The Explosion

The Explosion
Asif Zardari has been simmering like a volcano ever since the Karachi Operation started. Now he has exploded. The fallout could be catastrophic for the MQM, PPP and PMLN if it is not contained immediately.

Mr Zardari’s angst was evident when he couldn’t shield his provincial alliance partner MQM from the military operation in Karachi that strained his relations with it. The problem was that, after agreeing with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to give the military a free hand to clean up the province, he couldn’t have objected to the targeted operation. Now, after eliminating many terrorists, the military operation has entered the second stage and is targeting the criminals inside and outside the PPP government who give sustenance to them. This includes lower level bureaucrats and police officials, some of whom are important props in the Sindh government.

Last month tensions began to ratchet up after the Corps Commander Karachi launched a blistering assault on the bad governance and corruption in the Sindh administration. The tipping point came last week when the DG Sindh Rangers alleged that corrupt government functionaries had sourced Rs 230 billion in funding every year to various hues of terrorists, and unleashed NAB against them. Inevitably, as the noose has tightened, Mr Zardari has come out flailing and fuming against his military tormentors.

“Stop teasing us”, he thundered, “or we’ll turn everything upside down”. If the military has compiled a list of “corrupt and criminal elements” in the Sindh administration, Mr Zardari warned that when his “list of corrupt generals” is published their skeletons would tumble out of the cupboards. “Stop throwing dirt at us, stop victimizing us, or we’ll tear you from limb to limb…you have been warned, you have been warned, you have been warned”.

Rarely has any politician hurled such bitter and angry missives at the military establishment. But Mr Zardari was quick to add a chastening word or two. “This is our army, our institution… when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I said Pakistan Khappay, but there’s a limit to everything…” Cynics charge Mr Zardari of fuming when his power and privilege are challenged by the military but “khappaying” when Benazir Bhutto was murdered.

Unfortunately, instead of dousing the flames that threaten to engulf the political parties and discredit the political dispensation, interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has stoked the fire. “Mr Zardari has targeted the military at a time when it is sacrificing its blood in defense of the country against terrorism, to hide his own failures and weaknesses and declining popularity”. He condemned the ex-President’s remarks as “inappropriate, unwarranted and contemptuous” and argued that his “political style may cause irreparable loss to our national identity and institutions”.

Mr Zardari sought a meeting with PM Nawaz Sharif to extract a quid pro quo from him for standing against Imran Khan at the height of the Dharna last year when the PMLN government was at the mercy of the third umpire. But the PM has publicly advised Mr Zardari to zip up and distanced himself from the fracas. Mr Sharif simply can’t afford to alienate the military again after retreating from the Musharraf affair not so long ago.

General Raheel Sharif has launched an accountability exercise from home and the military is investigating one four star general and his brothers and several three and two stars. He is hardly likely to take kindly to being thwarted by the civilians when his team is midway through Operation Clean-up in Sindh. In fact the operation is likely to become even more worrying for Mr Zardari as it moves up a notch to target ministers, politicians, senior policemen and bureaucrats.

The dye is cast. The Sindh government has protested to the DG Rangers for transgressing the writ of Article 147 by targeting the civil and political administration. But as tensions rise in Sindh, the heat is likely to be felt in Islamabad too. One source will be the fiery Bilawal Bhutto who is set to replace the sedate Khurshid Shah as leader of the opposition. Mr Bhutto is not going to give any quarter to Mr Sharif in parliament if Mr Sharif doesn’t give any to the PPP in Sindh. The second source will be Gen Sharif. If there is overt hostility between the Rangers and the Sindh government, as might happen, for example, if Uzair Baloch starts singing in custody, Gen Sharif is likely to demand Governor’s Rule. That would signal the end of the implicit alliance between the PPP and PMLN against the military establishment and the start of a new movement under the PTI and PPP to topple the PMLN regime and order a new round of elections.

The military’s strategy of “cleaning” up Pakistan in stages without assuming power directly, is nearing the limits of its viability and effectiveness. Sooner rather than later Mr Sharif will have to take sides. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, it is certainly going to get nastier and messier.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.