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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Editorial: Coming change in the region?
One doesn’t have to go into the details of what went wrong with President Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan — a lot of that has been done by everyone in the past — to understand that America would like to have him replaced in the next elections coming up later this year if he doesn’t mend his ways. The new American president Mr Barack Obama has voiced his dissatisfaction with the old American approach to Afghanistan and no one would be surprised if Mr Karzai loses the elections if he doesn’t bow out himself.The real problem Washington will face will be the choice of his successor. It is being conjectured that Washington is looking at the Jalalabad governor Mr Gul Agha Sherzai, but what happens in the coming days in this regard will be determined by American efforts to prepare the political grounds for the projected change. For this reason, President Obama has appointed Mr Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Holbrooke is a tough-talking man who likes to work with a lot of decisive policy leverage at his back.There is some initial “objection” to his “remit”. The Foreign Office in Islamabad has welcomed his appointment and is looking forward to “fruitful engagement with the special envoy to further the cause of peace and stability of the region”. But some “analysts” say he would have to confront the Pak-India tension if his aim was regional peace. They insist that Mr Holbrooke should have been appointed to the region of South Asia as a whole, with unspoken reference to the Kashmir dispute that President Obama has referred to.Some such “analysts” in fact spoke up on a TV channel on Friday night. The attitude, of course, was that of umbrage at the PPP government for not having protested at the curtailed remit of the Holbrooke mission. The constant accent was on Kashmir, as if Pakistan would like to make any trouble-shooting in Pakistan’s western neighbourhood conditional to the resolution of the Kashmir issue. That is stretching the domain of the “diplomatic do-able” a bit too far.Mr Holbrooke will be effective in proportion to the American leverage over Afghanistan and Pakistan, the former literally occupied and the latter surviving economically because of the past American packages as well as the big future one expected shortly. In the absence of any help from the “friends of Pakistan”, the American aid plus the IMF loan — also thanks to American support — will be Pakistan’s survival kit as it fights the Taliban in Swat and the federal Tribal Areas. The “troubled region” is not South Asia but its two western states of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Holbrooke may not willingly operate in India unless the US has comparable leverage there.But India will be in a way part of Mr Holbrook’s remit because of its presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is not happy with what India is doing in Afghanistan and “from” Afghanistan into Balochistan. Leaving aside Kashmir, on which subject India refuses to accept pressure from anyone in the world, one can expect that he will deal with the “proof” we have provided to the US of India’s “interference” inside Pakistan, including our tribal areas. (This proof has not yet been provided to the media in Pakistan.)By extension, Central Asia too will feature. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov said on Friday that he feared that rising tensions in Pakistan could trigger unrest in Central Asia. He said, “Radicals may be reinvigorated by the recent events in Pakistan”. With American relations with Uzbekistan and Russia on the mend, Mr Holbrooke’s hands will be strengthened as he deals with an increasingly politically unstable Pakistan. We wish him good luck in his difficult mission to persuade three intransigent neighbours to mend fences. *Second Editorial: What’s the endgame to confrontation?President Asif Ali Zardari and Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif met in Islamabad on Friday but could not reach any agreement to end the growing confrontation between the PMLN and the PPP. This was on the cards because Mr Nawaz Sharif had declined to meet Mr Zardari, which meant that Mr Shehbaz Sharif had to allow the talks to make predictable shipwreck on his insistence that Mr Zardari must remove the 17th Amendment and reinstate Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.In terms of realpolitik, the PML wants the PPP to go away so that mid-term elections can be held at a time when the Sharifs are riding high on opinion surveys in the country. The big thing is the powerful lawyers’ movement which is willing to go to the extremes that professionals are normally not expected to go. The movement has announced a most aggressive Long March for the 9th of March, the day President Musharraf fired the chief justice in 2007. But March is the month when a part of the Senate is up for elections through collegial voting, giving the PPP the numbers it needs to consolidate its rule further.If the PMLN is relying on the lawyers to pull its chestnuts out of the fire, has it planned the Long March in such a way that it forces a crisis big enough to force the PPP to bow out of political power? The PMLN is not letting on but others like Mr Imran Khan of Tehreek-e-Insaf Pakistan are threatening to make the Long March dangerous enough. There are also some like the highly organised Jama’at-e Islami that are willing to be more aggressive during their show of strength on the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad on March 9. But will it be enough of a storm to cause political change in parliament?Is the opposition banking on the army once again to intervene after the opposition has created a law and order problem? The only time a political party enjoying a majority in parliament can be sent packing is when the army wants such a change. Not even Article 58-2(b) is effective unless that happens. The PMLN cannot join forces with the breakaway PMLQ to deprive the PPP of more Senate seats; the PPP has just got the MQM to join the government at the centre. One is bent on winning through inflexibility; the other is endlessly adaptive. Unfortunately, all the parties prefer to gamble without thinking of the endgame as they go on ignoring the constitutional requirement of giving a ruling party its five years in the driving seat.

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