Pakistan’s internal politics has never been straightforward. However, since the end of August and the bombshell accusations thrown by former PPP leader Zulfiqar Mirza at MQM strongman and Interior Minister Rehman Malik and others, Pakistani politics has turned from challenging to a real quagmire of accusations, counter-accusations, threats and confusion.
Two issues have come to the fore after the Mirza revelations. One is that the US has supposedly been working towards an agenda of splitting Pakistan’s territories. Secondly, the fault lines of Pakistani disunity, the mistrust and sectarianism within the nation has been put into stark relief. Both issues are interrelated.
Nearly two years after US President Barack Obama made the statement that the cancer is in Pakistan, US-Pak relations have deteriorated to a point where it is conceivable that the “cancer” will be aggressively operated on. With both countries facing problems within their own borders, the tensions between the sometimes-allies have a dramatic ebb and flow.
The political upheaval in Pakistan comes on the backdrop of a steady increase in nationalistic voices, as previously noted by PoliTact, where the creation of more provinces and the granting of more independence to province is being called for. Pakistan is ethnically very diverse, and the knife-edge of appeasing diverse interests and maintaining a unified national ethos is proving a challenging task, one that the current administration in Islamabad is struggling with.
The notion that external powers have been playing chess with the ethnic divisions in Pakistan is not particularly new, however the allegation by Mirza that MQM leaders are directly involved in the game and are actively working to deepen divisions has shaken the political landscape. The reaction has been typical of a state that has failed to conjure a homogenous national identity: people fall back on their tribal, familial links and the irony is the breakup of Pakistan seems more plausible now than before the Mirza allegations.
While Pakistan has been dealing with domestic turmoil, the US has its fair share of domestic woes as well. President Obama just this week laid out his “American Jobs Act” to Congress in a bid to stem the rising unemployment in the US and boost the flagging economy. Public opinion in the US is uninspired by its politicians, with few believing they are capable of bringing around the economy or curtail joblessness.
The monetary pressure on the US also has its repercussions on US foreign affairs, particularly with the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan where significant amount of funds have been funneled over the last decade.
The upshot of this for the Af-Pak region is that the US will be looking at faster solutions, cheaper solutions and will be in no mood to pander to the whims of regional leaders. This is a dangerous combination for Pakistan, whose policies have been interpreted by the US as non-committal, playing both sides and frustratingly nonspecific when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in fighting it.
In-line with its impatient need for resolution in the region, the US appears to be pushing ahead with unilateral negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, without the involvement of either Afghanistan or Pakistan. While Pakistan believes that no solution in Afghanistan is possible without its involvement and support, the US has been emboldened by its unilateral action to take out Osama bin Laden and is brushing aside the assertions of Pakistan and Afghanistan that they need to be a party to any negotiations, at least as the overall framework for negotiations is being laid out.
As previously noted by PoliTact, the direction of the US presence in Pakistan is likely to further change as David Petraeus assumes control of the CIA. More covert operations can be expected, and this will fit in perfectly with the need of the US for faster results for less political and economic cost.
This is not to say that the US and Pakistan have reached a total impasse, there is evidence that intelligence sharing is once again taking place between the two countries as more targeted arrests of senior Al Qaeda members take place. However, this may bode ill for Pakistan, as a new spate of terror attacks can be anticipated as a result of the arrests, and indeed any show of cooperation with the US. Already abductions and attacks on high-profile individuals in Pakistan have increased over the last few months.
Pakistan’s New Direction
In the midst of all the domestic turmoil, Pakistan’s long-term direction as far as foreign affairs is concerned, has shifted. PoliTact believes that the strategic importance of Central Asia, along with a general “Look North” attitude has greatly increased. Pakistan appears to be taking steps to decrease the centrality of the US and NATO in its policies, and instead is becoming region-centric, with the SCO likely to play a larger role in Pakistan’s security and trade needs. Pakistan is hoping to position itself as the energy corridor of Central Asia.
This shift signifies a dramatic change in the geopolitics of the region. It appears to be in readiness for the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, when the US will plausibly play a lesser role in the region’s politics. This frees up room for Pakistan to forge new ties with neighbors and regional stakeholders that previous closeness with the US may have prevented, such as with Iran, China and Russia.
However, for Pakistan the most important agenda at present must be to resolve and defuse the current domestic political situation. The stage is set for high drama, and that could spell disaster for Pakistan if ethnic divides continue to worsen.