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    South Asia
     Nov 20, 2009
Nuclear fallout rocks Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Sharp differences between Pakistani leaders over safeguarding the country's nuclear arsenal are placing increasing pressure on the embattled administration of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari is already seriously at odds with the military establishment over dealing with the Taliban-led insurgency and there is a strong likelihood that his government will face a make-or-break test within weeks in the form of mass street protests.

Pakistan has reacted strongly to an article in The New Yorker by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh on November 16, "Defending the arsenal", in which he claimed that Pakistan was discussing "understandings" with the US that could even see specialists take sophisticated nuclear triggers out of the country to prevent them

  

from falling into the wrong hands.

The administration of President Barack Obama is clearly deeply concerned over the safety of Pakistan's weapons, especially after militants last month entered the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi and subjected it to a bloody 22-hour siege.

General Tariq Majid, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, said the claims were "absurd and plain mischievous".

This might be the case, but within Pakistan, the issue of the arsenal - estimated to contain between 80 and 100 warheads - has turned into a major political row.

In an obvious attempt to address international concerns, the chairman of the National Assembly's standing committee on defense, Azra Fazal Pechuho, rushed a report of her 17-member committee into the assembly on November 11 seeking immediate legal endorsement to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) ordinance of 2007, which sets out a multi-layered structure for the control of the nuclear arsenal.

According to this report, the president would be chairman of the authority and the prime minister would be the deputy chairman. Other members would be the ministers for foreign affairs, defense, finance and interior, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, three services chiefs and the director general of the Strategic Planning Division.

The operational control of the nuclear weapons is currently solely in the hands of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff Committee, General Majid.

The Nuclear Command Authority bill seeks to bring into law an ordinance from the time of former president, General Pervez Musharraf, to strengthen control over the country's nuclear weapons.

However, the bill was deferred by the speaker, Fehmida Mirza, on a request from Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awani, who gave no reason for the move.

Asia Times Online has learned that obstacles created by former premier, Nawaz Sharif, led to the deferment. Sharif, leader of the opposition, apparently sees Zardari as unreliable, and wants the authority to be headed by the prime minister. He also urged that the leader of the opposition be a part of the NCA.

Over the past months, Zardari has become increasingly isolated. He has lost the trust of the military, which the US now views as the power to deal with in Pakistan, the political opposition is growing more assertive.

People close to Sharif say a mass campaign, much like the one in March that forced the government to restore the judiciary that had been dismissed by Musharraf, is inevitable.

The current situation is a fresh episode of an overall political imbalance that occurred after the assassination of former premier, Benazir Bhutto, (Zardari's wife) in December 2007 that led to the August 2008 resignation of Musharraf as president and the election of Zardari as president in September 2008.

In just over a year, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, the army chief, has eclipsed Zardari and he is now Washington's point man on the Pakistani side of the South Asian war theater. The Americans believe Kiani will push relentlessly to gain victory in the tribal areas against the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Significantly, the US sees Kiani as the most trusted person to protect Pakistan's nuclear assets. Hersh wrote in his article:
The ongoing consultation on nuclear security between Washington and Islamabad intensified after the announcement in March of President Obama's so-called Af-Pak policy, which called upon the Pakistan Army to take more aggressive action against Taliban enclaves inside Pakistan. I was told that the understandings on nuclear cooperation benefited from the increasingly close relationship between Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kayani [Kiani], his counterpart, although the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy have also been involved.
General Majid denied parts of the article that suggested an American role in the protection of Pakistan's arsenal, but Kiani, whose dealings were a major discussion point in the article, did not utter a single word.

During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan, it was made clear that Washington's political administration also approves of Kiani. (See US puts its faith in Pakistan's military Asia Times Online, November 6, 2009. )

This faith in the military, rather than in any political force, comes at a time when the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) is due to expire on November 28 and opposition parties are ready to challenge it in court. Legal experts are unanimous that the ordinance is discriminatory and directly clashes with the constitution and that the judiciary will not allow it to be extended.

The NRO was promulgated in 2007 by Musharraf after a deal was brokered by Washington and London between him and Benazir Bhutto, who at the time was the West's preferred person to succeed Musharraf's military government. The NRO pardoned all corruption cases pending against Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, as well as dozens of activists of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who had held important positions in previous governments.

Although Zardari, as president, cannot be tried under the law, cases could be opened against many incumbent ministers after November 28, which would be a major setback for the Zardari government. The PPP's secretary general, Jehangir Badr, has already warned party cadre who benefited from the NRO to obtain bail before possibly being arrested.

The military establishment has seized the moment to hand over a list of names to Zardari of people it believes should be immediately replaced. At the top of the list is the ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, whom the army has always regarded as a foe for being too close to the American administration. Minister of the Interior Rahman Malik is second in line. Although he has been credited with helping destroy the financial arteries of militants, he is regarded as too close to Western intelligence agencies and he often bypasses the military establishment in anti-terror operations.

The ministers for water and power, agriculture, health and many others are also named in the list, accused of incompetence or corruption. Initially, Zardari agreed to replace them, but now he is stalling.

Zardari has also indicated that he is unwilling to immediately shed his constitutional powers, such as the right to appoint armed forces chiefs and dissolve parliament. He has given a March 2010 date for the delegation of these powers to the prime minister.

This is unacceptable to Zardari's main rival, Sharif, who aims to launch a protest campaign against Zardari by mid-December. It was Sharif's campaign that forced Zardari to restore the judiciary this March.

The military has indicated to Sharif that it won't disturb the democratic setup, come what may; rather, it will press for the removal of people with whom it is uncomfortable and live with a weakened Zardari. It does not want mid-term elections in which Sharif's victory would be most likely. Although the military has good relations with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, it views him as too independent and too assertive.

In these uncertain times, Musharraf has re-emerged on the scene. Asia Times Online has learned that he is pondering the formation of a new political party and that he recently funneled large amounts of money into the coffers of former aides to promote his cause. These include former minister of information, Sheikh Rasheed, whom some reports say has been paid US$1 million - the same amount that went to a public relations team to boost Musharraf's image.

Insiders say that Musharraf has vast wealth, much of it accumulated through donations from individuals (these, some say, include Libya's Muammar Gaddafi) and corporations to aid previous election campaigns. There are reports that Musharraf received US$30 million from the United Arab Emirates via one of its top bankers, and $3 million from a Pakistani cellular phone company.

Musharraf believes that with his contacts - especially to the Saudi royal family - and being internationally known, he could play a decisive role in the South Asian "war on terror" theater in which the Americans are looking for new ways to approach the Taliban for reconciliation, along with the elimination of al-Qaeda.

The militants, meanwhile, are not standing idly by.

On Tuesday evening, the Taliban chief in the Malakand Division of North-West Frontier Province, Mullah Fazlullah, showed up in Afghanistan and confirmed a report by Asia Times Online that Pakistani militants from Swat and Malakand - who retreated in the face of military operations earlier this year - were regrouping in the Afghan province of Nuristan. (See Militants change tack in Pakistan Asia Times Online, November 18, 2009.)

Fazlullah claimed that the militants would resume their insurgency in the Swat Valley, and, ominously, he said it would coincide with the planned mass protests against Zardari next month.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Militants change tack in Pakistan
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