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October 26, 2011

The memo Epicentre

 
October 26, 2011

The writer is editor The News, Islamabad.
Big storms sometimes begin deceptively small and then in no time become monsters, ruthlessly devouring the unprepared, the unsuspecting. Are Mansoor Ijaz’s revelations in the Financial Times something similar? He claims to have delivered an SOS message from President Zardari to President Obama at the behest of a top diplomat and says that he was specifically asked to approach Admiral Mike Mullen because Mullen could influence both Obama and Gen Kayani. “The memo was delivered to Admiral Mullen at 14.00 hrs on May 10”, wrote Mansoor, saying the very next day in Washington, Mullen had a meeting with “Pakistani national security officials” who had no clue at the time that their meeting had been spawned by a secret presidential memo. Rawalpindi too learnt of the memo months later when Mansoor went cautiously public in the FT.
For its part, political Islamabad kept pretending all these months as if it had done nothing out of the ordinary. Even the explosive FT disclosure was dismissed as a “blatant lie by a self-promoting individual”, as put by an important federal minister. Rawalpindi also pretended as if it had not noticed anything unusual but on the quiet, the system went into overdrive to ferret out facts. Washington was mum, as nobody had asked it for an explanation. And just when things misleadingly appeared to be settling into an inconsequential political groove, Hillary Clinton came calling.
And a lot has happened since my column last week. When asked bluntly about the memo, Secretary Clinton manoeuvred evasively by neither denying nor confirming the memo. And we all know what that really means in case of a critical question at such a diplomatic level. Within the last week the memo issue is also no longer confined to two messengers. Heavyweights have entered the fray and the buzz is that in a lovely European capital, relevant people huddled for hours in meetings, which may well irreversibly

influence the political landscape back home. There seem to be no more doubts about the veracity of the memo. All suspicions and apprehensions seem to have been removed. The FT people would be laughing.
With the basics settled, the focus would shift to the memo’s contents. If the details trickling out are to be believed, we apparently do not have a gun but a smoking bazooka on our hands. The contents are so toxic that they could well float into the realm of treason. The memo supposedly has it all, including the promised change of security establishment (read: sacking of Kayani & Co). Even speculations about allowing nuclear security retooling, or American boots on the ground, are tantamount to political blasphemy, so imagine the devastating consequences when such offers are found written in black and white. “It’s an impossibly desperate dream menu rather than a memo,” says someone credible in Islamabad. Everything appears to be real, everything is now on the record. The problem, and the beauty of today’s digital existence, is that every little scrap of data gets preserved with the simple click of a key, instantly transforming seemingly inconsequential exchanges into key-evidence. One click and BlackBerries can turn into poison berries.
What happens in the larger context will perhaps languidly manifest itself, and over a stretched period of time, but what does appear imminent is that those aspiring for grander future roles could soon end up losing even their current lofty perches. And judging from the severity of circumstances, Islamabad should feel exceptionally relieved if the demanded ‘corrective measures’ stopped at this. But it remains a highly unlikely eventuality. It’s not as if the original ‘official’ messenger hasn’t been in the midst of some really dangerous situations in the past as well, but this time around he appears to have made the cardinal mistake of choosing the wrong ‘unofficial messenger’ for conveying his master’s potentially self-destructive message. And therefore penance will be his to pay, the cross for him to carry.
Meanwhile, all fact-finding is over. The Big ones will now sit to eventually reshape the contours of the country’s future ruling structure. Of course, institutional queries will be made, questions posed, but it will be more of a formality as the answers to the yet unasked questions are already known. So what happens next, is the real question here.
In a related development, the office of National Security Advisor in each country was being perceived as the perfect focal point to coordinate strategy between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. Where needed, the office would have been created, or resurrected. With the four NSAs coordinating matters and even bypassing certain institutions and offices protocol-wise higher than their own, matters were expected to move at a much faster pace and in the desired direction. In the envisaged scheme of things, the NSA’s office would have been second in power only to that of the president and hence the desperate attempt to secure this all-important office. But for now at least, the concept appears a dead horse.
Exhaustive background interviews with those in the know reveal that a clear understanding now exists on what really needs to be done to put brakes on this runaway mandated autocracy passing itself off as elected democracy. The prevailing geopolitical situation however is momentarily staying the increasingly edgy hand. But for how long such international considerations will thwart domestic compulsions, is anybody’s guess. It was also shared that the public stance notwithstanding, privately the superpower’s interlocutors had been indicating their “ease” with dealing with “someone with real authority being directly in charge of things”. But the Mullen blow up has forced a mindset of extreme caution in Rawalpindi’s dealings with Washington even though the US political policy in the region is being dictated by its military and intelligence organs, both being areas of relative comfort for Rawalpindi.
The earlier professed desire of allowing democrats unfettered freedom to run things is also no longer being expressed by those who truly matter. Is the change of views being caused primarily by the growing pressure of increasingly restless colleagues, or is it based on a realistic reassessment of ground realities and complete disenchantment with the political masters? I asked someone extremely close to the alpha general, and he responded, “He is not someone who rigidly remains wedded to any notion without merit. He also does not leave things to chance or fate, or scores unsettled, and will not move a step on anything till he has carefully thought his way through, factored in all consequences of both, moving forward too fast, or even staying still for too long”.
There remains an institutional apprehension about political Islamabad rolling a desperate dice and causing a change at the top if too many questions are asked at this point about the memo. While there may be a few differing voices on this count, an institutional consensus appears to be in place that a change will definitely be caused post-March 2012 Senate elections, were the ruling political dispensation allowed to have its marauding ways till then. “If change in top command is brought in now, it would be for mala fide reasons and the institutional reaction will be as decisive, but come March it will be a different story,” was the assessment of a concerned three-star.
The potent mix to justify the hitherto unjustifiable appears to be in place. There is no governance per se anymore, anywhere. Law and order is conspicuous by its very absence. The economy is bankrupt. Corruption has touched unimaginable heights. Incompetence is the sole requirement for landing important government posts. The executive mocks judges. Court verdicts are not worth the paper they are typed on. Thousands of people are being pushed below the poverty line every day, while the ruling elite churns out new millionaires and billionaires by the week. Desperate circumstances have transformed ordinary masses into raving, raging mobs. The disconnect between the rulers and the ruled is absolute, and naked. We are hurtling towards being a failed State. So what is holding the natural ‘unnatural’ consequence from occurring? Concerns about international reactions, or the obligatory weight of a three-year extension? Should it not happen, no matter what? Is this criminalised democracy still the only or the better option available? I do not know, but we may get the answers sooner than we expect.

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