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2009 in broad strokes

It is tricky to judge whether this tumultuous year was a step toward redemption or a shift toward further turmoil. — File

By Qurat ul ain Siddiqui

If pressed, Pakistanis would probably give 2009 mixed reviews. Throughout the year, political problems – clashes between the government and opposition; a failure of the civilian and military establishments to see eye to eye; wrangling between the centre and the provinces – and the slow march of extremism, in the form of militant posturing and suicide attacks, have vied for headlines.

Politics: The scuffles and successes

Confrontations continued between the country’s two major political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) over the judges’ reinstatement and an overall implementation of the Charter of Democracy (CoD). On February 25, a Supreme Court verdict declared the Sharif brothers ‘ineligible to contest elections or hold public offices,’ within minutes of which PML-N workers took to the streets of Punjab’s various cities voicing their agitation against the decision. The same day, governor rule was imposed in the Punjab in order to fill the ‘unprecedented and unique constitutional void’ created with the disqualification of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif from holding public office.

While unrest continued in the Punjab, the PML-N announced all-out support for the lawyers’ movement for the judges’ reinstatement and marched toward Islamabad in order to stage a sit-in outside the parliament. On March 16, Prime Minister Gilani announced the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The proclamation was hailed by the opposition and the lawyers and the Long March was subsequently called-off.

After this unrest, Governor rule in the Punjab was lifted at the end of March and the Supreme Court reinstated Shahbaz Sharif as the Chief Minister on March 31. In a good streak for the Sharifs, on May 26, the Supreme Court overturned its own verdict that barred the Sharif brothers from contesting elections. More good news followed on July 17, when the apex court acquitted Nawaz in the plane hijacking case.

Other regions of the country were also not spared political troubles. Political turmoil first grappled Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on January 6, when the region’s Legislative Assembly approved a no-confidence vote against the then-Prime Minister Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan following which Sardar Mohammad Yaqoob Khan was sworn in as the AJK Prime Minister. On October 14, Sardar Yaqoob Khan resigned from his post ‘in order to avoid a political controversy in the Legislative Assembly’. Later that month, the Legislative Assembly elected Farooq Haider as leader of the house and a 23-member AJK cabinet was sworn in on October 29.

Meanwhile, a self-governance reform package for the Northern Areas was approved on August 29. The package aimed at giving the region complete administrative autonomy and changed its name to Gilgit-Baltistan. The first elections for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly were held on November 12. And despite allegations of rigging, the PPP secured the mandate to govern the region, leading to Syed Mehdi Shah’s election as the region’s first Chief Minister.

Political reforms were also planned for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and were announced by President Zardari on August 14. Reforms included: ‘allowing political activities in Fata, setting up an appellate tribunal, curtailing arbitrary powers of political agents, giving people right to appeal and bail.’ The reforms’ systematic implementation did not take place and to some extent the measures were overtaken by the unrest and the military operations in the tribal belt.

In Balochistan, the political situation deteriorated with the killing of three Baloch activists a day before kidnapped UNHCR official John Solecki was released by the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) militants in April. Baloch distrust of Islamabad festered and allegations thrived regarding the missing persons’ issue. Sporadic violence continued across the province and, on October 25, Balochistan’s then-education minister Shafiq Ahmed Khan was assassinated in Quetta.

To control the situation, the government initiated a package to address the political, administrative and economic concerns of the province. Some significant areas the package addressed were limiting military activity inside the province, release of missing persons ‘against whom there is no charge and trial of others before a competent court.’ The package was instantly rejected by most nationalist and separatist groups who called it a cover-up.

The year also saw deliberations on the seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, which concluded with the provinces’ agreement over a formula for resource division among the federating units. Poverty, revenue generation and collection, and inverse population density were, for the first time, introduced as the criteria on which the provinces’ respective shares would be decided. The consensus reached by the provinces was generally seen as a step in the right direction, which would help contribute towards stabilising Pakistan’s democratic institutions.

Also on the matter of resources, 2009 saw a controversy over the Kerry-Lugar bill that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan to US$ 7.5 billion over a period of five years. Rifts between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership came out as debate ensued over the stated and the possibly intended objectives of the assistance package. While conflict brewed over the bill in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Qureshi rushed to Washington to communicate Pakistan’s concerns over the proposed bill’s conditionalities. The unchanged bill was then signed into law on October 15.

