Momentous week

Momentous week
It has been a momentous week. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan launched one of its most audacious attacks to date on Karachi airport and exposed the state’s brittle security framework. This compelled the civil-military leadership to stop prevaricating and finally launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. This persuaded Imran Khan to patriotically line up behind the military and cancel his “disruptionist” rally in Bahalwalpur. This nudged Maulana Tahirul Qadri to postpone his “revolutionary long march” to Islamabad to overthrow the Sharif regime. This emboldened Shahbaz Sharif to signal a show of force against Tahirul Qadri’s base in Model Town Lahore. This ignited Tahir ul Qadri’s supporters against the police. This provoked the police to charge into them. This outraged Tahirul Qadri to exhort his supporters to embrace martyrdom. This triggered bloody violence in which nine TUC activists were shot dead by the police. This enraged Imran Khan and Qadri to revert to their plans to hold rallies and long marches to besiege Islamabad.  In the melee, two issues – a military operation against the TTP and General Pervez Musharraf’s freedom — that have bedevilled civil-military relations and nurtured conspiracy theories of the impending demise of the Sharif regime have been overtaken by new and more compelling ones. What next?

After the Sindh High Court predictably let General Musharraf off the hook, and the government predictably challenged its decision, the case is finally in the Supreme Court. If the SC orders the government to let him go, the issue will no longer hang fire and civil-military tensions will be diffused. But if the SC sides with the government, then civil-military relations will dive and conspiracy theorists will add fuel to the fire.  However, if he court throws the ball back into the government’s court, then all this tense rigmarole to assign responsibility for dealing with Musharraf will explode in the government’s face and it will be damned if it lets Musharraf go and damned if it doesn’t. The Troika of Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri and the Chaudries of Gujrat will then hone its tactics to suit the occasion later this month.

Meanwhile, the government will be formulating a strategy to deal with four issues later this month. First, it has to deal with Musharraf’s ECL problem following a decision by the SC. Second, it has to cope with the expected backlash – renewed terrorist attacks in the urban areas and a flood of refugees from Waziristan — from the military operation against the TTP. Third, it has to disrupt and degrade the plans of the Troika to besiege Islamabad.  Fourth, it has to help restore GEO TV without further alienating the military. It’s a tall order.

One quick fix option may be to let Musharraf exit without further ado and let GEO fend for itself against the military and focus on the other two issues. Coupled with full civilian backing for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military may be sufficiently assuaged to rein in the Troika. But if the Troika is not amenable, then the government may be compelled to exercise subtle force to stop it in his tracks. It isn’t just the government that wants to be rid of Tahir ul Qadri. The TTP has also got him in its gun sights for relentlessly opposing “Islamic” terrorism. The problem is that if anything untoward should happen to him in Pakistan at the hands of the government or the TTP, the government alone will have to accept responsibility for the sins of commission or omission that could precipitate a full blown crisis of governance.

The option of allowing the Troika to march on to Islamabad is a non-starter. The government cannot rely on the police and Rangers to block the surging river of militants. Indeed, it would be foolish to even try, given the propensity of the police to create problems instead of diffusing them, and the loyalty of the Rangers to GHQ rather than to the Interior Ministry during crunch time. Nor can it expect a talking parliamentary majority to protect it from the surging masses laying siege to parliament itself.

The PMLN leadership has badly miscalculated the power and wrath of the military.  Barely one year in the saddle, it is facing a crisis of survival for which responsibility rests squarely on its own shoulders. The military has co-opted the media or silenced it, frightened the judiciary and roped in the opposition to thwart Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Asif Zardari’s PPP regime, like those previously of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif himself, was also confronted with the same dilemma. When it tried to clip the military’s wings, the Umpire hit back. But Mr Zardari learnt to avoid stepping on the military’s toes and leaned on Nawaz Sharif in opposition to hobble along. The same option is now on the table for Nawaz Sharif.  Will he live with Mr Zardari and let live with the military to fight another day? Or will he be true to form as in 1993 and 1999 and face the same consequences?

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.