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Decision time

January 15, 2012

CONFUSED by what's happening in Pakistan? Trying to make sense of it all? Think of it this way: what we're seeing play out is an old-fashioned assault on the fort.

Tolkien-style or Trojanstyle, there are battering rams that are crashing into the great big gates with shuddering force; there are assassins creeping up the back walls; there are attackers trying to enter through the maze of sewers underground.

All of it with one purpose in mind: bring down the government, clean out the presidency, ensure there is no immediate repeat when elections are eventually held.

The government is hanging on because it is fighting for the opposite: a Senate nearmajority, a fifth budget loaded with electoral goodies, a dodgy caretaker set-up and, the ultimate prize, re-election. Having looked at the forces arrayed against it, the government believes it can fend them off long enough to get its way.

Here's why. The grand architect, Gen K, is no frontalassault guy. Believing in death by a thousand cuts, his plan is to harry and harass on multiple fronts. But as long as he's unwilling to pull the trigger on a coup, the government believes it can survive whatever cuts are inflicted.

The political opposition, marshalled by that cosy-againwith-the-generals democrat, Nawaz Sharif, can easily be fended off inside parliament, the government believes.Give Zardari a roomful of politicians and he'll produce 51 per cent, which is precisely what the opposition needs to get the ball rolling on an ouster.

If the fight is taken to the streets, as seems likely once the weather warms up, the government knows it probably can't whip up its base to respond in equal measure. But unwavering defiance inside parliament and the presidency could negate hundreds of thousands out on the streets, the government believes. If we say no and draw a line in the sand, who can make us say yes and cross that line, the government argues.

On then to the court, whose odds of success lie somewhere between the general and the political opposition's.

The court, the government believes, has the fewest options in the world of power politics. Sure, an adverse order will severely embarrass the government and plunge it into a fresh round of fire-fighting. Ultimately, however, an adverse order is only as good as the court's ability to get it implemented.

The court can't very well mobilise the public on its own and is loath to invite the generals. And when the court snarls the government can roar back and put it in its place, the government believes.

The government is wrong.

About all of it.

Step into the forest and you can see why the hunted think they can escape. There's still some distance for the hunters to traverse and many obstacles lie in the way. And from this distance, it's still not clear if the hunters will burn downthe forest to get their prey.

But the prey is being lulled into a false sense of security.

An apocryphal story has it that when a former prime minister was asked about one of the would-be hunters, his assessment went something like this: he'll invite you over for a round of golf in the morning, host an elaborate lunch for you, inquire about your wife and kids, walk you to your car in the driveway and when you've driven a couple of hundred yards away, your car will explode.

Means to evade, options to defend, methods to wriggle away none of it will matter much ultimately. Put your ear to the ground and you can hear in the distance the weapons of war being steadily beat on the ground, much like the legend of the Seljuk warriors who terrorised their opponents the night before a battle.

There is no compromise here: one side wants to fight its way to the election to try and grab another term; the other side is determined to forestall that possibility.

If and on this 'if' everything could turn the PPP is willing to change its goal, it has three options.

It could go the national-government route. Announce there is an economic, security and political emergency in Pakistan and caHfor a broadbased government with representation from across the political spectrum.

The would-be saviours, uniformed and robed, would be neutralised by this option. But the PPP hasn't shown much inclination to share with everyone since letting Sharifopt out of the cabinet in May 2008 and there's no real sign it's looking for a cooperative solution now.

The government could go the negotiated-settlement route. Sit down with the political opposition, agree to a neutral caretaker set-up, a powerful election commission, clean electoral lists, and roll the dice on an early election.

With a Senate near-majority under its belt and 50-odd seats in the next National Assembly, even the unhappy scenario for the PPP would allow them to play the role of opposition to the go-it-alone Sharif or an untested Khan.

Instead of another decade of being completely shut out, the PPP could be back in power in three to five years.

Or, if the PPP channelled the spirit of its founder and discovered an audaciousness on which success in power politics is sometimes built, it could sack its tormentor-inchief, Gen K.

A suicidal move? Perhaps.

But on such bets is history made, and unmade.

Let him stay, and a death by a thousand cuts is virtually certain. But maybe he prefers conspiracy to directness because he can't find it in himself to pull the trigger on a coup. Why not find out? Nonsense, many may argue.

The court won't let the orders stand. Probably. But a coup by another name is still a coup.

Why not call the bluff and see where the chips fall? History beckons. Live in the present and a miserable fate awaits.

The writer is a member of staff.