This was not the end to the year’s political scuffles. Ironically, it was the so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that turned out to be the most critical political challenge Pakistan faced in 2009. Chaos augmented and mudslinging continued as the ordinance expired on November 28 and the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional on December 16.

Security: More bombings despite military operations

Overlapping the political crisis was the security situation in Swat, a region in north-west Pakistan that had been under the control of extremists since July 2007. As violence spiralled in the region, the government moved toward a formal truce with the militants which included promulgation of the Nizam-i-Adl regulation, which imposed Sharia law in the Malakand division.

The measure emboldened the Swat Taliban who then vied for control of Buner and Lower Dir districts. Eventually, the truce agreement mediated by Maulana Sufi Mohammad of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) collapsed. On April 26, a military operation was launched in Swat. The operation aimed at taking back Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla. Operation Rah-i-Rast, also known as Operation Black Thunderstorm, led to a full-scale humanitarian crisis as civilians started to flee from these areas for safety. More than two million people were displaced from the region, most of who returned after the operation was declared successful and completed on June 14.

As the army consolidated control over Swat and neighbouring districts, a suspected US missile attack on August 5 in South Waziristan’s Zanghara area killed the then-Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah’s death, regarded as a significant blow to the Taliban in South Waziristan, was accompanied by the continual and massive troop build-up along the southern and eastern borders of South Waziristan.

In the wake of retaliatory terrorist attacks in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Shangla, the army on October 17 launched an operation in South Waziristan. The operation is currently ongoing and the army claims to have captured Kotkai, Kaniguram, and Sararogha among other important militant bastions in the battle to eliminate the local and foreign militants in the region. The operation is being viewed as Pakistan’s most ambitious move against the Taliban. As the year draws to a close, the army is also initiating action against militant hideouts in the neighbouring tribal agency of Orakzai.

The year of military successes and political disturbances was punctuated by frequent terrorist attacks across the country, most of which were associated with the TTP. The cities of Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi were repeatedly attacked and although government and military installations seemed to be the standard targets, many attacks also singled out civilians, for example, the bombing of Peshawar’s Meena Bazaar on October 28 that killed 117 people, mostly women. Indeed, October remained the bloodiest month and saw 10 terrorist attacks claiming at least 283 lives.

Cross-border tensions

India has also stayed in the Pakistani headlines this year. On January 5, India handed over the first dossier regarding the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008, detailing ‘evidence of links with elements in Pakistan.’ While Pakistan haggled with resulting international pressure, India demanded extradition of suspects involved in the attacks. Rumours also circulated that a five-member team of the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had visited Faridkot, the alleged ancestral town of Ajmal Kasab, the lone captured attacker whose name remained a matter of debate for quite some time.

Relations between India and Pakistan continued to deteriorate throughout the year and rare encounters between Indian and Pakistani high-ups only revealed the widening rift. While diplomatic sabre-rattling continued, elections in India brought the Congress back to power. Pakistan’s own investigations into the Mumbai attacks suspects’ links continued and dossiers upon dossiers were exchanged between the two states.

At year’s close, the trial of Ajmal Kasab continues in India and an Anti-Terrorist Court in Pakistan has indicted seven suspects for ‘planning and helping the execution’ of the attacks. Relations, however, remain strained between India and Pakistan: India decries Pakistan ‘inaction’ against terrorist outfits (particularly the release of Jamaatud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed) and denies involvement in Balochistan and Fata. Pakistan, on the other hand, appears aggravated by India’s ‘stalling of the dialogue process’ and continues alleging Indian involvement in domestic insurgencies and acts of terrorism inside Pakistan.

Looking forward to 2010

It is tricky to judge whether this tumultuous year was a step toward redemption – as manifest in decisive military operations and the superior judiciary’s NRO verdict – or a shift toward further turmoil. With an additional 30,000 troops inside Afghanistan and the ongoing South Waziristan military operation whose success is still a matter of conjecture, the least that can be hoped for is that Pakistan manages to develop a considerable degree of political stability, avoids conflicts between the state’s four pillars and thereby strengthens the government’s institutions.

The writer can be contacted at quratulain.siddiqui@gmail.com

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