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August 1, 2012

In Shaikh we trust

Karachi

August 1, 2012

Musharraf ka yay yaar hai; ghaddar hai, ghaddar hai (He is a crony of Musharraf; he is a traitor, he is a traitor)!
As finance minister Hafeez Shaikh unveiled the PPP-led coalition’s fifth budget in the National Assembly this June, it was the above slogan that most emblazoned the house. That Shaikh was part of an ineffectual and incompetent government that had driven Pakistan’s economy into the ground didn’t seem like his biggest blunder. That he had left a system badly in need of restructuring frozen in aspic wasn’t the primary reason the opposition had no faith in him.
As he stood there in the house on June 1, Shaikh was not attacked just for selling the nation a false prospectus by pretending he could shelter it from the storm. No. What the house remembered, and condemned, was where he had come from.
In the last week or so, Shaikh’s political beginnings are once again under the floodlights, especially as it becomes clear that the belated ‘sorry’ for Salala, as well as the quick movement on the reimbursement of $1.1 billion in delayed military aid, was ‘won’ for Pakistan not through the high diplomatic efforts headlined in the news but by the finance minister himself.
Why was he chosen for the job?
Rewind to April 4 and the meeting between President Zardari and Nides where startlingly for everyone present, Hina Khar said ‘nothing doing’ when her boss told the visiting under secretary he would be ‘open’ to parallel negotiations and to attending the Chicago Summit if Washington extended a formal invitation.
For whatever reason – due to her personal calculation to take refuge behind parliament and protect the government’s flanks from the opposition on the home front or as part of a well-considered good-cop-bad-cop sequence conceived by her own political (and even military) masters – it was clear that Khar was not the best person for parallel negotiations. What to do, then? Particularly given that one of the

consequences of the army and government’s deadly game of whipping up anti-American sentiment was that secret negotiations away from the public eye were the only way out now.
Indeed, the futility of above-board negotiations with the Pakistanis became even clearer to the Americans after they sent Zardari that unconditional invitation he wanted to the Chicago summit. Not only did the president arrive in Chicago without a plan, his new ambassador in Washington promptly wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune demanding once more a non-negotiable apology at a time when the US was looking for flexibility from the Pakistani side.
To the Americans, then, both Hina and Sherry were increasingly looking “less and less experienced in international affairs.” As one senior diplomat put it: “Both just lecture and repeat stuff that is more appropriate for Pakistani television politics than for mature American interlocutors.”
So, after months of missed opportunities on the part of more relevant players like the foreign minister, the ambassador in DC and even the president himself, a secret channel was finally established late May between Nides and Shaikh which ended in the dramatic apology-cum-reopening deal.
Why did Shaikh ‘succeed’ where others had failed?
It’s an open secret that the army chief had put pressure on Islamabad to appoint Shaikh as finance minister. After all, he’s had the ear of the generals for some time now, and was brought to national politics as Musharraf’s minister of privatisation in 2003. Combine his khaki credentials with his status as one of the favourites of the Americans and the International Monetary Fund, and Shaikh not only seemed like the perfect candidate for the key post of finance minister, but also – after the Salala fiasco followed by the diplomatic fiasco at the hands of Khar and others – the most ‘reliable’ person to moderate the re-engagement deal.
Trusted by the Americans as well as both the Pakistanis who mattered and those who didn’t, Shaikh was the dealmaker from diplomacy heaven.
And while he didn’t get us the kind of ‘apology’ from President Obama that the Afghans got earlier, or cut a deal to halt drone strikes forever, or manage to get even a penny in transit fees, Shaikh did what he was put there to do: get the Americans their route back and the army its money.
A big chunk of coalition support funds are expected to be transferred into a New York account as this goes to print. The US has also assured Pakistan that it will compensate the country in other ways for not paying transit fees, for instance, through assistance for social sector development or under the head of ‘reconstruction’ – and we’re talking about a good $600 million or more.
If at least four different power centres were pulling the strings of Pak-US ties – the GHQ, the Presidency, the foreign ministry and the Pakistan embassy in DC – it looks like GHQ prevailed. We already know that the meeting at Khar’s residence on the night of July 2-3 when the deal was sealed was presided over by General Kayani himself. And yet, it is the ‘bloody civilians’ who are being given a black eye for putting Pakistan’s soul on sale.
While the events since Nov 26 betray the deep dysfunction of Pakistan’s policy-making apparatus and the lack of an ostensible centre of gravity in decision-making, they also signal the dawn of a new model of military power: the army still runs Islamabad and its relations with the outside world with as much determination as ever before – except now, it does so in an ever more indirect, discreet, and as some would suggest, ‘democratic’ way.
This new model will be put to the test as a large number of technocrats approved by the khakis are appointed in the caretaker government. Will these yaars of the generals stand for civilian supremacy and democratic continuity or become the pillars of an army that has by now perfected the gestures and rituals of a democracy it does not believe very much in?
If the answer turns out to be the latter, don’t be surprised if this year’s caretakers go down as the future’s undertakers.
The writer is an assistant editor, The News. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mehreenzahra

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