ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is sinking into a political and constitutional crisis that threatens to sideline its vital role in the battle against Islamist insurgents and U.S.-led efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
The trigger for the crisis is the expiration of a legal amnesty for politicians at the end of this month, which will leave key officials, including the interior minister, open to prosecution and could even jeopardize the position of Asif Ali Zardari, the pro-Western Pakistani president.
The political opposition and the military appear to be using the crisis to force the unpopular Zardari to give up most of his powers or be ousted. Soon ministers of the government could find themselves hauled before the courts over long-standing criminal charges, ranging from murder to corruption, or they could rush to seek pre-arrest bail, legal experts said.
This "would make our democracy look like a thieves' bazaar," newspaper columnist Shafqat Mahmood wrote Friday in The News, a Pakistani daily.
The amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was approved by a previous government under U.S. pressure in 2007. Unless it is ratified by parliament, which now seems unlikely, the amnesty expires Nov. 28, according to a ruling by the country's powerful chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Zardari, his interior minister, Rehman Malik, and Zardari's top aide, Salman Farooqui, all of whom had previously left the country to avoid answering criminal charges, are among the beneficiaries of the amnesty.
To placate his critics, Zardari may be forced, through a constitutional amendment, to cede most of his powers to Pakistan's prime minister, a less controversial but weak figure. The end of the amnesty is likely, however, to lead to court challenges to his legal right to remain in office.
The amnesty issue erupted earlier this month when Zardari went to the parliament and discovered that even partners in his governing coalition wouldn't support ratification of the amnesty.
The backdrop to the amnesty battle is a campaign against Zardari by parts of the Pakistani media, conservative opposition parties and, it's widely thought, the military. Zardari opponents recently used a U.S. aid bill — that imposed tough conditions on Pakistan — to criticize the president.
Analysts and political insiders think the real contest is being played out between the military and civilians over the levers of power.
"This is another orchestrated crisis to keep the government on the defensive. By kicking up a storm, they paralyze some aspects of governance," said one senior Zardari adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They (the military) don't want him (Zardari) to exercise control over certain policy."
Under Zardari, the army has undertaken operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley and South Waziristan in the northwest, tackling an extremist threat that had gone unchecked for years, while the president has also reached out to Kabul and New Dehli, both seen as hostile capitals by the military establishment.
"It is basically Zardari's own doing. After becoming president, he was not in a position to make deals, have good relations with the opposition," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in the eastern city of Lahore. "Zardari has landed himself in trouble by his own deeds as president, without even speaking of what he did earlier."
Zardari was already an unpopular figure before he became president, as the husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he was blamed for miring her two governments in allegations of corruption. When Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, many resented him for taking her place.
The uproar means that just as the U.S. is formulating a new policy to rescue the failing war in Afghanistan, and extremists continue to menace Pakistan, Islamabad's attention could be consumed by infighting.
Friday saw three fresh attacks from militants, just as National Security Adviser James Jones was visiting Islamabad. Jones is thought to be in Pakistan to get Islamabad on board for the revamped Afghanistan strategy.
A powerful bomb destroyed the regional headquarters of Pakistan's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, killing at least 10 in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. Elsewhere in the province, an attack on a police station in Bannu, on the edge of the tribal borderland with Afghanistan, killed six more. Near Quetta, in western Pakistan, five fuel trucks heading to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan were torched and a driver was gunned down.
The validity of the reconciliation ordinance resurfaced following the restoration of Chaudhry to office in March. The chief justice had clashed in 2007 with former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who removed him. Under extreme pressure from a popular agitation movement led by lawyers, Zardari reappointed Chaudhry this year. The chief justice subsequently ruled that unless parliament passed the ordinance, it must lapse on 28 November. Zardari tried to get the ordinance through parliament but found earlier this month that even some coalition partners were not willing to support him.
There are widely differing legal interpretations of the consequences of the ending of the ordinance and though the government has promised a definitive list of the amnesty's beneficiaries, so far there's no clarity even on who's affected. What seems certain is that the courts will be kept busy and the beneficiaries of the amnesty will be kept on edge.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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