The timing could not be more perfect. Just as our ties with the US are under their darkest patch for years, distrust and suspicion high on both sides and no agreement as yet about the reopening of Nato supply lines, the court of the assistant political agent, Bara, sentences the man said to have led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s door in Abbottabad to 33 years in prison on charges of treason.
If Dr Shakil Afridi had been peddling nuclear secrets, or passing operational plans to RAW, Mossad or the CIA it would have been another matter. Outrage would be justified and he would be rightly denounced as a traitor. But helping the CIA track down the Al-Qaeda godfather... how on earth do we get the outside world to understand that this amounts to treason?
At the CIA’s behest Afridi was running a fake blood-testing campaign to get close to the inmates of the compound housing Sheikh Osama. Being recruited by the CIA is bad enough and he deserves being put in the stocks for that. But in our holy indignation, most of it justified, we shouldn’t lose sight of the mitigating circumstance: he was not undermining Pakistani national security.
Sure, he was part of an enterprise which would end up causing Pakistan a huge amount of embarrassment, army and ISI – it’s hard to avoid the phrase – caught with their pants down. But that’s not the same thing as stealing war plans. And certainly not the same as carrying out attacks on General Headquarters or the Mehran Naval Base, which Al-Qaeda-affiliated daredevils have done in the past.
Come to think of it, our own heroes in ISI and Military Intelligence should have been doing what the CIA was up to. They should have been on Sheikh Osama’s trail and someone in Abbottabad should have asked some question about that brooding three-storey house not far from the Kakul Academy. What was it doing there and who lived in it?
Then came the American assault and Generals Kayani and Pasha did not know what hit them. It was some time before they were able to come out of their initial state of shock. Afridi was just a small bit player in all of this. He may have done it for money but for the Americans he is someone who helped lead them to Osama’s hideout. Now to punish him this much for treason is to make a lot of Americans ask, what is Pakistan all about? What is it up to?
We shouldn’t order our lives to please the United States. But should we go out of our way to invite international distrust? We are suspected of all sorts of things – having a soft corner for so-called good Taliban, being in touch with the Haqqanis, of having turned our country into a hotbed of religious extremism. I could be totally wrong but I think that Afridi’s sentencing at this juncture sends out the wrong signals. It conveys the impression that deep down in our hearts we aren’t completely happy with the discovery and elimination of the Al-Qaeda leader. Is this a good impression to convey?
Even if Afridi was to be punished couldn’t we have held on to him for a while and delayed his trial and sentencing? We have so many other things on our plate – Nato supplies, US relations, domestic problems. Afridi’s trial before his lordship the assistant political agent of Bara could have waited.
This whole sovereignty thing has gone to our head. Sovereignty, first and foremost, is about setting domestic house in order and being able to stand on one’s feet. Would even the well-disposed say we are anywhere near that blessed state of affairs?
So low had our national fortunes sunk during the PNA movement against Bhutto in 1977 that the then Saudi ambassador became mediator between government and opposition. These days having hit another low in our national life, it is scarcely surprising if the Turkish prime minister is giving us advice on how to manage things.
One reason why we haven’t been able to settle matters with the US regarding Nato supply routes is that no one seems to be in charge. Gilani is a dysfunctional prime minister and in no position to exert any kind of authority. Zardari is the consummate deal-maker and won’t take the risk of moving on his own unless Gen Kayani is completely on board. And Gen Kayani is working the patriotic pumps from behind without having to take responsibility for the mess around him.
It’s a mug’s game doling out gratuitous advice and prescribing solutions. We have a fair idea of what needs to be done...wiser heads on deck. But how is this to be brought about? Tayyip Erdogan extolled the virtues of democracy, stressing the necessity of strengthening the democratic process. But Gilani with his Supreme Court conviction on a contempt charge is a beleaguered figure. He’s not going to strengthen anything. Whence is leadership to come?
Those calling for Gilani to step down are being driven less by any adherence to the majesty of the law than by the urge to position themselves favourably as the next elections approach. At stake in the gathering turmoil is the heart and soul of Punjab, rival parties – let me not name them – trying to outbid each other in the politics of toughness and confrontation. Posturing: no ballet master could do it better than us.
Let’s not go down the usual litany of problems and complaints. Newspapers are dreadful to go through these days: all doom and gloom and prognostications of disaster.
But nothing stays forever. So I suppose this too will pass, although the next few months waiting for the election cycle to begin are going to be tough. Disorder and disaster can be exciting but waiting is tough, especially given the cast of characters we have...all promising change and redemption. They can’t change themselves but you have to look at their faces when they promise to change the course of the stars and the firmament.
I’ve given up on big things. They aren’t coming. We are not that lucky. Bhutto when he assumed the reins of power on the evening of December 20, 1971 said that the long dark night was over. Stationed with my anti-aircraft guns at Lahore’s Walton airport I listened to his words and believed in them with all my heart. How lucky I was, I said to myself: at the threshold of golden youth and the long dark night finally over, never to return. When 1977 happened we realised not only that the dark night was not over, it was darker than before and more sinister too.
How can people of my generation blame the young of today? They are like we were then, believing in the promised dawn, dreams yet to turn sour, the iron yet to enter their souls.
Big things are often fraudulent things. If there is one lesson from the story called the journey of Pakistan it is this. Get the small things right and don’t worry about the cosmos rearranging itself. Eleven acres was the size of the perfect estate, said Cato the Elder. What a thing to have.
If at the same time that miracle comes to pass of which I speak so much, at times too much: getting rid of the menace of plastic which is destroying our land and I guess is a more pernicious threat than Al-Qaeda or the Taliban; and then, like Falstaff, be able to take mine ease at mine inn, a goodly mistress serving, round-armed and a knowing look in her eyes, what more would there be to ask for?