Friday, June 26, 2009

2008 a Year of Turbulence, Strife for Pakistan

By Muhammad Najeeb

The year set to end was one of turbulence for Pakistan, with a virtual war between Islamist militants and the government taking a huge toll and inviting comparisons with failed states.

The year 2008 began with the aftershocks of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she was on the verge of clinching a power sharing deal with then president Pervez Musharraf.

By the time 2008 ended, the first democratically elected government in a decade was in office, headed by Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari. But it found it tough to grapple with escalating militancy that has killed some 600 people in open warfare and unceasing bombings.

If this was not enough, Pakistan's new rulers found themselves under international pressure to come clean on the country's alleged links to the Mumbai terror attack that has derailed relations with India.

In between, President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and their team found themselves facing a severe economic crisis, food shortages and a movement to restore the judges Pervez Musharraf sacked in 2007.

Long-standing friend Washington asked Pakistan to do more to rein in the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which ran wild on the border with Afghanistan. Disgusted with Pakistan's poor response, the US launched air strikes that killed over 120 people, triggering anger in tribal areas.

US officials, from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher to top military commander Admiral Mike Mullen, undertook close to 20 visits to Pakistan, calling upon the leadership to "do more" to root out terrorism.

The pressure was more intense after the audacious Mumbai terror attack Nov 26-29 that killed over 170 people, including 26 foreigners, in India's financial capital.

Pakistani experts believe the situation can be remedied if the government roots out those responsible for escalating terrorism. But that is easier said than done since many terrorist groups are known to enjoy close ties with the Pakistani establishment.

Security expert Khalid Ahmed told IANS: "I believe the urgent issues are extremism, militancy and the security of the Pakistani state... We need to deal with these issues on a priority basis."

Islamabad needs to take "real steps" to arrest the menace of terrorism and extremism with "a shift in where the policy making circles are", he felt.

Retired general Abdul Qayyum disagreed.

"I don't understand what else Pakistan should do; we have done our best. We have arrested people and closed organisations without any evidence. No country in the region is free of terrorism," he maintained.

However, despite repeated assurances by Pakistan, which spends 17.6 percent of its outlay on defence, no immediate solution seems in sight as the Taliban targets the US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Since January, the militants have disrupted supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The militants also continue to target civilian and military installations in the country's north.

Scores of schools, seven police stations and several vehicles have been set on fire by the Pakistani Taliban, which are determined to bring about a puritan Islamic state.

"For Pakistan, the priority must be to push back against all militants, not just the ones that the US or India wants us to stamp out," an editorial in the widely respected Dawn newspaper said.

Politically, Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) formed the government with the help of several parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). But the PML-Nawaz pulled out of the government on the issue of restoring the Supreme Court judges sacked by Musharraf.

The year 2008 saw unprecedented inflation, with prices of kitchen items and common use commodities rising by almost 30 percent and pushing more people below the poverty line. According to official sources, almost 34.3 percent of the 165 million people now live below the poverty line.

Pakistan also faced a serious balance of payments crisis along with an expanding fiscal deficit. However, after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a $7.6 billion bailout package to avoid default on the country's sovereign debt and shore up its foreign currency reserves, the government has initiated efforts to stabilise the economy.

The freezing of the stock market index and extraordinary taxes on property purchases have forced the people, particularly overseas Pakistanis, to pull out their investments from here. Several multinationals are planning to shift investments to other countries mainly because of terror fears and political uncertainty.

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