Even in its waning days, 2009 continues to be a ‘Year of Decision’ in Pakistan, as its fractured polity struggles to right the ship of state while tackling the rising insurgencies inside its borders. This was the year that Pakistan took the battle to the insurgency, first in Swat and Malakand and then into the heart of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Pakistan Army’s decisive actions in South Waziristan deprived the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan of its tribal base in Mehsud territory. Public sentiment against the violent insurgency helped the military’s decision to take the battle to the TTP’s home turf. And although the TTP’s leadership has apparently escaped into adjoining areas, the logistical heart of the insurgency was damaged. The militants retaliated by stepping up attacks on soft targets inside Pakistan, attacking mosques and markets alike, killing innocent civilians and children.


On the economic front, after decades of wrangling about revenue sharing between the provinces, the National Finance Commission under former Citibanker Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin produced an agreement on a new formula that increased the share of Baluchistan and rearranged the shares of other provinces in a more equitable manner. The NFC award will help reduce the centrifugal forces that threaten the federation.

Then, on December 16, 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance under which former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari could return to Pakistan, having been absolved, along with thousands of other beneficiaries, of all past crimes and misdemeanors, real or imagined. Then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf had promulgated the Ordinance on October 5, 2007 and when that was challenged by numerous petitions on the basis that it was discriminatory and favored selected individuals with whom Musharraf wished to make deals, Musharraf responded by declaring an emergency on November 3, 2007 that sent Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the senior judiciary packing for the second time. He then, under a Provisional Constitutional Order, forcibly inserted the NRO into the constitution of Pakistan. These actions were often referred to as Musharraf’s “second coup,” this time against his own government. His intent was to facilitate a return to a controlled civilian system under which he would remain president while Bhutto could return as a potential head of the government. That was not to be: Bhutto was assassinated. Musharraf was hounded out of office. Zardari became president. And the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Chaudhry was reinstated on March 16, 2009, for the second time, promising to return the judiciary to its rightful place as a key pillar of the state.

Among the key cases that were reopened by the Supreme Court was the NRO and the absolution it provided to Pakistan’s tarnished political elite, including the new President Zardari. Yesterday’s decision reinstates all the cases that were dismissed and significantly, directed the government to set up courts to resolve the pending cases speedily, including the revival of a bribery and corruption case in which the Government of Pakistan had been a complainant against Zardari and Bhutto in a Swiss court. Lawyers and supporters will have a field day invoking presidential immunity for Zardari. But public pressure will surely mount against him and his party as well as other politicians who have been tarred with the NRO brush.

If 2009 was the Year of Decision for Pakistan, 2010 may well be the Year of Tumult. And it could not come at a worse time. The army is still battling a vicious insurgency in the western borderland. The United States is counting on a stable Pakistan to help it exit from Afghanistan gracefully. U.S. drone attacks on the border and Taliban bombings in the hinterland alike have enraged the Pakistani populace. The army is under pressure from its U.S. allies to open a fresh front against the Afghan Taliban in Baluchistan, an action that makes no sense to the army. The roller coaster U.S.-Pakistan relationship seems heading for another deep dive, unless cooler heads prevail. Now the government faces a test of its ability to function while acceding to the Supreme Court’s annulment of the NRO.

Kudos to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government for choosing not to defend the NRO before the Supreme Court, nor to present it for passage as a law before parliament. And kudos to the Supreme Court for restoring the constitution to its rightful place in Pakistan’s polity. But the tumult unleashed by this decision will make for a difficult transition to the rule of law, especially as opponents press for Zardari’s departure. So this may be an opportunity for the untainted few among Pakistan’s political leadership to take charge and for the friends of Pakistan to support them, and this is not time for business as usual nor for half-measures. Insurgencies rage, while uncertainty rules in Pakistan as it enters the New Year.

Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. This essay was previously published at ForeignPolicy.com‘s AfPak Channel. 

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