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Zardari Regime Grappling With Its Credibility By Izzud Din Pal


The military been involved in maintaining links with some jihadi elements. How will the Zardari government establish its authority on this issue to fulfil the conditions of the Act?

THE following three developments which have evolved in the last few weeks will have direct impact on the future of Pakistan: The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act 2009, popularly known as Kerry-Lugar Bill; the direction of aid under the Friends of Democratic Pakistan; and the possible lease of land to Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries. It may be said that the Zardari government is on trial with respects to these developments because they are of historical significance for the country.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill is aimed at the existential reality of extremism in Pakistan, with a multifaceted strategy to promote stability in the country. It is of paramount importance from the point of view of security of the US. While increased troop deployment in Afghanistan is under consideration, the possible expansion of Taliban activity in Pakistan cannot be ignored according to this point of view.

It is a pre-emptive move and it will be for a long-term commitment because the targets are inter-related and would need to be strengthened with continuity in the flow of aid. It is not accurate to describe the bill ‘to fight extremism with economic development', because economic development is only a factor included in it, albeit a significant one. Several conditions and caveats are an important feature of the bill.

Under the Act, non-assistance payments and direct cash security-related assistance will be offered to the civilian authorities of the civilian government; with a requirement to demonstrate a sustained commitment to combat terrorist groups. One would have to have some idea about total official transfers in order to understand the significance of what is stipulated for the civilian authorities.

In any case, the present situation in Pakistan represents a delicate relationship between the government and the military, with the former being a weaker partner. There is a general impression in the knowledgeable circles that historically the military has been directly involved in maintaining links with some jihadi elements. How will the Zardari government establish its moral authority on this issue to fulfil the conditions of the Act?

It cannot accept just a proxy relationship with the military in order to demonstrate a ‘sustained commitment' to combat terrorism. This will be an important challenge for the Zardari government.

Under section 302 of the Act, assistance to programmes, projects and activities will be made available to the country. How these programmes and plans will go forward will apparently be determined by mutual agreement between the aid provider and the recipient.

Obviously there would be local input and a formal endorsement from the government. By itself this mechanism would offer no guarantee that the local point of view would prevail as against US security considerations. The assessment of the programmes after all will be based on broader criteria as enunciated in section 101 of the Act. This will present another challenge to the Zardari government.

There is, however, a specific requirement for allocation of assistance under sub-section F of section 302 and it relates to the need for increased oversight on curriculum in madressahs ‘including closing madressahs with direct link to the Taliban or other extremist and terrorist groups'. This will be an interesting responsibility put on the coalition government, especially with reference to the question of curriculum which was consistently ignored by the Musharraf regime and has not been changed during the present civilian rule.

The latest national education policy recently announced seems to promote more obscurantism in the name of Islamic teachings in schools. Also, at least one coalition party would not cooperate for a critical review of the madressah curriculum.

What exact process will be used to determine progress in this regard and who will make the final decision remains unclear. It is not difficult to assume, however, that whoever pays the piper will be able to determine the tune. Zardari government is likely to get caught in this scenario, between the responsibility to fulfil the commitment under the bill, and hostile reaction from the religious groups.

Coming now to the second development, about the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP), the group of countries put together in this forum have enthusiastically endorsed the need for assistance to the country. The bid to raise billions of dollars by Mr Zardari for his ‘Pakistan' was, however, in the last resort dumped into the lap of the Word Bank.

The implication of this decision is to make sure that the assistance dollar will be allocated within the framework of the criteria established by the IFIs (WB, IMF, etc.), and not left at the discretion of Zardari government.

It would probably require Pakistan to follow through necessary fiscal and economic reforms, including improvement in revenue collection and extending the tax base to other eligible taxpayers. It may also call for other measures such as further privatisation and liberalisation of the economy, in conformity with the nostalgia of Washington Consensus. The consequences that will follow from this would increase poverty and further increase in the inflationary pressures in the economy. With popularity already at a very low level, the government will likely become more unpopular.

The underlying message of both the Kerry-Lugar Bill and the FoDP is to demonstrate recognition of urgent need of assistance for Pakistan, but with its disbursement based on viable and transparent criteria. With so many caveats included in the Bill about accountability and periodic reports to Congress about allocation of funds, and with FoDP decision to bring WB as the intermediary, it is obvious that Zardari government suffers from credibility gap in the eyes of the international donors. It does not speak well for the government and promotes poor image for the country. Contrary to the claim made by the spokesman of Mr Zardari, the president's recent foreign trip cannot be called a success.

The latest report of Transparency International came out almost concurrently with the other developments, but as an annual event its publication was in accordance with its schedule. The section on Pakistan presents a strong indictment of the government. The rumour mills are churning out all kinds of accusations from diverse sources, from a baker to a banker to a business tycoon, all leading to the top. The recent disclosure about the rental power plants lends further support to this rapidly expanding literature on the subject.

The government will be saddled with a very serious responsibility for the remaining four years of its tenure. Kerry-Lugar Bill will especially keep them busy, something they are not used to, from parliamentarians to the top. The obvious fact is that the Bill calls for extensive cooperation between Pakistan and the USA, and a greater presence of the Americans in the country than ever before, apparently guiding, advising, assisting their counterparts in Pakistan, to fulfil the objectives of the Bill.

That will not go down well in the country. A leader with ‘soft-power' could reach the people directly to give them assurance and hope, but Mr Zardari does not have the facility with the language.

The third development is not directly related to the above two, but as a challenge to the credibility of the government is parallel to them. It is about the plan, in progress according to reports, to lease agricultural land to Saudi Arabia for growing crops to fulfil its needs. Why should this favour be done to the Saudis is an important question. They do seem to enjoy the role of patrons of politics in Pakistan, from time to time, and they are part of the FoDP, though it is difficult to understand what interest they would have in a `democratic` Pakistan.

Land lease to produce crops for export by the lease-holder at his discretion fits in with a model of plantation economy, with tenancy laws in Pakistan no better than which prevailed in the old colonies that used slave or indentured labour. If the lease-holder becomes the monopoly exporter of a single or a few crops, his activity would bring Pakistan to the level of a banana republic. Also, water scarcity is not far away, in rivers as well as aquifer- wells and tube-wells.

The interesting point is that all this is being promoted by a self-proclaimed secular and a modernist party, with a link with the legacy of Z.A. Bhutto. And there is not a peep from the other main parties about this matter, not PML-N, not MQM, not ANP, not Insaf Party.

izzud-din pal@videotron.ca


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