A country at war

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto we revisit our October special on Pakistan in whi

Pakistan is about to descend even deeper into violence and chaos, as the front-line state in the war on terror prepares for an all-out offensive on the jihadi militants entrenched in Waziristan, the country's lawless northern province. In what amounts to total war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Musharraf is planning to bring the whole region under military control. This is a high-risk strategy, as the consequences of failure could be devastating for Pakistan. They could even lead to the break-up of the country.

Behind the headlines, the state's contradictions and tensions are being tested to the limit. The arrival of Benazir Bhutto, supposed to help marshal the forces of moderation and reform, has increased political instability. Supporters of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who plans a second attempt to return from exile to Pakistan in the first week of November, are preparing a mass campaign against Musharraf that could lead to political gridlock. And the president himself has given a general amnesty to corrupt politicians - an act seen as handing a tabula rasa to plunderers and murderers.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on the basis of a "power-sharing deal" brokered by Washington and vaunted in the international media as a po sitive move towards democracy. But it is little more than a conjunction of self-interests. Mush arraf describes the proposed arrangement as a "troika", involving the president, the prime min ister and the army chief of staff. The powers of the president, including being able to sack the prime minister at will, are to remain untouched for the next five-year term. Any premier would thus have little real power and would be forced to do the bidding of the other two members of the troika. A pliant prime minister with selected political parties on board means Musharraf remains in charge. The status quo is preserved.

In return for joining the arrangement, Bhutto's two main demands are met: her Swiss bank accounts have been unfrozen and she gets to keep her skyscraper in Dubai and properties in England and the US; and the rule against her serving a third term as prime minister is waived.

Musharraf's plans for the immediate future have two components. First, now that Bhutto has returned, he is determined to hold elections before mid-January. They will be "managed", just as he managed the 2002 elections, by "seat adjustment" - this time to the advantage of her party. He expects Bhutto to deliver her "blind" followers from Sind and Punjab, largely poor peasants at the mercy of feudal landlords. The intelligence agencies and the army will do the rest and ensure the desired results.

However, after the bloodbath in Karachi at Bhutto's return on 19 October, it is difficult to see how in the current atmosphere elections can be held. "Political rallies will be open to both militant attacks and sabotage by rogue intelligence elements," says Rashed Rahman, managing editor of the Post, the Lahore daily. "With intel ligence apparatus as prime candidate for the attack, all previous assumptions of Bhutto riding back to power are scuppered."

Fear of suicide bombings will be a potent inhibition to voters from venturing into the polling booths. And given that large parts of the northern provinces are virtually no-go areas, it will be next to impossible to hold elections in that region. "A limited voter turnout at around 20 per cent will hardly constitute a credible election," says Rahman - no matter how the elections are "managed".

Second, a fully fledged assault on Waziristan is due within days. "This has now become inevi table," a high-ranking military officer told the NS. "We are taking daily casualties. If we don't take the militants on with our full might, the morale of the army will sink even further." Unlike previous operations, which target ed specific militant bases or tried to block guer rilla movement between Pakistan and Afghan is tan, "the aim now is to pacify the entire province".

Forces would be deployed in all major cities, such as Mir Ali, Angor Ada and Magaroti, with the aim of establishing permanent army bases manned by thousands of military and paramilitary troops. The entire region will come under Pakistani military control, administered under the direct command of the newly appointed vice-chief of the army staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani. (When and if Musharraf removes his uniform, General Kiani will take over as chief of the army staff.) "We estimate the all-out assault will destroy the centralised command structure of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, making their operations sporadic and largely ineffective," says the military officer.

Language of liberation

However, given the Pakistani army's poor record in Waziristan, this seems rather optimistic. The militants will almost certainly stand and fight to the bloody end. Pakistan has already lost more than a thousand soldiers; 300 more are being held hostage. The Pashtun fighters, including the Pakistani Taliban, know the region well. They are used to guerrilla warfare and see death in battle as a great honour and a direct route to paradise. Most of the local population supports them. The chances of the Pakistani army "pacifying" the region are therefore slim.

At issue is more than terrorism. The fiercely proud and independent Pashtun people see the American and British forces in neighbouring Afghanistan as invaders. Pakistani troops marching into Waziristan will also be seen as a foreign invasion. A civil war will turn into a war of "national liberation". Many tribal leaders are already speaking the language of liberating themselves from the "Pakistani administration". The end result could be a new wave of suicide attacks and acts of sabotage throughout Pakistan.

Musharraf began putting his strategy in place two weeks ago. He secured the passage of the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO), as it is called, on 5 October. This dropped all corruption charges against politicians from "all parties". "We decided to wind up those cases that were pending for the past 15 years," Musharraf said, claiming that it would bring to an end the politics of vendetta and victimisation in the country. The NRO cleared the way for Bhutto's return and wiped out the last remaining charges against her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released on bail in 2004 after spending eight years in prison. The next day, Musharraf had himself re-elected as president for another term by the current hand-selected parliament.

But the amnesty granted in the NRO does not include Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Muslim League, Pakistan's second-largest party. A conservative, staunchly anti-American politician, Sharif believes democracy and military dictators do not go together. He commands huge support among both the middle classes and religious groups and is more likely to win a fair election than Bhutto. Sharif, deposed in a bloodless coup in 1999, is determined to engineer Musharraf's downfall. On his first attempt to return to Pakistan on 10 September, he was arrested at Kar achi Airport and given two choices: prison, or return to exile in Saudi Arabia. The cases against Sharif are still pending before the Supreme Court. Yet, despite Musharraf's efforts, the courts have refused to issue new arrest warrants against him. If Sharif succeeds in returning, the Bhutto/Mush arraf deal will be in serious trouble.

"The chances of that alliance holding are also slim," says Rahman. To begin with, the two despise each other. The Pakistan People's Party is not so much a party as a feudal institution that Bhutto runs as her fiefdom. But even she may find it difficult to suppress dissent in the senior ranks. Many PPP stalwarts believe that the power-sharing pact with Musharraf is damaging the party's reputation and electoral chances. A number of Bhutto family members have openly stated their criticisms. The poet and newspaper columnist Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's niece, holds her aunt responsible for the deaths in Karachi because of her insistence on "political theatre".

Her ratings in opinion polls conducted after the NRO have fallen sharply. Some senior PPP members hoped she would give a new lease of life to the party by behaving like a senior states woman and allowing younger politicians to lead. But not many are willing to defend an indefensible deal. There is thus a real chance that the PPP may split, as it did at the previous elections. And if Bhutto fails to deliver at these elections, even after seat manipulations, Musharraf will drop her as easily as he has abandoned other parties.

So far, Musharraf has had it all his way. His only remaining obstacle is a case currently at the Supreme Court over whether he can continue as president in uniform. It is not much of an obstacle, however, as everything is now in place for him to retain his power even if he has to dispense with his military position.

The power-sharing arrangement was conceived as a ploy to paper over the gaping cracks in the country. After Karachi, it looks more like another contributory factor in a more turbulent and dangerous era for Pakistan. The intelligence services, elements of which may be responsible for the attack on Bhutto's motorcade, are out of control. Suicide bombings have become an integral part of the militants' strategy in Waziristan, both to undermine the political process and to demoralise the army. Whether one player, or even power-sharing players, ultimately subservient to Washington can retain control of this explosive situation is a moot point.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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