'Still violent, vulnerable and vital'. Pakistan's prospects for 2014

by Zoha Waseem


In Pakistan’s 67th year of existence, living with violence in contested spaces appears to have become a norm. Since 2003, over 50,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorism-related violence. An estimated 5,366 people were killed last year alone; over half of them reportedly in urban violence in Karachi. In the beginning of 2013 the Pakistani army finally altered its stance on militancy and recognised that internal terrorism was the biggest threat to its national security. But the civilian government has yet to devise a strategy to tackle this monster. As the world enters 2014 it carries with it ghosts of conflicts past and Pakistan’s baggage is perhaps one of the heaviest. This is a brief analysis of developments that shaped the country in 2013 and what is in store for the year ahead.

Pakistan Goes to the Polls

Perhaps the greatest milestone last year was a smooth transition of power; the landmark elections of May 2013 celebrated the first completion of a democratic government’s tenure. While clouded by riots and rigging, it was a watershed moment for Pakistanis who came out in scores to campaign and vote, demonstrating the country’s resilient street power. Unfortunately, almost customarily, Pakistan voted in a previously tried and tested government, that of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif’s third term in the position under Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has succeeded in undermining the role of President Mamnoon Hussain, contrary to the authority previous president Asif Ali Zardari held. Sharif’s agenda focuses on three core elements: economy, energy and extremism. Sharif will have his hands full this term with Afghanistan, India, Iran, domestic militancy and rising sectarianism, economic instability, and volatile political eruptions in the province of Sindh.

The May elections also saw the rise of Imran Khan, Chairman of political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has over the months witnessed diminishing popularity following Khan’s statements criticising drone strikes; blocking NATO supply routes; calling for negotiations with the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); creeping further to the right by allying with Jamaat-e-Islami, and attempting to vindicate Bangladeshi war criminal Abdul Quader Mullah. Eight months on, PTI has yet to deliver as Khan appears to be stuck in campaign gear. In 2014 Pakistanis will watch closely how his government performs in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the northern province of Pakistan that borders the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas and Afghanistan, and has been home to both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban).

The months leading up to the election period coincided with the return of former president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, from London. Now on trial for treason for imposing emergency rule in 2007, and trying to avoid the court on medical grounds, Musharraf faces death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted. While Musharraf maintains that the army is on his side, his prosecution could be demoralising for the entire institution – perhaps the strongest in Pakistan – and risk complicating the slowly mending civil-military relations.

Negotiating with the TTP

One of the most debated subjects in Pakistani media was the dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). When TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in November, the government criticised the United States for hampering negotiations. Little importance was given to the fact that members of the TTP denied that these talks had begun. The killing of Hakimullah in a drone strike put the TTP under the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah, a militant notorious for lashing out over the radio against the Pakistani government, education, and anti-polio drives. Staunchly against negotiations, Fazlullah is said to be close to the Afghan Taliban, having taken shelter in the country following a military operation in Swat (2009), and his appointment may indicate warming relations between the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans.

The year ended with the government appointing chief of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami, Sami-ul Haq, to initiate dialogue with the TTP. The group has three core demands: (i) withdraw the armed forces; (ii) implement TTP’s brand of Sharia; (iii) eradicate democracy. Sharif insists the TTP must disarm and accept the Pakistani constitution, but Sami-ul Haq is known to be supportive of TTP’s demands. Pakistan’s current strategy of negotiation – with the appointment of said middleman – already appears feeble.

Besides uncertainty over how or with whom to negotiate, Pakistan must remember previous violations of ceasefire agreements by the TTP. While these are beyond the ambit of this article, it suffices to say that continued targeting of civilians calls into question TTP’s sincerity for peace. The July jail break that led to the escape of 250 prisoners from Dera Ismail Khan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa); the church attack in Peshawar that killed over 80 people followed by one in Qissa Khwani bazaar claiming 40 lives; the attacks on anti-polio drive workers across the country; the attacks on female students in Quetta; and the massacre of 10 foreign mountaineers in Nanga Parbat are but some reminders of the audacity of the group which, at this rate, is likely to continue operating with scant regard for the writ of the state.

Operation: Karachi

Karachi suffered from one of its deadliest years in history. 2013 started with waves of target killings, now almost the city’s trademark, including Parveen Rehman, a devoted social worker, and Zahra Shahid, vice-president of PTI. In August 2011, the Supreme Court took a suo motu notice of the increasing crime and violence in the city. It took two years before law enforcement agencies were finally instructed to crack down and begin an operation against criminals and terrorists. Over 14,000 suspects have been arrested since September, but violence continues unabated.

Alongside 3,000 civilians killed in violence in Karachi (compared to 143 in Islamabad), more than 172 police officers were targeted last year (1 every 2 days), making it the worst year for city police fatalities. Assassinations of police officials have continued into 2014, with the recent suicide attack on SSP (Crime Investigation Department) Chaudhry Aslam, a distinguished officer recognised for his counter-terrorism efforts in Karachi, especially against the TTP. The group retaliated in broad daylight, theatrically demonstrating their increasing presence in the city.

