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Af-Pak Chaos Creates Immense Problem for Obama

A mysterious preacher leads tens of thousands of protestors and calls for the downfall of the government; border guards are brutally killed in Kashmir; tribal leaders are assassinated in wartorn frontier provinces; an all-powerful chief justice calls for the arrest of the prime minister. All this, just in the past few days, has thrown Pakistan into chaos. Now it’s uncertain whether scheduled elections will take place in May. Are Pakistan’s powerful generals preparing a slow-moving, stealthy coup d’état?

The answer to this question matters a great deal to America, as the Obama administration’s plans to get out of Afghanistan in an organized fashion depend in part on a stable Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan is anything but stable these days.

Here’s what has been happening in recent weeks.

Today tribesmen from northwest Pakistan piled more than a dozen bloody bodies in front of government buildings in Peshawar. Tribal leaders accuse the Pakistani military of executing its enemies in a simmering battle for control of the Af-Pak frontier.

Sectarian violence is on the rise. Last week a bomb blast targeting Shi’a pilgrims killed almost a hundred people in Quetta. Relatives of the dead took the unusual step of refusing to bury the bodies until security improved (according to Islamic doctrine burial must take place within 24 hours). Protestors publicly blamed the chief of the Pakistani army for failing to protect minorities and even encouraging sectarian violence.

Meanwhile, there’s real trouble brewing in Kashmir. Tit-for-tat killings between Pakistani and Indian border guards have escalated over the past couple weeks, with one Indian soldier beheaded last week. Today a Pakistani soldier became the fifth fatality in ongoing cross-border fighting.

On Monday a mysterious Sufi cleric turned political rabble rouser named Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri led tens of thousands of his supporters on a march from Lahore to Islamabad, where they have been camped in the streets for three days, protesting widespread corruption in the civilian government. Today Qadri called for the government to resign in an impassioned speech: the “nation will throw out the corrupt leadership,” he thundered. “They are looters, not leadership, who always looted Pakistan and nation.”

Pakistan’s seemingly untouchable Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf yesterday on charges of corruption, just weeks after Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was removed from his post on similar charges.

National elections scheduled for May loom just over the horizon of all this chaos. So far the military has maintained a cool distance from the turmoil, yet rumors are now swirling that the generals are manipulating events, leading many Pakistanis to wonder if the days of military coups are, as the generals insist, truly over.

Powerful generals and their allies have wanted for some time to replace the corrupt and incompetent PPP civilian government with a “non-political” group of technocrats. More than once they have tried to get Washington’s blessing for the change. This would be a more comfortable course of action for the military than a formal coup, as Pakistan’s military doesn’t want to get bogged down in the thankless business of running Pakistan’s dysfuntional economy and government. Moreover, the military certainly does not want to be blamed for failing to solve the country’s biggest problems, which is almost a foregone conclusion.

And so a plan has taken shape for a kind of soft, gradual, legal coup, with the activist Supreme Court mandating change as the public applauds. Many fear, and some hope, that this is the scenario now unfolding.

As usual in Pakistan, it’s hard to say what will actually happen. Pakistan’s core problem is that neither its civilian politicians nor its military establishment nor its religious leadership is adequate to address the challenges they jointly face.

It’s not a pretty picture, and the likelihood of the U.S. getting the kind of help from Pakistan that would make the withdrawal from Afghanistan go smoothly is very small.

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