Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pakistan: Struggling to See a Country of Shards

LAHORE, Pakistan — On a spring night in Lahore, I came face to face with all that is puzzling about Pakistan.

I had just interviewed Mobarak Haidar, a Pakistani author who was confidently predicting the end of the world. Islamic extremism, he said, was a wild animal that would soon gobble up Europe and all of Western civilization. “All the world’s achievements for the past 500 years are at risk,” he said in a gloomy tone, sitting in his living room. Soon there would be no more music, dancing or fun of any kind. The power went out and candles were lit, adding to the spookiness.

And then, as I climbed into a car to go home, a wedding party came out of nowhere, enveloping us in a shower of rose petals. Men playing bagpipes marched toward us, grinning, while dancing guests wriggled and clapped, making strange-shaped silhouettes in our headlights.

So which is the real Pakistan? Collapsing state or crazy party?

The answer is both, which is why this country of 170 million people is so hard to figure out.

Pakistan has several selves. There is rural Pakistan, where two-thirds of the country lives in conditions that approximate the 13th century. There is urban Pakistan, where the British-accented, Princeton-educated elite sip cold drinks in clipped gardens.

The rugged mountains of the west are inhabited by fiercely tribal Pashtuns, many of whom live without running water or electricity; there, an open Taliban insurgency seems beyond the central government’s control. In the lush plains of Punjab in the east, the insurgency is still underground, and the major highways are as smooth as any in the American Midwest.

The place where these two areas meet is the front line of Pakistan’s war — valleys and towns less than 100 miles from the country’s capital, Islamabad. Taliban militants, whose talk is part Marx, part mullah, but whose goal is power, now occupy this area. In recent weeks they pushed into Buner, even closer to the capital, and last week the military, after weeks of inaction, began a drive against them.

The war, in a way, is a telling clash between Pakistan’s competing impulses, so different that they are hard to see together in the same frame.

“It’s like when people try to take snapshots, but the contrast is too sharp,” said Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based lawyer. “You only capture a little bit of the real picture.”

Islam is perhaps the only constant in this picture. Pakistan, after all, was established in 1947 so the Muslims of the subcontinent would have their own country after independence from Britain. The rest became India, a multifaith, Hindu-majority constitutional republic.

But Pakistan didn’t declare itself an Islamic republic until 1956. In its early years, Pakistan’s liberals will remind you, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, delivered two speeches in which he said that Pakistan would not be a theocracy and that citizens of other religions would be free to practice.

Nevertheless, Islam became a powerful glue for the new nation; subsequent leaders, civilian and military, relied on it to stick the patchwork of ethnicities and tribes together. Then, like a genie out of a bottle, it took a direction all its own. “Once you bring Islam into politics, it’s hard to handle,” Mr. Naqvi said. “You don’t have the tools to control it.”

Young countries have long memories, and Pakistanis have not forgotten (or forgiven) the actions of the United States since the 1980s, when its spy agency, together with Pakistan’s own, backed Islamists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Soon after the Soviets left, Washington withdrew its aid to Pakistan, and the Islamists were left with their own safe haven.

“The Americans just walked out, and Pakistan became the most sanctioned state in the world,” said Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times, a newspaper. “That has now created a powder keg of sympathy for the Taliban.”

Like splinters in fingers, these memories continue to irritate. They came tumbling out in a candle-lit room (again, no power) full of journalists in Muzaffargarh, a town in southern Punjab where militants had recently issued threats. Instead of hearing about those threats, though, I was reminded of grievances against America.

“Baitullah Mehsud is the puppet of the C.I.A.,” sputtered Allah B. Mujahid, a newspaper editor in his 50s, referring to the Pakistani Taliban’s leader. A man in thick glasses blurted out: “America has supported dictators in Pakistan!”

Now Pakistan, a young state still wrestling with growing pains and insecurity, is at a turning point. It is in danger of being strangled by Islamic extremism, and the big question is: What will it take for its people and its government to shake off the confusion and stand up to the militants?

Manan Ahmed, a University of Chicago historian, says such an effort would require a fundamental rethinking of Pakistan’s identity. Pakistan, he argues in his blog, Chapati Mystery, never defined what it meant to be a Muslim state. Is it Saudi Arabia? Is it Turkey?

“Somewhere between the Taliban and the drone,” he wrote, “the Pakistanis have to begin forming a sense of their whole.”

Some argue that Pakistanis should return to their roots. For centuries they practiced a tolerant South Asian form of Islam, heavily influenced by Sufism, a mystical, open-minded blend that worshipped in music and dance. The trouble began in the 19th century with the strict Sunni Deobandis, who rejected all that was modern, even nation-states, and demanded a return to the seventh century, when Islam began.

