Pakistan’s predicament


US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Pakistan was preceded by anti-US attack protests throughout the country and the authorities, busy quelling the protests, were expecting that Powell would announce pledges that would give the government of President Pervez Musharraf some goodies to offer to the public and ease the public sense of outrage. This was especially so because the people have seen that the removal of the sanctions, related to democracy and nuclear capabilities, has not had any visible positive impact on Pakistan so far.

As US bombardment of Afghanistan intensified, so did anti-US protests in many Pakistani cities. With a tense government trying too hard to control these rallies, a number of the protests, called by Islamist political parties, turned violent. Baton charges, tear-gas shelling, and then firing on rallies in Waziristan, Quetta, Jacobabad, and Karachi left a few dead and scores injured.

Quetta and Peshawar, cities near the border with Afghanistan, and hosting millions of Afghan refugees, witnessed the biggest protest rallies and strongest reaction from the law enforcing organisation. And while the government did put under house arrest many leaders of militant Islamist political parties, this move did not result in reducing the number of protest rallies occurring in various cities.

There is a general feeling of anger and helplessness amongst the public about the ongoing bombardment of civilian targets. “America was grieved when its innocent citizens died, now it is bombing the innocent civilians of Afghanistan,” said a car mechanic.

Strong words against the government’s support for the US-led attacks on Afghanistan also came from establishment figures. “Enough is enough,” said former director general of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Hamid Gul.

Islamabad has realised that even harsh action would not be able to pacify the public reaction. The Foreign Ministry admitted that it would convey to the US its “worry and concern” about the continuing attacks on Afghanistan and the possibility that the US might install a Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul.

Pakistan is paying a heavy price for being a frontline state in US-led attacks on Afghanistan. Politically, economically and in terms of its foreign relations, the impact is being felt on all accounts.

On the political level, the post-US strikes period has seen divisions emerge between the conservative right and the establishment. Up till now the two had always been on the same side in all major conflicts and political upheavals. In fact, late Pakistani President General Zia ul- Haq, who died in a mysterious air crash in 1988, was mainly supported in all his actions by the Islamist parties.

All major political parties have been with the government’s decision to support the US in its war on terror, but the continuing strikes against civilian targets and the unending attack have pushed many of the mainstream parties to castigate the government.

The government’s harsh crackdown on the protests — an action that left many dead — has not gone down well with the public, either. This decline in support from a public whose majority has never shown any appreciation for Taliban- style of governance, shows that the government has lost some ground amongst its supporters.

On the economic front, Pakistan began to hurt as soon as it became apparent that America was planning to launch an attack on Afghanistan. Almost all international shipping companies and airlines suspended their business with Pakistan as soon as US-led military might started gathering in the Arabian Sea.

Orders have been cancelled, the privatisation programme stalled, and all major conferences to be held in Pakistan postponed or their venues changed due to the hostilities in the region.

According to a conservative figure there has been a $2.5 billion loss to the economy already. Some economic support came from the US, but obviously even the government believes it to be of transitory nature, hence its belated attempts to ask for long-term concessions.

There have been some positive developments such as announcements by OPEC — ready to do business with Pakistan — and some foreign fund managers are putting dollars in the stock market. However, portfolio investment is again short-term and fleeting. Similarly budgetary support from the US and Europe will only help to bridge the gap created by the business slowdown, industry closures, and the resultant revenue shortfall.

Theoretically with the removal of the sanctions there is no reason why foreign investment and business should not come to Pakistan. “But who would bring money to a country that is in a war zone, and a frontline state to boot?” said an economist.

On the foreign policy front, the entire political configuration in the region appears changed. On the positive side Pakistan-US and Pakistan-Europe relations are on the mend again — and in a hurry. But this time India occupies a high position on the US’s priority list as well; even though British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Colin Powell visited Pakistan, both also visited India.

Pakistan’s eastern and western borders are currently exposed to a hostile climate. India shelled and fired across the Line of Control, running between the Indian- and Pakistani- administered parts of Kashmir, just an hour before Colin Powell arrived in Pakistan. All this means that at a time when Pakistan is busy looking after the events unfolding on its western border, and keeping an eye on its internal security issues, it also has to worry about Indian mischief-making on its eastern border.

As the attacks on Afghanistan drag on, intensifying by the day and causing civilian casualties, the many worries of Islamabad vis-é- vis its political situation, economic health, and international relations will become that much more grave.