By Manzoor Ahmed
Is Pakistan heading for another military takeover? Speculation surfaces, and it has happened yet again, each time the country faces crises from within and without.
A report in The News of September 21 said Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was said to have snubbed “quite a few participants” of the September 8 Corps Commanders’ meeting who had argued that the army takeover had become “inevitable as the country was fast descending into chaos because of the failure of the political leadership.”
Gen Kayani, together with some others, urged restraint and patience, saying the civilian government should be “given more time to tackle the burning issues.”
To underscore the ‘threat’ of a military takeover, the newspaper report said: “Incidentally, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, during a visit to Karachi, said that if the government failed to deliver, others would take over – an oblique reference to the army.
“President Asif Ali Zardari also thought it wise to issue a statement advising his rival Nawaz Sharif to remain respectful to the armed forces instead of making them controversial.
“Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, during the hearing of the Karachi suo moto case, also urged the civilian government to deliver and not give excuses to the khakis for a takeover.
The newspaper darkly reminded the readers – and whoever would take note of this:
“The men in uniform have always used the breakdown in law and order as an excuse to send democratic governments packing, the chief justice had said, warning a seemingly clueless democratic government to put its act together and secure Karachi.
“We have closed the door on military intervention but at the same time democracy has to deliver while adhering to the Constitution,” Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had said, the report added for good measure.
The carefully worded story carried the pro forma official denial. Published in an influential English language daily, it seems to have been an effort at sending out a message to various key, interested quarters.
Top of the list could well be the United States that is engaged in a war of words with both the civilian government and the military leadership over what it considers Pakistan’s double game of fighting terrorism, while sponsoring Jehadi groups, one of which, the Haqqani network, that is believed to have carried out attacks against the US embassy in Kabul and at US/NATO establishments in Afghanistan, killing many soldiers.
A military takeover in Pakistan at this juncture could add to the serious uncertainties for the US that has announced a time table and has begun to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
Banishing the civilian government may or may not work to the US’s advantage, while making it vulnerable to the charge that it may have connived at it.
The other targets are obvious ones – the ones that are quoted in the news story – who constitute the civilian authority in Pakistan. They have made public statements on a possible military takeover.
This is not new in Pakistan that has spent more years under direct or indirect military rule than being governed by the civilians since its independence in 1947.
The military has acted to end a conflict with the civilian leadership of the day and when unable to continue in power, has tried to manipulate the elections. The result has been a polity wherein the military, particularly the army, has had an upper hand. The myth of its superiority is perpetuated by large sections of the intelligentsia and the media.
The situation is radically, though not basically, different this time. The army is seriously vulnerable to criticism at the way it has conducted itself, the way its personnel have been killed while fighting the militants who are fellow-Pakistanis and the impunity with which the Pak-Taliban have attacked military establishments, including the General Hqs, the ISI office and the naval base at Mehran. The damage caused is not just to the military equipment and property, but also to the military prestige.
This, and the grave crisis the country has been facing has caused serious fissures in the intelligentsia, some of which blames the army. It seriously questions the army’s role in fomenting hostilities with neighbours India and Afghanistan, pursuing the Kashmir policy and trying to constantly manipulate developments in Afghanistan with a view to gaining “strategic depth” there against India.
Two days after the news item appeared, without eliciting much editorial comment, noted columnist Ayaz Amir wrote in the same newspaper:
“The army and its strategic adventures have brought Pakistan to its present pass. The footprints of the terrorism now haunting the country go back to the first Afghan ‘jihad’, the one army-inspired event which pushed Pakistan to the frontiers of insanity. The phoenix won’t rise from its ashes, and there will be no return to sanity, unless the army can bring itself to change its outlook and reinvent some of its mental apparatus.”
Himself a former soldier, Amir said: “Civilians have been poor administrators, in no position to escape their share of the blame for the mess the Fortress of Islam is in. But in the driving seat of Pakistan’s steady march to the brink have been our holy guardians.”
“…. despite the mounting evidence of disorder, the army refuses to change, still obsessed with the threat from the east, still caught up with the quixotic notion of exercising influence in Afghanistan. God in heaven, why should it matter to us if a president of Afghanistan is a Tajik, an Uzbek or a Pathan? Can’t we keep our eyes focused on our own problems? The threat we face lies squarely within but our strategic grandmasters insist on being foreign policy specialists.”
“The discovery of Sheikh Osama bin Laden in the sylvan surroundings of Abbottabad should have been a wake-up call for the guardians of national security. Having been caught with their pants down some humility was in order. But they seem to have slunk deeper into their bunkers.”
“The militants Pakistan faces baulk at nothing. They are utterly ruthless. But, collectively, we haven’t really woken up to this threat, our national response, therefore, a mixture of toughness and softness. How many militants have been sentenced by the courts? Very few if at all.”