For them, “laughter is not permitted, not even a full smile,” said Mr. Haidar, the writer in Lahore.

Pakistan is not a collapsed state. Its urban infrastructure works far better than most of the Soviet Union’s during that empire’s peak. Pakistan has a national airline that sells tickets online, and highway rest stops with air-conditioning and packaged cookies. But the poorest Pakistanis know nothing of these things, and the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more likely are major social unrest and war.

“This is really a war for the soul of Pakistan,” Mr. Sethi said.

Pakistanis may have restored civilian rule in the last year, but few of them pin much hope on Pakistan’s political class, most of which comes from the landed elite and has ruled corruptly in the past.

There’s the lawyers’ movement, which recently showed it has a national following. But will it harness its power to stand up to the mullahs now on the rise in the north? Does it want to?

Mr. Sethi says the movement will not. In the short six weeks since it challenged the government and won, he said, it has retreated to its old ethnic and class divisions. It has not, for example, come to the aid of embattled colleagues in the courts of Swat and Dir, areas the Taliban have seized.

Insurgencies can only be stamped out if societies turn against them, and Mr. Sethi said he believed that Pakistan’s brightest hope for salvation may be the clumsiness of the Taliban themselves. In recent weeks, they have offended many Pakistanis by defending the public flogging of a girl and declaring Pakistan’s Constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly un-Islamic.

Although the militant Islam preached by the Taliban is alien to most Pakistanis, many had identified with the Taliban as a native movement fighting foreign occupiers on their borders. Now, Mr. Sethi said, “after so many years, people are now looking askance at the Taliban. People are saying, ‘They might be anti-American, but they are also anti-us!’ ” He said this was a moment that Islamabad and Washington must seize.

But there are many ifs.

Mr. Naqvi shared a memory from the final day of the recent lawyers’ march to celebrate a victory over the government. The sun was shining. Crowds were celebrating. Among them, a lawyer was holding a giant silver rattle, dancing and wiggling his body. He was shouting a longstanding slogan of the religious right: “What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but Allah.”

For me, a newcomer to Pakistan, the thoughts seemed mismatched — almost as if the man was changing the subject, rather than answering a question. Mr. Naqvi saw a contrast of his own — a modern lawyer dancing to a fundamentalist chant.

“Who is Pakistan?” he asked. “I think it’s that guy dancing. It’s confused. But it’s us.”

Army shells militants hideouts

PESHAWAR:Pakistani troops and helicopter gunships Saturday shelled militant hideouts in Buner where a military offensive has displaced thousands of people, officials said.

The military launched a major ground and air assault in Buner five days ago under US pressure after Taliban militants from Swat infiltrated adjoining areas and advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the capital Islamabad.

The fresh fighting came as the White House said US President Barack Obama would host a summit with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts on Wednesday amid growing US concern over the deteriorating situation in the region.

Helicopters and artillery continued to pound Taliban hideouts in the towns of Ambela, Pir Baba and Sultanwas which are considered militant strongholds, a senior military official said.

"We have besieged a Taliban compound in Ambela where militants had been holding a meeting," said the official, who requested anonymity.

"Our information is that militants are now fleeing Buner," the official said.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas on Friday said some 400 "well-equipped and organised" Taliban had been putting up "stiff resistance" in Buner.

The operation in Buner followed a similar action launched a week ago in nearby Lower Dir district after militants in the Taliban-held Swat pushed further south towards Islamabad, which is central to Washington's strategy for stopping the insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The military says around 200 militants have been killed in the Lower Dir and Buner assaults. The military put its own toll at about a dozen dead.

Independent confirmation of the casualties was not immediately possible.

The offensive has displaced tens of thousands of people who are being sheltered in camps in Mardan and Swabi districts of North West Frontier Province, a senior government official said requesting anonymity.

"My information is that some 50,000 people have become homeless and more are coming from the district of half a million people," Buner's former lawmaker Sher Akbar told reporters.

Clinton sees "intense" Afghanistan-Pakistan talks

WASHINGTON- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday she expected "intense sessions" when the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan come to Washington for three-nation talks next week.

President Barack Obama is due to meet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday and Thursday, following through on a pledge for regular high-level, three-way meetings aimed at improving coordination and strategy to stabilize the Asian countries.

Clinton, who met jointly with Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers in Washington in February, said such meetings were useful to "change mind-sets" and put forward what Washington wanted both sides to do.

"We'll have some very intense sessions on the specifics of what we're trying to accomplish," Clinton said of next week's presidential-level meetings.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the three presidents would meet together and Obama then planned separate sessions with Karzai and Zardari.

