COMMENTARY
 
Political Implications of Deteriorating Security
Weekly Pulse
September 7-13, 2007
The security situation in Pakistan deteriorated further in the past over one week. On August 30, over 150 paramilitary soldiers of the Frontier Corps were taken hostage in South Waziristan by the militant group led by Baitullah Mehsud. Then, on September 4, Rawalpindi, the city of army power, saw two devastating suicide bombings claiming over a dozen fatalities, mostly of security personnel.

Since the July military operation against Red Mosque, the country has seen a spate of suicide bombings and instances of kidnapping specifically targeting security personnel. In fact, it is for the first time since the 1971 dismemberment of East Pakistan that Pakistan’s security forces have been a specific target of forces opposed to the state.

It is still a mystery as to how could such a large number of fully armed soldiers—numbering some 300, as claimed by leadership of the militant group—be kidnapped by the tribal militants. Tribal militants have to be in thousands to overpower an army numbering hundreds.

One possibility could be that they surrendered voluntarily without offering any residence. The morale of the forces deployed in the region has to be low for such a possibility to come true. Whatever the truth, the fact is that never before since the start of the military operation in the tribal belt in spring 2004 such a high profile incident of security personnel’s kidnapping has occurred.

However, it is true that, since the August 30 kidnapping, the government had been trying to negotiate the release of the hostages with the assistance of a tribal peace Jirga. In their initial reaction, the security forces had arrested some 100 armed men belonging to the extremist group led by Baitullah Mehsud. These men were released on Tuesday. If the government is able to secure the release of the kidnapped soldiers, then it will be its second success, the first one being the release of some 16 Frontier Corps soldiers last month.

Insofar as the Tuesday suicide bombings in Rawalpindi are concerned, the extremists again specifically targeted the security personnel. While the suicide bombing on a bus carrying defense personnel belonging to the Pakistan Army was meant to harm the army, even the motorbike suicide bombing in one of Rawalpindi’s commercial areas also claimed the lives of a few army personnel.

That Pakistan’s security environment is fast deteriorating amid a flurry of political activity is quite significant, as it may directly impinge upon the country’s political future. The state forces having a stake in the continuity of the present military-dominated political dispensation may use the deteriorating security situation as a justification to impose emergency or even martial law in the country. Until recently, the emergency option was on the table. No surprise that after the Tuesday bombings, government officials started floating similar ideas in the media.

However, given the fact that the government itself has been negotiating a deal with the PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, the imposition of emergency or martial law—even amid devastating suicide bombings and dramatic instance of kidnapping, both specifically targeting the army—should not be an option. Such a course could be relevant in the absence of efforts towards securing a Musharraf-Benazir deal.

By Tuesday, both the PPP and government officials were hopeful about the prospects of such a deal. In case the deal fails to mature, and negotiations for the purpose completely collapse, then another possibility emanating from the deteriorating security factor could be the dissolution of current assembly.

The idea has been floated by ruling PML Q leadership in the past couple of weeks, whereby the Prime Minister can advise the President—perhaps by taking the plea of the eroding law and order situation—to dissolve the current assemblies. Such an eventuality will help President Musharraf to buy time for his re-election as President—which itself is a major issue of dispute in the Musharaf-Benazir deal, with the PPP leadership insisting the President should dispense with his army uniform and seek re-election as a civilian head of state.

The kidnapping of security personnel in the tribal belt does not have any direct political implications for the government or the mainstream political forces or their allies in the lawyers’ community who have recently gained significant ground in their opposition to the government. The tribal region is too far away, and the extremists’ fight against the government there is principally linked to the latter’s counter-terrorist effort.

However, deadly instances such as the Rawalpindi bombings do have direct implications for what happens in the country’s domestic political domain in the coming days or weeks. PML (N) leader Nawaz Sharif has decided to return to Pakistan on the 10th of September. The party leaders claim to gather 10 lakh people to welcome the former prime minister, who intends to land in Islamabad and then travel by G T Road to Lahore.

In doing so, Nawaz Sharif is basically tending to follow in the footsteps of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhmmad Chaudhry, who, after being suspended in March, had spent the next three months in traveling from one major city to another to muster a show of public support in his favor.

The only time the Chief Justice’s said strategy suffered a reversal was when the very site in the Federal Capital where he was supposed to address the Islamabad Bar Council rally saw a deadly bombing, which, besides claiming many lives, cause public scare in the Capital. It may be pertinent to mention here that just the other day, the security personnel discovered a suspicious bag outside the Supreme Court building, with the Chief Justice taking a serious note of the event and instructing the Interior Secretary to increase security for the Supreme Court Judges.

Such mysterious instances symptomatic of the deteriorating security situation aside, in the aftermath of the suicide bombings in Rawalpindi, the sort of public gathering that the PML (N) leadership expects outside the Islamabad Airport may not occur. This is because the fear that these bombings may have caused among the people is likely to persist for some time.

Finally, a longer run implication of the growing instances of suicide bombings, even if their main target is the security personnel, is for the election campaign in the coming months. Fear of life due to unpredictable events such as these bombings may dissuade people from actively participating in the political activities. For the absence of an active electoral campaign with proactive public participation does open the door for electoral rigging by the powers-that-be.