rather than a military coup.

The military has ousted civilian leaders in coups four times in Pakistan’s 65-year history, but military generals have said they have no plans to mount a takeover.

Nevertheless, they were deeply angered by an unsigned memo that a Pakistani American businessman contends was engineered by a top Zardari ally to seek Washington’s help in preventing a military coup last spring. In exchange, the memo offered several concessions, including the elimination of a wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency that maintains links with Afghan insurgent groups.

The businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, says the then-ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, approached him with the idea. Haqqani, who was forced to resign after the allegations surfaced, denies any involvement in the creation or conveyance of the memo. A Supreme Court commission is investigating the case, and on Monday it ordered Ijaz to come to Pakistan and appear before the panel Jan. 24.

The high court’s move to start contempt proceedings against Gilani involves money-laundering charges in Switzerland that Zardari was convicted of in absentia in 2003. The case was appealed by Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and was later dropped at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.

Since 2009, Pakistan’s high court has repeatedly ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case be reopened. Gilani and government lawyers have refused, arguing that as president, Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.

Last week, the court warned Gilani that it could remove him from office if he did not abide by its demand. Government lawyers were supposed to appear in court Monday and explain why Gilani’s administration had ignored the court.

Instead, Atty. Gen. Maulvi Anwarul Haq appeared before a packed courtroom and told a high court panel that the government had not given him any instructions about what to say in court. The head of the panel, Justice Nasir Mulk, said Gilani’s inaction gave the court no recourse but to pursue a contempt case against him.

Outside the courtroom, Haq said that if the court eventually issues a contempt finding against Gilani, “this conviction has ramifications…. Under the constitution, with a conviction it’s disqualification from office.”

Before the court issues its findings, it probably would hold evidentiary hearings, Haq said. If Gilani on Thursday tells the court he will ask Swiss authorities to reopen the corruption case, the justices probably would consider dropping the contempt proceeding, said Tariq Mehmood, a lawyer and retired judge.

Gilani has given no indication he plans to give in. He will, however, appear in court Thursday to explain the government’s rationale, he told parliament late Monday. “We have always respected the courts,” he said. “The court has summoned me, and in respect of the court I will go there on Jan. 19.”

Zardari’s administration hopes to become the first civilian government to finish out its term, which ends in 2013. The political turmoil may thwart that plan, as opposition leaders increasingly push harder for early elections. Though Zardari is widely criticized in Pakistan for failing to revive the country’s moribund economy and tackle corruption, his party remains confident that it can weather the storm and retain power for a second term.

Even if Gilani is removed from office, Zardari continues to hold together a coalition that controls parliament’s lower house, which elects the prime minister. On Monday, however, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a staunch ally of the president, doubted it would come to that.

“The prime minister will stay,” Malik told reporters outside parliament. “The government is in command. Our flight may be a little bumpy, but God willing, we will have a smooth landing in 2013.”

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