“Decades of misadventure have distorted and even corrupted the Pakistani mind. We do not live in the real world. Our foreign policy notions, our list of assets and threats, have but a remote relation to reality. We must look to first causes. How did we create these bonfires for ourselves? How did we become prisoners of our misconceptions?
“Liberating the Pakistani mind from the shackles of these self-imposed errors must be the first of our tasks if, with luck, we are to become a normal nation,” Ami rays in conclusion.
If a Stalin were around, although fat chance of that occurring, he would lay his hands first not on militants and assorted terrorists but on the foreign policy experts who infest our television studios.
Is Mossad pulling the strings of terrorism in Karachi? Was the CIA behind the attack on Shia pilgrims in Mastung? Was RAW behind the attempt on the life of the Karachi special investigator, Chaudhry Aslam?
By any reasonable computation we have enough of a nuclear arsenal. By any yardstick of common sense, a commodity often in short supply in the conference rooms of national security, we have as much of a deterrent as we need to counter the real or imagined threat from India. This being the case, we should be directing what energies we have to the threat from within: that posed by militancy marching under the banner of Islam.
As part of this undertaking, we need to advertise for a Hakim Luqman who could cure our general staff and the ISI of their preoccupation with the future of Afghanistan. We have been burnt by Afghanistan. We don’t need any further burning. For the sake of Pakistan’s future we need to distance ourselves from Afghanistan’s problems, dire as they are.
Of one thing we should be sure. America’s Afghan pacification drive has failed. Far from being defeated or even on the back-foot the Taliban are stronger than ever. When the Americans leave, the mental decision to leave having already been taken, Afghanistan will erupt once more into civil war. This is the writing on the wall, the message emblazoned across the skies. All the more reason for Pakistan’s strategic geniuses to avoid the temptation, irresistible as it may be, to take sides in that civil war. Who comes out on top, the Taliban or warriors from Mars, should be none of our business.
The theory of strategic assets for the future thus becomes irrelevant. We paid a heavy penalty for this theory in the past. We can’t be repeating the same mistakes. Our old assets were the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. What good did they do us? Our new assets, even though our denials are vociferous, are the likes of Sirajuddin Haqqani and his so-called network. What are we expecting of them? That they will deliver Afghanistan to the ISI’s safekeeping? Is this grand strategy or the repetition of grand folly?
The Americans may be asking for too much, and they are certainly in the mood to hunt for scapegoats as their Afghan intervention begins to unravel, but none of this should mean that we remain faithful to the discredited theory of strategic assets. The Haqqanis may be good for Afghanistan but nothing that they have qualifies them to imperil or worsen Pakistan’s ties with the United States.
Gen Kayani is perfectly right in saying that any decision to launch an operation in North Waziristan or anywhere else will be Pakistan’s decision, taken in the light of what we think is best for us, and that in this respect there will be no taking orders from America. This is also the voice of the nation.
At the same time, however, why must the suspicion be allowed to linger that the Haqqanis enjoy ISI backing? This has been the cocktail circuit gossip in Islamabad for a long time now. If this is a groundless suspicion the ISI’s media machine should have been working overtime to dispel it. But we have allowed matters to reach the point where Pakistan’s real or alleged support for the Haqqanis has become, at least for the time being, the major sticking point between the Pentagon and General Headquarters. Allowing this suspicion to grow has not been very smart on the part of our national security experts.
The US secretary of defence Leon Panetta and CIA chief Gen David Petraeus are not oracles whose words should be taken on trust. If they say something it doesn’t become a divine revelation. But we have to be honest with ourselves. Is North Waziristan a Taliban haven or not? Do the Haqqanis use it as a safe base or not?
If it is a safe haven we should be doing something about it, not because this is what America wishes but because it is in our own interest to do so. But if it be not in our power to do something then our protestations about national sovereignty wear pretty thin.
At America’s door can be laid the responsibility of much mischief stretching from the Middle East to Iraq and onwards to Afghanistan. But the demons we are contending with – whether in Mastung or Karachi – are not American inventions. For their creation and nurturing we have to look at ourselves, in this regard our own shoulders bearing the heaviest responsibility.
Let us dread the day the Taliban are victorious in Afghanistan. What a fillip will that be for militancy in the name of the faith in Pakistan? Then America will not come to our rescue. We will be on our own and it will avail us little if the Haqqanis were or were not a strategic asset of ours. By the way, who was the genius who coined this phrase, strategic asset? In a just world he would have some explaining to do.
The excuse trotted out is that prosecutions are weak and the evidence often skimpy. But when an Aasia Bibi comes to trial, for an alleged offence with a religious connotation, the punishment is swift and severe, regardless of how persuasive or skimpy the evidence may be.
My Lord the Chief Justice is trying to take the authorities in Karachi, especially the police, to task, although what good mere admonitions will do remains to be seen. But it would also help if their lordships took a closer look at the weaknesses in the judiciary’s cupboard.