Harlan K. Ullman is a retired United States Naval Commander and political commentator. While he is not Pakistani, he certainly has a good view of Pakistan’s current political situation. Today he has a column on UPI.com called Outide View: Pakistani Thermidor? that is quite insightful.
Winston Churchill characterized Soviet Russia in terms of riddles and enigmas. Pakistan today can be characterized as seemingly implacable contradictions and collisions between immovable objects and immutable forces — potentially creating the “mother of all quagmires.” A critical question is whether these competing concurrent centrifugal and centripetal forces bring Thermidor to Pakistan?
Pakistan faces potentially nation-wrecking economic, political and security crises in which policies to resolve one exacerbate the others. A pertinent example is support for U.S. actions in Afghanistan and against all persuasions of Taliban. One guaranteed consequence is huge increases in anti-Americanism and even greater opposition to the government. In essence, unchecked, Pakistan could be headed for a political meltdown in which an already dysfunctional government becomes even more dysfunctional and therefore unable to put the nation back on a sage course.
The catalyst that has unleashed this potential for Thermidor was the Supreme Court ruling that abolished the National Reconciliation Ordinance put in place two years ago by President Pervez Musharraf as part of an agreement that permitted former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to re-enter her country and granted immunity to some 8,000 other politicians largely of the Pakistan’s People’s Party accused of corruption and fraud. Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27 of that same year.
The decision was hailed by a large majority of Pakistanis who believe that an independent judiciary is not only central to a functioning democracy but also as the first step in bringing corrupt politicians to justice. Because of his past reputation, President Asif Zardari was immediately and viciously attacked and demands for his resignation along with many of the government’s ministers filled the media. The facts that Zardari was imprisoned for 11 years without a conviction and the notion that citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty so far have been overlooked or ignored.
But make no mistake. Zardari and his government risk being drowned in a flood of lawsuits and litigation that will follow the abrogation of the NRO. An already dysfunctional government could too easily be rendered impotent and useless, contributing to greater public outrage demanding some measure of government performance.
Much of this furor arises from a mixture of Pakistani society and culture in which rumor, innuendo and bizarre conspiracy theories pass as accepted truths and facts; and ill-conceived bureaucratic government actions. Consider just a few of the more ludicrous examples. After 247 politicians mostly from the PPP were put on a list preventing them leaving the country, the defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, was stopped at the Islamabad airport before boarding a flight for an official trip to China. Then, the press reported Interior Minister Rehman Malik had been arrested.
The prime minister had to go on television to refute the false reports over Malik’s arrest and cancel the hold on travel, suspending the number two in the interior ministry and other officials for foolishly promulgating the list in the first place. And it gets worse. A very senior retired Pakistani general said the following: “A former head of Pakistan’s Inter-service Intelligence agency ISI declared on television that Blackwater was involved in bombings in Pakistan. A former Pakistani Army Chief of General Staff told viewers that America was behind the destabilization of Pakistan.”
In this increasingly septic environment, even reasonable conduct often begets minor forms of Thermidor. U.S. Embassy personnel normally keep license plates inside the car as a security precaution to prevent ease of targeting. But when stopped at Islamabad’s many security checkpoints, Pakistani police and soldiers, many of whom speak no English, regard this practice as breaking the law and confrontations arise that are widely reported on television.
Rumors abound over a huge secret presence of hundreds of U.S. military members with ulterior motives. Yet this is absolutely false. And the failure of the Pakistani government to grant visas for U.S. government personnel has hurt Pakistan as there are insufficient Americans to process the aid and support that country desperately needs.
Can anything be done by Pakistanis to end this vicious cycle, and to what degree should America help or remain aloof so as not to exacerbate these conditions?
Two actions are crucial. First, Zardari needs to emerge as a statesman and leader and convince his fellow citizens that the principal danger is the insurgency and these domestic diversions must be redressed if the nation is to succeed. Returning power to the National Assembly and the prime minister that had been seized by Musharraf could help this transformation.
Second, there needs to be a serious and comprehensive strategic discussion between the United States and Pakistan to create a comprehensive plan of action for both countries that deals with these multiple crises and the media frenzy that prefers rumor and scandal to fact and reality. Otherwise, Thermidor could be inevitable.