COMMENTARY
 
Reconciliation for Survival
Weekly Pulse
March 13-19, 2009
With the issue of restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry now settled, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari needs to move faster on resolving the two remaining issues that forced the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to lead the recent Long March: that of ending the Governor Rule in Punjab and reversing the disqualification of Sharif brothers.

If Pakistan was not facing an existential terrorist threat, and if it had not become the world’s principal victim of terrorism in recent years, then any kind of politics on any sort of issue, inside parliament or out in the street, could be justified politically or even on moral grounds. Since these two ifs do not constitute the current ground reality, all the political forces in the country—be they in the government or in opposition—have to reconcile their differences in the larger national interest and for the sake of the country’s survival, which is seriously threatened by the mortal danger of terrorism.

Galloping level of political uncertainty in a country playing a crucial role in fighting terrorism and bearing its biggest blow is a situation that neither the international community can afford nor can Pakistan bear. Perhaps that is why on March 6, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had urged the country’s political leaders to unite in the face of a “mortal threat from homegrown terrorists” suspected of attacking Sri Lanka’s cricket team.

Miliband called on President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to focus on combating extremism. “I think that the degree of political disunity that exists at the moment is only contributing to the problem,” he told BBC. “It is now vital that, whatever the political differences between President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif...they come together to unite against the mortal threat which Pakistan faces, which is a threat from its internal enemies, not its traditional external enemies.”

Internal Danger

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also recently described the terrorist threat facing Pakistan as essentially “internal,” while pledging full US support for the people of Pakistan to combat this threat. The external front has not been as un-promising for Pakistan as its potentially chaotic internal political reality in recent weeks. US President Barack Obama recently admitted that the US military was pushing for talks with the Taliban. He said General David Petraeus, the Centcom chief, believed “part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists.”

Unfortunately, just about the time when the new US administration started talking about initiating some sort of a dialogue with Taliban and other insurgents, the politics of Pakistan experienced such a mess that its leadership was forced to concentrate on managing internal political crisis in the shape of the Long March rather than exploit such new opportunities arising out of US strategic re-thinking on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions.

What Pakistan’s worsening security quagmire requires of the civilian democratic leadership, both governmental and opposition, is to urgently find a via media to resolve their political differences amicably. The spectacular nature of the Lahore terrorist attack against Sri Lankan cricket team should have brought politicians and civil society together out of a sheer spirit of nationalism, as terrorists’ motivation is to demolish the country, destroy its international image, ruin its economy, and make the country inhospitable or unlivable for foreign investors, tourists and, above all, its own people.

Mutual Failure

Unfortunately, quite the opposite happened in Pakistan after the Lahore tragedy. The PML-N and its two partners, Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehrik-e-Insaf, decided to be part of the lawyers’ nation-wide long march towards Islamabad and sit-in in the Federal Capital. For its part, the government did not show any inclination to settle the issue of judiciary, reverse disqualification of the Sharifs or lift Governor Rule in the Punjab province.

All terrorists are essentially rational actors. Those who planned and carried out the terrorist attack in Lahore did so in a calculated manner. They knew that the sudden imposition of the Governor Rule had created an administrative-security vacuum in Lahore, which they successfully exploited by attacking Sri Lankan cricketers. The politics of confrontation between the ruling PPP and the opposition-led by PML-N provided an ideal climate that terrorists as rational actors sought: that an already worsening political crisis in the country should further conflagrate.

Instead of settling political scores against each other or engaging in a smear campaign of criticism against the government, all Pakistanis need to get united to confront what has become a common danger to them to everyone else in the region and the world. People need to patiently wait for the outcome of governmental investigations into the terror event, instead of pre-judging it as futile.

Equal Responsibility

Granted that the Punjab government and the country’s security agencies failed miserably to pre-empt or prevent terrorism in Lahore, and accepted that they deserve due criticism on this account, yet the fact remains that Pakistan as a nation is facing an existential threat from terrorists. Neither the government nor the people of this country can run away from this gory reality. The need of the hour is to urgently move away from a politics marred by point-scoring and mud-slinging towards a politics of compromise and conciliation.

Lifting of the Governor Rule in Punjab, re-establishment of an elected regime in the province, and reversal of the disqualification of Sharif brothers will surely create a political climate conducive for broader reconciliation between the country’s mainstream representative political forces to institutionalize the Charter of Democracy in letter and spirit. It is only through such political reconciliation that the country can move credibly forward in its counter-terrorism campaign as a means to ensure national survival.

After all, in India, the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai had seen an unprecedented coming together of politicians and the nation at large. By doing so, the Indians failed the terrorists in achieving their political goal. On the contrary, the terrorists who struck Lahore have ripped Pakistan’s politics apart, and, therefore, succeeded in their larger political mission. How can any investigative process aimed at identifying and nabbing terrorist culprits succeed in the presence of an acute political crisis in the country?

If even after the restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry, the government and the opposition resume politics of confrontation, then the ensuing political crisis will only intensify terrorism-ridden security quagmire facing the country. The blame for such an eventuality would, then, have to be shared by the government and the opposition—for their combined failure to amicably resolve their differences

The post-February 2008 civilian democratic setup in the country has been achieved after so much struggle and sacrifice—the formation of a duly elected government, after over eight years of military-led regime, preceded by a decade of politics of confrontation between the PPP and the PML-N, and 11 years of Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. This is a God-sent opportunity, and a reality that must be consolidated further. This can happen only if the mainstream political parties, their respective allies in accordance with their parliamentary standing, and former ruling party, the PML-Q, agree to some new “rules of the game” ensuring democratic competitiveness among them and preventing a political conflict, one which has encouraged the army to intervene in politics several times in the past.

Real Focus

The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team is an international embarrassment for the country. The attack reinforces the need for stronger measures to prevent such terrorist violence. Pakistan needs to crack down on terrorism or risk losing its status as a co-host of the 2011 World Cup. The loss of international cricket would remove a major inspiration for Pakistani youth and weaken the positive impact cricket, as a symbol of hope, has on guiding youth in positive directions.

The perpetrators of this attack have shown a total disdain for Pakistani public opinion and shared values—and, by extension, for an institution that is arguably almost a “second religion” in Pakistan. The people behind this attack have demonstrated that nothing or no one is too sacred or too universally honoured in Pakistan not to fall a victim to terrorism.

Pakistan has always had economic problems, and ethno-political issues of grave nature. But the country has never faced as gigantic a threat to its very national survival as terrorism today. If not for anything else, at least for the sake of collectively managing this threat, a grand-level national political reconciliation process is absolutely essential now.

This is an updated version of the column originally published in Weekly Pulse, March 13-19, 2009.

Access column at weeklypulse.org