From Islamabad

I thought I could start blogging about the situation here in Pakistan, where I will be for a couple of weeks, and perhaps India as well, where I will be a couple of weeks after that. Even though most of what I will say here is based on reading the english-language Pakistani press (lacking any Urdu beyond the first three chapters of "Teach Yourself Urdu" that I have gotten through), which I could have done from Canada, perhaps there will be something of value here.

There are several very important things going on here, and here are some initial impressions.

In domestic politics, there is what some are calling a transition to civilian democratic government in a coalition of the non-military parties dominated by the PPP (PPP, the Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto, now controlled by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari) but in coalition with the PML-N, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, the party of former Prime Minister – ousted in a military coup by then-General, now-President Pervez Musharraf, whose party is the PML-Q, Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid e-Azam, which is the honorific given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The PPP and PML-N won the elections in February of this year, elections which the military government was forced to allow and lost. A couple of days ago (on June 26) there were by-elections in which the PPP and PML-N won more seats. The coalition, however, has problems. The elections took place in the context of a dispute between the military government and the judiciary. The government had fired the supreme court justices for insisting on their independence. The assumption was that the civilian government would restore these justices to power. The judges have not yet been reinstated, and there are arguments between the PPP and the PML-N over the reinstatement. Both parties have publicly agreed that the reinstatement should occur, but the process seems to be dragging out. The most famous figures involved – Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, and Pervez Musharraf, all have reasons to be concerned about an independent judiciary. Zardari and Sharif have both been up for corruption charges. Musharraf came to power in a coup. The post-election brokering involved various mutual amnesties. If the judiciary didn’t give in to the military government, it might not give in to the civilian government either – perhaps that is why things have been so slow with the reinstatement. It is, in any case, a very dynamic situation.

The coalition government and the military, meanwhile, are facing a full-blown insurgency in the areas bordering Afghanistan. The Taliban control parts of both countries, and the public discussion is full of different notions on whether military force, negotiation, police and intelligence approaches, more development, alliance with the Americans, or combinations of these will bring the areas under control. The most persuasive arguments I have heard have been that the insurgency controls areas where the state has been absent or has offered nothing but repression, and bringing back a legitimate state presence in those areas will be difficult because of the way these areas have been managed and manipulated in the past. In any case the history of the state with the Taliban has been a complex one – the Taliban were supported as Pakistan’s allies and proxies in the region for years, and before that Pakistan was the conduit for money and weapons to the mujahadin who fought the Russians there with help from the US and Saudia Arabia from 1979 to 1989. Yesterday reports were of Taliban attacks in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), one of the provinces bordering Afghanistan. Today the reports were of the Pakistani military moving into those areas to assert control of the state there. There was no fighting – the attack was announced in advance and the Taliban had, presumably, left.

Also interesting in Pakistan’s foreign policy is the thawing relations with India. Reading the media you can hear a lot about the India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) pipeline, to carry gas from Iran through Balochistan (another area bordering Afghanistan with a history of insurgency against the Pakistani state) and to India. This will be a form of integration in the region and is viewed as having potential to create more peaceful and stable relations between the countries. There are high-level talks between India and Pakistan and travel between the countries has become much easier. You can read hints that some in Pakistan view this as a sellout of the Kashmir cause for independence from India, which Pakistan has long supported militarily.

Beneath the surface, there are also some of the profound issues that all countries are facing. When I arrived here in Islamabad, which is a government town and a wealthy elite, with a physical form very different from the rest of the subcontinent (wide thoroughfares, lack of public transportation preventing many people from being able to get in, and a workforce based in next-door Rawalpindi, which is much more of a ‘real’ city), I assumed the scheduled blackouts were a normal phenomenon (as they are in other places I’ve been, like Haiti and Palestine). In fact they are anomalous for Islamabad, and I have heard that fuel prices have led to an electricity crisis. Meanwhile people are driving on compressed natural gas (CNG) because petroleum has become unaffordable. It is also unseasonably hot (though the past two days have been cooler, normal rainy season type weather). It is hard to imagine how the energy situation could improve for a country like Pakistan, without much energy of its own and with huge demand for it. Countries that are not facing converging political and military crises like Pakistan is will have difficulties dealing with energy and climate change – Pakistan’s problems are all the more intense. I have had some brief contact with some movement organizations trying to deal with day-to-day issues of concern to the country’s majority, like the <a href="http://www.prmpakistan.org/">People’s Rights Movement</a> and a group I think called "Roots of Equality". I hope to be able to get more of their perspectives on things in days to come…

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