Mother of all challenges facing President Zardari

According to one report, there are five challenges that the new President of Pakistan, Mr Asif Ali Zardari, will face. These are ones posed by rising militancy, a failing economy, fledgling democracy, conflict with India, and his own personal safety. More realistically, he is supposed “to respond to Western pressure to crack down on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, motivate donors to top up the country’s foreign currency reserves to prevent a run on the rupee, deal with demands to release Dr AQ Khan and restore Iftikhar Chaudhry, and face pressures to resign as co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), restore parliament’s powers at the expense of the presidency, and continue the peace process with India”.

But seen from the point of view of realpolitik, there is only one challenge — the mother of all challenges — he has to face and win quickly. That is to continue and win the war against religious terrorism in the face of a parliament and a nation that is more inclined to “opt out of it”. Of course, the national economy is a challenge as far as the formulation of a plan of “rescue and repair” is concerned in the coming few days — that is something that the prime minister and the cabinet should be doing anyway — but the period of the next two years or so will require significant injections of foreign assistance and concessions for the economy to survive, let alone subsidising fuel and food prices etc. And where will that money for economic survival come from?

It will come from fighting the war against terrorism effectively, both by encouraging domestic and foreign investors to put their money in a safer and more stable Pakistan and by nudging donors to pay and prop up Pakistan for thwarting the terrorist threat to them. That is what will compel outside allies to shell out the needed money to bail us out. But it will mean going against the dominant view in the media and some political parties, including the big one, PMLN, who wrongly think that the war against terrorism and religious extremism is not Pakistan’s war and are in denial about the intentions of Al Qaeda and its manipulation of its three puppets, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the old jihadi organisations originally set up by the state to fight the jihad of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the media has succeeded in spreading the emotional but wrong message that America has arrived in the neighbourhood of Pakistan to harm Islam and snatch Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This rampant anti-Americanism goes directly against the economy’s bid to get much-needed injections to set itself right.

The job of running the anti-terrorism campaign in tandem with the army is going to be complicated by some sections of the state apparatus that insist on holding on to the old tactical pawns meant for the chessboard of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Worse, any necessary change of policy on Afghanistan and India is vulnerable to adverse media comment by columnists and anchors who still adhere to the old strategic paradigm. The PPP government has already made its intentions clear about putting its relations with India on a new footing through a “pro-India” trade policy. But in the coming days more incidents in the Tribal Areas and Balochistan might give rise to recidivist emotions longing to bring Pakistan’s old conflicts back. The jihadi organisations were disbanded but kept alive by President Pervez Musharraf. The tough job for President Zardari would be to demobilise them and separate them from Al Qaeda.

That is why stabilising the transition to civilian democracy will be a challenge in these circumstances. The call is now going round for him to resign as the party’s co-chairperson. He has already promised to get rid of Article 58-2(b) with the help of the PMLN and do away with the 17th Amendment which gives him advantage in dealing with the provinces. But we cannot imagine how, without an outright majority in Islamabad, which his party doesn’t have, he can do so and also feel secure about his government’s longevity. So there will have to be a solid quid pro quo from the PMLN. But that will require two hands to clap. Will Mr Sharif abandon his position on the judges issue and join a government of national consensus in Islamabad as suggested by Mr Zardari and required by the circumstances? If he doesn’t, the conflict with Punjab will erupt sooner or later and Mr Zardari and the nation will be distracted from the major issue of confronting terrorism and strengthening the economy.

The pledge that Mr Zardari has given to Balochistan and Pakhtunkhwa for provincial autonomy — which he must not renege on — will have to be a package for all provinces and will have to come sooner rather than later. Indeed, far from “interfering” in Punjab, he will have to give more powers to it under the new autonomy dispensation. The PPP government’s Budget 2008-09 pegs growth rate to agriculture and indirectly relies on Punjab to produce the food that Pakistan will need for consumption and export. Without letting Mr Shahbaz Sharif run the province efficiently in peace this will not be accomplished.

As for resigning from the party, those who demand it forget that the PPP is a family party. Even if he resigns, the next party chief will still take orders from him, just as he will still dominate the decision-making in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s cabinet. And given his pragmatism, that won’t be a bad thing at all!

Daily Times, 8 September.