The previous summer saw Altaf Hussain (chief of Karachi’s leading ethnic political party, Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM)) under fire from the British media after Scotland Yard took notice of his money laundering activities, his alleged involvement in the murder of Imran Farooq (a senior member of the MQM in London), and for inciting violence in Karachi. Presently, media reports are again hinting that Hussain’s recent statements may cause Scotland Yard to investigate the case this year. Should this happen, and if Karachi is disturbed by developments in London that demoralise MQM activists, Islamabad may pressure the British to temporarily take a softer approach to Hussain in order to gain time to stabilise Karachi and allow the on-going operation to continue. This will be a particularly sensitive subject in the first half of 2014, ahead of the local body elections due to take place.

Escalating Sectarian Strife

Pakistan further suffered the loss of 500 civilians to sectarian violence, 96 percent of whom were Shia Muslims. Systematic killings of the Shia Hazara minority continued (over 125 were killed in 2012, whereas the first two months of 2013 saw more than 200 Harazas targeted). Responsibilities for these attacks have been claimed by both the TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (both pro-Sunni, anti-Shia groups). Sectarian minorities (including Ahmedis) in Balochistan and elsewhere, blame the federal government for its lack of dedication to the plight of minorities.

Of Foes and Friends

Drone attacks remained a crucial aspect of Pakistan’s rocky courtship with the US. In response to the droning out of Maulvi Nazir and then Mehsud (senior TTP commanders), PTI rashly responded by blocking NATO supply routes to Afghanistan via Pakistan, hurting not only civilians for whom the supplies were intended, but also other NATO countries not responsible for drones. Sharif received no justification on this subject during his sit-down with Obama in Washington DC in October, 2013. Sources on the ground suggest the attacks will continue this year, though perhaps with reduced frequency post-NATO withdrawal, and that supply routes will remain open through backdoor diplomacy. Despite feelings of betrayal and subordination, Islamabad will continue relying on the US for financial support.

Backdoor diplomacy also appears to be the preferred tactic on the question of Afghanistan. Pakistani media is relatively quiet on how the state intends to deal with Afghanistan ahead of coming elections. Analysis suggests that the Pakistani establishment remains divided: some within the establishment will back the Afghan Taliban, whereas other will seek to resist it. Regardless, the complete disregard by the Taliban for the Durand Line suggests Pakistan’s porous border will remain tense and open to militant activities.

Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan will be considered with India in mind. Pakistanis still feel uncertain about Narendra Modi, the leading prime ministerial candidate in India’s upcoming elections, and his agenda for Islamabad. Sharif’s campaign emphasised bettering relations with India, opening dialogue, and ending visa restrictions. But Modi has thus far hinted towards a hard-line approach in dealing with its nuclear neighbour. With Kashmir and Afghanistan still circling the room like two giant elephants, the tense relationship and dialogue will remain vulnerable to breaches and violations. There were 400 cease-fire violations on the line of control in the disputed territory of Kashmir and the much-awaited Director General Military Operations (DGMO) meetings took off in December 2013 to discuss these violations. The fact that the DGMOs met for the first time since the 1999 Kargil War is a positive development. Nevertheless, it is likely that while talks and meetings continue, behind-the-door arms build-ups, border skirmishes, and indirect support for low-scale conflicts on opposing sides, will continue with all guards geared for defence.

Pakistan is also faced with a strict deadline of completing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline by the end of 2014, which is crucial for Sharif’s desire to address the energy crisis. Though dedicated to the project, Islamabad feels the heat of US pressure and threats of sanctions should it continue. Iran has already suspended the loan for Pakistan’s side of the pipeline, and if unable to follow through with the deal, Pakistan will face severe financial repercussions as well as risk jeopardising ties with Tehran.

The Year of Appointments

2013 was also a year of new appointments in Pakistan. The retirement of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was met with mixed feelings. Once renowned for judicial activism and recognised as the face of the Lawyer’s Movement, Chaudhry soon became notorious for judicial dictatorship and addressing personal vendettas. The decline of judicial activism welcomed the appointment of Tasadduq Hussain Jilani who, in a remarkable contrast to Chaudhry, is mild-tempered, nicknamed ‘the gentleman judge’, and indifferent to the media.

Former chief of army staff Ashfaq Kayani also stepped down in 2013. The antithesis to Musharraf, he was respected for keeping the military outside of the civilian government’s domain, tolerating extreme criticisms in the media, and recognising the threat posed by domestic terrorism. His successor, Raheel Sharif, has been hand-picked by Nawaz Sharif (no relation), with indifference towards merit-based selection (Raheel Sharif was third in line). Raheel is close to the PM, but Pakistani history indicates that a selection that does not respect seniority or merit does not bode well for Pakistani politicians. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto appointed Zia-ul-Haq who hanged him; Nawaz Sharif previously appointed Musharraf who overthrow his government in a coup. Both were low in seniority.

Pakistan will have a full plate in 2014 with too many hungry appetites. Power struggles in the centre between government and opposition will continue trickling down to provincial and local levels, gathering arms and soldiers as they ripple on. Like in Afghanistan, where the future is up for grabs, in Pakistan, power and space will be contested through violence and chaos. This is unlikely to present a picture much different from the previous year.


Zoha Waseem is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. You can follower her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.

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