"The president looks forward to discussing with these two democratically elected leaders how we can work together to enhance our cooperation in this important part of the world, as the United States implements a new strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan," Gibbs told reporters.

The Obama administration wants Pakistan to do more to fight home-grown militants that pose a threat to neighboring Afghanistan, where the United States along with allies is trying to rout the Taliban.

Pakistan's army this week sought to evict Taliban fighters from a strategic valley northwest of the capital Islamabad, a military move the Obama administration has welcomed after weeks of criticism that Islamabad was not doing enough.

"In Pakistan, it's a very difficult environment because of the confusion among the civilian and military leadership about how to prioritize what is the greatest threat to Pakistan going forward," Clinton said at a meeting with foreign service officers at the State Department.

Obama said in his news conference this week that nuclear-armed Pakistan had finally begun to realize that militants inside the country posed a bigger threat to the Muslim nation's stability than India, despite three wars between the two rivals.

In Afghanistan, violence is already at its highest levels since the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001. Insurgent attacks in the first three months of this year were 73 percent higher than the same period a year ago, NATO statistics show.

In Pakistan, U.S. Courts Leader of Opposition

WASHINGTON — As American confidence in the Pakistani government wanes, the Obama administration is reaching out more directly than before to Nawaz Sharif, the chief rival of Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, administration officials said Friday.

American officials have long held Mr. Sharif at arm’s length because of his close ties to Islamists in Pakistan, but some Obama administration officials now say those ties could be useful in helping Mr. Zardari’s government to confront the stiffening challenge by Taliban insurgents.

The move reflects the heightened concern in the Obama administration about the survivability of the Zardari government. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the United States Central Command, has said in private meetings in Washington that Pakistan’s government is increasingly vulnerable, according to administration officials.

General Petraeus is among those expected to attend an all-day meeting on Saturday with senior administration officials to discuss the next steps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in advance of high-level sessions next week in Washington, when Mr. Zardari and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will meet with President Obama at the White House.

Washington has a bad history of trying to engineer domestic Pakistani politics, and no one in the administration is trying to broker an actual power-sharing agreement between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, administration officials say. But they say that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, have both urged Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif to look for ways to work together, seeking to capitalize on Mr. Sharif’s appeal among the country’s Islamist groups.

That could be a tall order, given the intense animosity between the men, not to mention the ambivalence that many American officials still have toward Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup in 1999.

Some Pakistani officials said that members of Mr. Zardari’s government already were reaching out to Mr. Sharif and that officials in Washington were exaggerating their influence over Pakistani politics. According to one Pakistani official, the government in Islamabad recently asked Mr. Sharif to rejoin the governing coalition. The two tried power-sharing last year, and that dissolved in acrimony only a week after Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari had banded together to force the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf.

Obama administration officials have been up front in expressing dissatisfaction with the response shown by Mr. Zardari’s government to increasing attacks by Taliban fighters and insurgents with Al Qaeda in the country’s tribal areas, and along its western border with Afghanistan. During a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said he was “gravely concerned” about the stability of the Pakistani government; on Friday, a Defense Department official described Mr. Zardari as “very, very weak.”

The official said the administration wanted to broker an agreement not so much to buoy Mr. Zardari personally, but to accomplish what the administration believes Pakistan must do. “The idea here is to tie Sharif’s popularity to things we think need to be done, like dealing with the militancy,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more candidly about American differences with Pakistan’s government.

Mr. Sharif, 59, represents the Pakistan Muslim League-N, a coalition that includes a number of Islamist groups. He was prime minister twice during the 1990s, and received hero status in Pakistan for ordering nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

Both Mr. Holbrooke and Mrs. Clinton have spoken with Mr. Sharif by telephone in the past month, and have urged Mr. Zardari’s increasingly unpopular government to work closely with Mr. Sharif, administration officials said. “We told them they’re facing a national challenge, and for that, you need bipartisanship,” a senior administration official said. “The president’s popularity is in the low double digits. Nawaz Sharif is at 83 percent. They need to band together against the militants.”

Sir Mark Lyall Grant, director of political affairs at the British Foreign Office, was in Washington on Monday for talks with Mr. Holbrooke and Mrs. Clinton on Pakistan, according to American and European officials. The three discussed Mr. Sharif, but no conclusions were reached, a European official said. “There’s certainly no agreement that Nawaz should become Zardari’s prime minister,” the official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity. He said the enmity between the two would make such a situation impossible. But he added: “We need people who have influence over the militancy in Pakistan to calm it down. Who’s got influence? The army, yes. And Nawaz, yes.”

