Gilani Gambles by Siding with Kayani

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani addressed Pakistan’s National Assembly tonight in Islamabad on issues surrounding the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. His speech, which was in English and began at around 9AM in Washington, was clearly aimed at an American audience. Gilani’s address, with its defensive and nationalist tone, appears to have been significantly influenced by the high military command. He met earlier in the day with Gen. Khalid Shamim Wynne, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

The Pakistani military is letting the civilians serve as the public face of the government on this issue, as I noted last night on the John Batchelor Show.  Today,  Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said, “It is believed that people of Pakistan need to be taken into confidence through their honourable elected representatives.”

For the Pakistan Army, this is a multi-front battle.  It perceives it is being attack on all sides: by the U.S. military and intelligence services (quite literally), the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress and media, India (which spoke about  conducting unilateral raids in Pakistan), and critics in Pakistan who are angered at the violation of the country’s sovereignty and/or that bin Laden was hiding in a mid-sized city near the Pakistani heartland.

The army is also deeply concerned about internal dissent.  As a result, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani held a “very frank” question and answer session with army officers from three garrisons in Punjab.

Some in Pakistan have argued that the civilians should proactively use this low point for the army to reshape civil-military dynamics in their favor.  A less risky and perhaps equally efficacious path for the Pakistan Peoples Party would have been to take a back seat and let the military take the heat.  But Gilani has chosen to actively side with the military.  Perhaps it is his nationalist instincts coming in.  He is a son of the soil who has spent no time abroad in exile.  But he risks sinking with the military command.  Alternatively, if he and the military are able to ride this through, Gilani could have earned some brownie points with the military, and a lifeline for his government till the next elections in 2013.

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Pakistan Dives into the Persian Gulf

The always-important Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Pakistan this weekend to ensure that the country’s major power brokers are behind Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the latter faces a possibly Iran-backed domestic uprising from its Shia native majority.

Bandar, the once long-time ambassador to the United States and now national security council chief, sought to avoid a replay of the 1990 Gulf War, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif supported Saudi Arabia and the United States in Iraq war, while Chief of Army Staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg publicly called for an Iraq-Iran-Pakistan alliance against the West.

Today, it is the civilian government that is less likely to be on board with Riyadh’s game plan. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a pragmatic nationalist aligned with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China.  The Islamabad coalition government is led by the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has historically had poor relations with Riyadh. Its senior brass consists of many Shia Muslims, the minority Muslim sect hardline Salafis in Saudi Arabia have deep contempt for.  Riyadh has a soft side for the PPP’s rivals: the various center-right Pakistan Muslim League factions, particularly Sharif’s, as well as the army and military intelligence services.  The Saudi king has even expressed his personal disdain for President Asif Ali Zardari, describing him as “rotten” and the major “obstacle” behind Pakistan’s progress, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, the PPP has sought warmer ties with Iran, which has not improved the party’s standing in Saudi eyes.

But the Saudis are in need and seem to be reevaluating their hostility toward the PPP.  Bandar’s visit comes two weeks after the Saudi army chief’s meeting with Kayani. Riyadh’s concern for the future of Bahrain and potentially even Saudi Arabia’s predominantly-Shia eastern corridor provides the PPP with an opportunity to mollify Saudi antagonism, ease domestic pressure, and help its always-embattled government continue to crawl toward the finish line and complete its five-year tenure.  The Saudis have reportedly offered Islamabad oil on deferred payment or at concessionary rates, which could assist Zardari in maintaining oil prices at current rates and containing public opposition.  Inflation is at a seven-month low, but the PPP could be hit hard by a rise in global oil prices due to the strife in Libya, and the combination of a traditional summer oil price spike and IMF pressure to reduce subsidies.

Distrust between the PPP and Riyadh is considerable, but money talks. Riyadh’s assistance could give the PPP a temporary lifeline.  However, it cannot save the Islamabad government from from self-destruction. Furthermore, Riyadh is unlikely to let go of an option to support a center-right and Islamist alliance should Pakistan face early elections late this year or early next year.

One should not overestimate the importance of the civilian government in Saudi eyes.  Most likely, Riyadh simply wants all of Pakistan’s major power brokers to be on the same page.  But the most important player for the Saudis is the military.  The Pakistan Army, as one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most powerful armies (and because Rawalpindi is more likely than Ankara to play second fiddle to Riyadh), will become even more critical to Riyadh as the Sudairis doubt Washington’s intentions and resolve.  The Pakistani military — deeply allied with China, the largest importer of Saudi crude — has historically contributed forces to Arab Muslim states in times of need. It is an equal opportunity offender, having shot down Israeli fighter jets and brutally subdued Palestinian militant organizations.  Many of its retired officers have also served in the security services of Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain. Recently, the Fauji Foundation — a massive Pakistan Army welfare trust and business conglomerate — put out advertisements for hundreds of anti-riot instructor and security guard jobs with Bahrain’s internal security services.  Pakistanis have served in the Bahrain security forces for decades; many have been naturalized to boost the island nation’s Sunni population.

So the Pakistan Army is not a tangential player when it comes to Gulf security.  It can potentially serve as a force multiplier for the Saudis. Presumably, Riyadh is preparing contingencies for worst-case scenarios that might require the direct support of the Pakistan Army. Bandar’s meetings with the civilians – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, as well as Zardari — are likely aimed at ensuring that they do not serve as a hindrance to such plans.

