Sam Owen writes from Islamabad: This week the Pakistani army has accused Indian troops of firing on Pakistani soldiers in the disputed border area in Kashmir. One Pakistani was killed. The Indian army says its men did not open fire and even did not return fire when Pakistani troops mortared their positions in the Poonch area.
Last week, Indian soldiers were killed in exchanges of fire. According to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one of them was beheaded.
The Indians says that in such circumstances, any peace hopes between Pakistan and India can be forgotten. The Pakistanis say the same thing. There have been two wars between the countries over Kashmir, not to mention endless ‘border incidents’.
Does any of this really matter? Yes, it does because this week has seen the worst tension between the two Asian nuclear powers since the Mumbai massacre in 2008. They are not about to go to war again but the region needs the two nations to be on at least a co-operative footing because the future of Afghanistan depends on them.
Yet, neither is in a good enough political shape to take the lead or, more subtly, let the other do so. Pakistan is in something approaching political turmoil and India has the head of its army, General Bikram Singh, accusing Pakistan of a pre-meditated offensive and told his men to be ‘aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation and fire’ from Pakistan. Such public utterances from the military make it hard for Indian PM Singh to be quietly diplomatic about it all.
It was only last year that there were justifiable fears of a military coup in Pakistan. The army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, says the military no longer gets involved in politics as it once did. Others say that given the state of the political leadership the firm hand of military government with promised elections in two months is exactly what the country needs.
The important aspect of that situation is that in spite of his powers, Kayani may have others on his chiefs of staff corridor who really do long for the old military times. You can see why people would say that when, for example, just this week the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Chaudhry ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruptions charges based on the PM’s earlier times as a minister. If this isn’t destabilising enough, outsiders would do well to learn the name of Muhammad Tahir-u Qadri, a Canadian born cleric who a lot of people here say will either be assassinated or bring down the government or both.
Here in Islamabad, the preacher man, who had been sitting in a bulletproof container opposite the presidential building for three days, denouncing President Zadari and demanding his resignation and the resignation of his government. It would not have been a big deal, if not for tens of thousands of followers Qadri, who only recently arrived in the country, has. He has been calling parliament a band of looters and lawbreakers and the crowds believe him.
But he could probably say that about most senior Pakistani politicians in times past and get the same round of applause. But the thing is that Qadri was powerful enough to force a deal on the government yesterday that actually had to promise him to make changes and even battle corruption. Although no one was forced to resign, not yet at least. . Qadri has a movement behind him and Pakistan is getting ready for elections – never a peaceful event in this place.
Could it be that Qadri and Chief Justice Chaudhry are becoming a double act? They both say ‘no’. Not everyone believes them, including Kayani who knows everything that’s going on in Pakistan. Even more interesting, that agreement between Qadri and the government may quite different from what is said publicly.
The hope is that the government can see it through to the elections in March. It will be the first time that a civilian government in this country has ever got through a five year term. Zardari has devolved powers to the provinces and supposedly devised a transparent and fair electoral system. Beneath the street politics and border tensions, there are signs that Pakistani authorities are trying to hold the country together, with something other than kick-backs.
All of this, especially the importance of Pakistan in the future of Afghanistan, makes the dangerous exchange of fire over Kashmir even more disheartening. So watch Qadri. He knows how to manipulate crowds, uncertain governments and maybe even the so-called independent judiciary.
It has not been a good week in Islamabad.