With its estimated 190 million population and its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan is an important country in its own right. However, its location makes it even more significant. Sitting next to Afghanistan, Iran and India, it plays a key role in the geopolitics of the region. It has been a major factor in the United States' two campaigns in Afghanistan, the first time playing a leading role in helping the Afghan mujahideen to expel the Soviet Union's occupying forces from their country, and, more recently, being blamed for the US's lack of success in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
Some recent developments, including some policy moves and changes, make it likely that the role that Pakistan has played in the region will change, as will the internal situation in the country. It is worth looking at these.
The US appears to have recently dropped its efforts to push Pakistan into moving militarily against the Haqqani insurgent group based in the North Waziristan tribal area which borders Afghanistan. Having unsuccessfully tried both carrot and stick on the Pakistanis, the US has accepted that they will not do what it wants. The US's war in Afghanistan was also entering a new phase, of winding down, and the importance of dealing with the Haqqanis had decreased, while there were more important things that Pakistan could do for it now. Accordingly, it seems that the two countries have agreed to move to a new equation: the US will no longer press for an attack on the Haqqanis, while Pakistan will pressure them not to attack US forces in Afghanistan. There have been none for quite some time.
Pakistan has come to terms with the fact that, even though the US will have a small military presence in Afghanistan in the future, it will not permit the insurgency to take over the country. It also knows that the insurgents will take over the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, reducing Karzai or his successor to a nominal position in Kabul. As a result, Pakistan opened a dialogue with the old Northern Alliance power brokers, and has begun to actively assist them in coming to a settlement with the Taliban. Its aim now is to have a postwar setup in Afghanistan in which power is shared (or divided) between a reasonably friendly Taliban, the friendly Haqqanis and not unfriendly 'Northern Alliance' chieftains. In furtherance of this aim it has recently been releasing several senior Taliban leaders, whom it had been keeping in custody, so as to facilitate peace negotiations.
Another interesting development has been in Pakistan's relations with Iran. Pakistan is suffering from an acute power shortage, and Iran offered to supply a significant quantity of natural gas through a pipeline to be jointly built. When Pakistan indicated that it couldn't come up with the money to build its portion of the pipeline, Iran offered to provide the funds on very easy terms. In spite of considerable US pressure, Pakistan decided to go ahead with the project. Then the Saudis stepped in; for them such a development of ties between these two countries would break the isolation they are seeking to impose on Iran. President Zardari cancelled a visit to Iran to sign the agreement, while his Foreign Minister went to Riyadh to settle what the Saudis would provide in return. Another attraction for Pakistan in this new deal would be the influence that the Saudis would carry with the Taliban and the Haqqanis in a future Afghan setup (there is a nagging concern as to how friendly these entities will continue to be when they are no longer dependent on Pakistani benevolence).
Another notable policy change is that the Pakistan army has now officially adopted the position in its operational doctrine that the greatest threat to the country's security is the internal one. This marks a significant change in the previous strategic assessment which held the threat from India as the greatest one. It is likely that this shift is the basis for the new stance of the country's security establishment, namely, that its highest priority is now to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.
On the terrorist front, the war inside Pakistan goes on, though on a greatly reduced scale. The army, having pushed the Pakistani Taliban out of most of the tribal belt, is concentrating on establishing itself there, and has avoided any significant operations for quite some time. The terrorists continue to occasionally detonate bombs and kill civilians in the settled districts near the tribal areas. The low-level insurgency in Baluchistan drags on, while the daily half dozen or more killings in Karachi continue (though the majority of these are due to politically tinged gang warfare). The government displays, as before, a disgraceful inability to protect persons directly threatened, whether they be women workers in vaccination programs or Shias. The army must share the blame in this shameful failure.
The US's drone war in Pakistan's tribal areas also continues. Two recent strikes highlight the pros and cons of this form of warfare. In the first a senior Taliban commander and a couple of his deputies were killed. In the second two missiles were fired at a vehicle in a village; it is not confirmed that there were militants in it. When villagers came to pick up the casualties two more missiles were fired and many of the rescuers were also killed or wounded. In addition to being a war crime, such deliberate targetting of civilians only creates more hatred and enemies, generational enemies, for the US. In this tribal culture the children and grandchildren of the dead will become and remain mortal enemies of the US (perhaps, for the 'permanent warriors', that would not seem to be such a bad deal).
Recently, however, a new and significant development has occurred in Pakistan. The current federal and provincial governments will soon be completing their 5-year terms, and preparations have been under way for a new round of elections. The political parties were preparing for these, with those in power busy (in the usual fashion) doling out money and jobs to their supporters, current and potential. Into this idyllic scene has dropped a thunderbolt from without in the person of Allama Tahir ul Qadri. This religious leader has lived abroad for the last 5 years and holds both Pakistani and Canadian citizenship. He runs a religious organization called Minhaj ul Qur'an, which has branches and followers all over the world, including in Pakistan. However, during this period neither the worthy Allama nor his organization have taken any part or, indeed, shown any interest in Pakistani politics. While he obviously had cultivated a considerable number of supporters in the country, he did not register at all on the national consciousness; most people had never even heard of him.
This changed dramatically when Allama Qadri suddenly turned up in Pakistan and held a public meeting in Lahore on 23 Dec 2012 attended by several hundred thousand people (many claim there were over a million). In a two-hour long speech the Allama demanded that the caretaker government to be formed prior to the elections (as required under the constitution) be created in consultation with the military and the Supreme Court, and that it should have the power to first carry out "accountability" and then ensure that only "honest" persons contested a fair election. He warned that if his demand was not accepted he would lead a "million man march" on the capital on Jan14. This bombshell created a media frenzy and threw the political scene into turmoil. Zardari's ruling People's Party, while officially not criticizing the Allama, turned its media and other supporters loose on him. Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League, widely expected to win the next election, fiercely attacked him, while the MQM, a part of the ruling coalition, said it would take part in Qadri's march (while continuing to remain in the government!). Others maintained a discreet silence.
The Allama's opponents, especially in the media, questioned
his motives and speculated who was behind his sudden appearance on the scene.
They also raised a hue and cry over the postponement of the elections, which
was implicit in his demands. This last objection found enough public traction
to cause Qadri to hastily deny that he wanted any such thing, and to play down
the accountability part of his demands. He also denied that there was any other
entity behind his move, a denial that was officially confirmed by both the US
and Britain respecting their involvement. That left the finger of suspicion
pointing at the Pakistan army; a plausible case can be made to pin the blame
there. Nawaz Sharif's government was removed by Gen Musharraf in 1999; he is
not considered a friend by the army and it would not like him to come back into
power. The present army chief, Gen Kayani, may not want history to remember him
as being complicit in, or even tolerating, the wholesale plundering of the
country during the last five years by Zardari's government and party, and their
friends and allies. He is too cautious a person to have intervened to stop it
earlier, but may well want "accountability" to be imposed now through
a caretaker government. However, in typical fashion, he has kept enough distance between the army and the Allama that, in case the latter's crusade fails or goes wrong, he can keep himself out of the fallout and let Allama Qadri carry the can.
So, with bated breath, Pakistan now awaits the ides of January. And the days after. Interesting times, indeed!