Pakistan Paralyzed by Protests, Deepening Political Crisis

U.S. officials worry the embattled Pakistani government is being diverted from going after terrorists.

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ISLAMABAD—Pakistan's deepening political turmoil is bringing the country to a virtual standstill and threatening to divert the government's attention from military operations against pro-Taliban militants. Amid a burgeoning judicial crisis and the backlash over the disqualification of popular two-time premier Nawaz Sharif from holding high office, the Pakistani government is preoccupied with saving itself.

Pakistani police wielding clubs scuffled today with demonstrators protesting against the year-old regime of Pakistani President Asif Zardari.

U.S. officials and Pakistani security analysts fear that if the political crisis continues much longer, it could reverse the what little progress has been made against Taliban militants in the country's Northwestern Frontier Province and restive tribal belt. "This is a very dangerous situation. The entire government's functionaries are busy saving themselves, instead of paying attention towards the specter of militancy," says Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based security analyst.

Sehgal thinks that Pakistani military forces have gained significant ground in several tribal regions, including parts of South and North Waziristan, during the past few months, but the lack of political attention could erode those gains. "The United States and its allies are worried about the ongoing political crisis, and they want an immediate end to that," Sehgal says.

The Obama administration is growing increasingly worried, particularly because Pakistani has already been destabilized by a series of suicide bombings in the tribal areas and a deepening economic crisis. The U.S. envoy to Pakistan, Anne Paterson, held a series of meetings with both Zardari, who is the widower of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the head of the main right-wing opposition party in an effort to resolve a political deadlock over the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudry, the chief justice who was sacked by former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf. British and Saudi officials have joined the efforts to negotiate a solution, but party sources report there has been no progress.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party now headed by Zardari had earlier promised to reinstate Chaudry, but Zardari has backtracked numerous times. Party leaders fear that Chaudry would nullify an amnesty agreement that allowed Zardari to return to Pakistan without having to face corruption charges from a previous scandal.

The crisis deepened when an influential group of lawyers announced a "decisive" long march on the capital. The protesters plan to reach Islamabad by March 16. Meanwhile, several opposition parties connected to Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, said they would join the march and scheduled a sit-in in front of the parliament building.

Analysts fear a massive showdown between the opposition and the government on March 16. Several hundred protesters in Karachi set off on their march to Islamabad today to demand Chaudry's return, but they were stopped by police. Security forces scuffled with demonstrators before arresting several opposition figures. Heavy trucks and shipping containers have been placed on all the roads leading to Islamabad to foil the long march, and courthouses have been cordoned off to prevent the lawyers from staging rallies.

Pakistan's army is growing increasingly worried about the political crisis. The military's top commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, told the prime minister in a meeting that the army wants to steer the country out of this crisis, a senior army official said.

But Sharif's disqualification from office remains an open wound for opposition parties. They continue to reject a controversial ruling by the country's Supreme Court's that barred Sharif from holding any public post on the basis of a hijacking case brought by the Musharraf regime in November 1999. At the time, Musharraf had just toppled Sharif's elected government in a bloodless military coup.

Reversing the Sharif ruling, however, won't be easy. It would likely require a constitutional amendment.