Interestingly, Bandar is not the kingdom’s major interlocutor with the Pakistanis.  The kingdom’s Pakistan portfolio is generally handled by the Saudi ambassador, foreign minister, and intelligence chief.  It is possible that in addition to his role as general secretary of the NSC, Bandar visited Pakistan due to his pragmatist and pro-US leanings, which might have helped in building confidence with PPP officials.  It also suggests a deficiency in the more regular channels of communication.

For Pakistan, siding with the conservative Sunni Arabic bloc risks alienating Iran, with which there remains the faint hope of a natural gas pipeline for the energy-starved South Asian state.  While an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline seems unlikely in the present, it would be advantageous for Pakistan to have multiple gas import options available at least hypothetically so as to reduce its perceived dependency on a single source.  If it became clear that Pakistan’s sole option was the TAPI pipeline transiting through Afghanistan, then Kabul and ISAF could use this as leverage vis-a-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Now only if the Saudis were a major exporter of natural gas.

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Zardari in the Crosshairs

My latest external publication is an article on ForeignPolicy.com that discusses the plight of President Asif Ali Zardari. An excerpt is at the end of this post.

I have been blogging less frequently in the past two months, but you can catch me regularly on the John Batchelor Show, Saturdays at 9:30PM EST (770AM-NY, WABCradio.com, and XM , XM Radio Channel 158).

You can also follow me on Twitter.

Here’s an excerpt of my FP article:

“Afghanistan’s election crisis has temporarily abated, but Pakistan could soon face a volatile political transition of its own. President Asif Ali Zardari is under ever-increasing pressure to resign. His influence and power are dwindling and will likely continue to diminish in the coming months. By this spring, the Zardari presidency could meet its end….”

Click here to read more

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Attack on Prime Minister Gilani’s Convoy; U.S. Enters South Waziristan, Pakistan

The vehicle of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was reportedly attacked today by at least one gunman.  Two shots were fired and hit what seems to be the driver’s side of his vehicle.  It does not appear that the bullets penetrated the bullet-proof glass.  Gilani, who was en route to his residence from Islamabad airport, was unharmed.

Also, today U.S. forces entered Pakistani soil in a ground attack on Angor Ada, South Waziristan — a previous target of multiple Predator drone missile strikes.

Today’s raid was on the home of a local tribesman, Payo Jan Wazir.  According to a local resident, ten persons in the home were killed, including three women and two children.  An additional five civilians were killed.  Therefore, according to local reports, ten out of the fifteen killed were civilians.

BBC Urdu reports that 20 persons were killed in the attack.  The news service adds that, according to locals, the attacks from three gunship helicopters occured at approximately 3AM local time.  They state that Pakistani security forces are stationed only 300 meters (984 feet) away.

The raid was presumably launched to kill or apprehend a high-value target.  Another report suggests that U.S. forces were engaged in hot pursuit of militants that crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

Some reports claim that U.S. (and possibly Afghan) special forces operated on the ground as well.

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Khadim, not Makhdoom

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has officially removed the title of makhdoom (one who is served) from his name, stating that he, like all of Pakistan’s politicians, is a khadim (servant) of the people.

Descendants of Muslim saints in Sindh and southern Punjab traditionally inherit the spiritual authority of their pious forebearers, irrespective of their own piety. They are given the title of makhdoom and, in the past two centuries, have also become feudal-political power brokers (see: Sarah Ansari’s Sufi Saints and State Power). Gillani is a descendant of Sufi giants Abdul Qadir Jilani and Hazrat Musa Pak. Other makhdooms in the governing coalition include Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi of the PPP and Javed Hashmi of the PML-N. Gillani, Qureshi, and Hashmi are all from Multan, Punjab.

These spiritual-feudal notables remain integral to the politics of southern Punjab and Sindh. Gillani’s move is unlikely to immediately change the on-the-ground reality. But their inherited authority and conjoined feudal status have long contradicted with the fundamental ideas of the social democratic People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan’s aspiration to become a modern, democratic state. This antiquated system is representative of a broader, authoritarian power dynamic in Pakistan (between the ruler and ruled, employer and employee, etc.) that is corrosive.

Gillani’s decision can, hopefully, lend toward a change in mindset that will eventually produce structural change. Instead of tens of millions serving a few thousand, Pakistan’s elite needs to exert itself for the impoverished majority.

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Pakistan’s Next Prime Minister: Yousuf Raza Gillani

People’s Party Spokesman Farhatullah Babar just announced Yousuf Raza Gillani as the incoming governing coalition’s nominee for the prime minister.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was to read out the nomination, but PPP spokespeople said he had a cold. A more likely reason is that the young fellow would’ve been unable to handle tough questions surrounding the nomination–specifically, those pertaining to the Amin Fahim saga.

Gillani, a graduate of Government College-Lahore and Punjab University-Lahore, hails from a prominent spiritual-feudal family in Multan. The Seraiki-speaking family claims descent from two Sufi giants, Hazrat Musa Pak and Abdul Qadir Jilani.

Update – 01:00PM (New York): Amin Fahim just finished speaking to GEO News. He said he will be going to Islamabad for the sole purpose of voting for Raza Gillani as PM. He was not consulted on the decision, but said it’s not a problem. Fahim asserted that he won’t leave the PPP, describing it as his own party, the party of PPP workers, and of the poor. He said he was aware quite a while back that he wouldn’t be prime minister.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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