The Obama administration’s contemplation of a closer alliance with Mr. Sharif was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said that Mr. Zardari was open to talking to Mr. Sharif. “The president and prime minister of Pakistan have been striving for national consensus and continue to be in close contact with the leadership of all political parties,” Mr. Haqqani said.

The Bush administration struggled in 2007 to find a way to keep Mr. Musharraf in power amid a political crisis. The administration prodded him to share authority with his longtime rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but those efforts ended after Mrs. Bhutto — the wife of Mr. Zardari — was shot and killed. The situation in Pakistan has become so dire, with the fragile government battling Taliban insurgents who have gotten close to Islamabad, that both American and Pakistani officials are looking hard to bring stability to the nuclear-armed nation.

“For the United States, there’s no ambiguity about where the danger lies; it’s in the people who are attacking the state,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She said Mr. Sharif could broaden the appeal of the Zardari government, and his ties to Islamist militants give him added heft right now. “So the U.S. would dearly love to see both of those parties on the same page.”

Full confidence in Pakistani govt, Holbrooke insists

WASHINGTON: US presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke on Friday voiced the Obama administration’s full confidence in the ability of the democratic Pakistani government to deliver services for its people as he rubbished media reports implying that Washington might be concerned about the performance of the elected government to the point of seeking change.

Referring to stories that spoke of the Obama administration considering the civilian government weak, Holbrooke, special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said, ‘I don’t understand these stories.’

‘President Obama has invited President Zardari to Washington next week, one of the first visitors he has had since he became president,’ he told Geo TV channel in an interview, adding ‘Our support is for the democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari. It’s as simple as that. Who has President Obama invited to Washington next week? President Zardari.’

‘This is journalistic garbage. This is journalistic gobbledygook. It’s a story being hyped by journalists,’ he added, when asked to comment on interpretations in the Pakistani Press about President Obama’s remarks in a Press Conference.

The remarks referred to the weakness of civilian institutions in Pakistan and were widely interpreted by the Pakistani press as signaling an American assessment of the civilian government being weak.

Holbrooke pointed out that the fact is the US administration is supporting Islamabad in overcoming challenges facing the country.

‘Let us focus on facts. We helped Pakistan raise five and a half billion dollars in Tokyo two weeks ago. We are asking Congress for more money for Pakistan. We are focusing on helping your country face down a serious terrorist threat from the West, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Journalists can write anything they want, You have a free Press. That is part of a strong democracy, but it is not true,’ he said.

‘He stated ‘it’s true that our chairman of the joints staff Admiral Mullen visits Pakistan quite often. But that is to offer assistance to your country. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the army, has pledged support for the democratic and civilian government of Pakistan. We take him at his word.’

Holbrooke said, President Obama also has ‘very deep personal feelings for Pakistan. As a young man he visited Pakistan. His mother worked there, she loved Pakistan.’

‘And we are not throwing bricks over Pakistan. I don’t even know what that means. We are helping Pakistan. We helped raise billions of dollars for Pakistan at a pledging conference in April. And now, we are going to ask Congress for even more money for Pakistan. We believe Pakistan is a critically important country, a
democracy, a state that is facing very many difficult economic and political challenges. In the middle of this, you have miscreants in the west, who are trying to cause enormous extra problems. And this is extremely serious and we want to help Pakistan deal with this problem.’
Questioned pointedly if the government in Islamabad is capable of delivering what is being expected from it, he replied: ‘Of course, the government in Islamabad is capable of running the country. They are democratically elected, a fine group of people. I know many of the ministers, many of them will be here in Washington next week, your foreign minister, your agricultural minister, your
finance minister, the head of intelligence services and many other senior officials will be here. I know all of these people, extremely capable people. So again all I can say is that this is journalistic gobbledygook.’

On Congressional moves to expand economic assistance for the country and also contemplate emergency aid, he said President Obama has expressed his support for Kerry Lugar legislation and indicted that the volume of assistance could be higher than $ 1.5 billion annually.

‘I think Pakistan is under challenges from the miscreants in the West, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda — now the US and Pakistan face a common challenge, a common danger and we have a common task. And to that US is increasing assistance to Pakistan, we are welcoming President Zardari in Washington, asking other countries to spend more for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and working for closer cooperation between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

‘That is what we are doing and we will continue to do it because it is in the interest of peace and stability throughout South Asia.’

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan commander Iftikhar Khan surrenders

ISLAMABAD: Banned Tehrik-i-Taliban leader Pakistan Iftikhar Khan surrendered in Jamrud on Saturday, DawnNews quoted state media as saying.