March 13, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Will Al Qaeda Exploit the Shaky Situation in Pakistan?

Just one year after successful elections raised hopes for democracy in Pakistan, the country's civilian leaders are falling back into confrontational, zero-sum politics. Coming in the wake of a severe economic crunch, an onslaught by Taliban militants in the northwest, and simmering tensions with historical foe India, the political uncertainty is fueling a sense of chaos there and opening the door for Islamist extremists intent on destabilizing the country.

The situation in Pakistan was already fraught with challenges for U.S. policymakers, and the current political crisis will add one more layer of uncertainty. instability in Pakistan has become a major source of international concern, especially since Pakistan is one of a handful of countries that possess nuclear weapons.

The current political crisis was sparked by a February 25 ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court to uphold a lower court decision banning Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz (PML/N) leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from politics. Although the crisis has been building, most Pakistanis believe the Supreme Court decision was a bad one and flies in the face of the Asif Ali Zardari government's commitment to the democratic process. The decision led to the ouster of Shahbaz Sharif from his position as Punjab chief minister and imposition of central rule in the country's largest and most powerful province.

The Supreme Court decision preceded this week's long-planned lawyers' protests for the restoration of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Ali Chaudhry. Former President Pervez Musharraf had unceremoniously removed Chaudhry from the bench two years ago, touching off a series of events that eventually led to his own ouster. If restored, Chaudhry could revive corruption cases against Zardari, which would lead to his political downfall. The opposition speculates Zardari encouraged the Supreme Court to uphold the ban on the Sharifs so that his administration could dissolve the PML/N government in the Punjab just in time to take control of the provincial machinery during the lawyers' protests.

The current political turmoil will certainly distract the government from dealing with the multiple challenges facing Pakistan, including spreading Talibanization in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Even before the political crisis, the government (and the military) had failed to deal decisively with Taliban forces gaining ground across the semi-autonomous tribal belt bordering Afghanistan and in parts of the settled areas of the NWFP.

In the Swat Valley, for example, the government recently struck a peace deal with pro-Taliban elements that had been terrorizing the locals by bombing girls' schools and viciously murdering opponents. The Pakistan government insists that the establishment of Islamic courts in the region will not usurp state authority, but many analysts believe the situation in Swat Valley eerily resembles that in Afghanistan under harsh Taliban rule in the late 1990s. Early reports of the Pakistan military vacating posts, while released militants roam the streets freely and demand families provide one son to the Taliban, reveal that Swat may be a terrorist safe haven in the making.

The situation in Pakistan was already fraught with challenges for U.S. policymakers, and the current political crisis will add one more layer of uncertainty. instability in Pakistan has become a major source of international concern, especially since Pakistan is one of a handful of countries that possess nuclear weapons. U.S. officials should not get involved in mediating Pakistan's internal disputes; however, they should make clear that more political instability could complicate the U.S. congressional debate on increasing non-military aid to Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani appears to understand the perils of political confrontation and is working hard to defuse the crisis. He should be encouraged. Gilani said in a speech Wednesday that he would advise President Zardari to lift Governor's rule in the Punjab and invite whichever party held the most seats to form the government. Gilani also said he would seek ways to resolve the deposed judges issue. One way to defuse the crisis is to re-examine the Supreme Court's unpopular decision. The government could file a review petition or initiate parliamentary proceedings questioning the Court's ruling.

If Nawaz and Zardari continue to proceed on the assumption that politics in Pakistan is a zero-sum game, all Pakistanis will lose. Al Qaeda-backed extremists are salivating at the prospect of more political uncertainty and will exploit fissures in the system and discontent among the people. Although the Army is loath to re-involve itself in politics, it will not stand by idly if the political situation deteriorates into violence and chaos.

The Pakistani people have suffered enough instability and uncertainty over the last two years. They deserve more maturity and less dangerous brinksmanship from their political leaders. Let's hope wiser minds prevail in the coming days, lest we see Pakistan slip closer toward the cliff, at the bottom of which is a failed state.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First Appeared in Fox Forum