Friday August 19, 2022

Pakistan…confused and rudderless

By Ayaz Amir
June 10, 2016

Islamabad diary

The contrast could not be more glaring. Since we must compare ourselves with India, that being our eternal yardstick, we must take this in: the Indian prime minister addresses the US Congress and draws repeated applause. Pakistan, meanwhile, presents a fractured picture, democracy in place but the army in charge and calling the shots.

The army chief snaps his fingers and PML-N ministers dutifully line up at General Headquarters, in the same hallowed room next to the chief’s office where corps commanders’ meetings are held.

We are not good even at keeping up appearances. The same meeting could have been held at the foreign office, thereby at least preserving the fig-leaf of civilian supremacy. But I suppose a point had to be made and it could not have been made more dramatically. The picture released by the army’s spin machine, ISPR, says it all: the commanders lined up on one side and the civilians, their haplessness on full display, on the other.

The army is in command and the civilians, on key fronts, have abdicated authority…not at the point of the bayonet, let it quickly be said, but as the fruits of incompetence. For all its democratic authority, the PML-N leadership, from the prime minister to his talented brother, is incapable of conducting a sustained dialogue on pressing national issues with the army brass. The mental wherewithal is simply not there…period.

They have political skills no doubt, and very sharp at that when it comes to preserving their power and promoting their business interests. In these things no one in Pakistan can come close to them. But engage them in abstract talk on, say, national security or foreign policy and the blank looks that emerge have to be seen to be believed.

As I have had occasion to mention before, when they were taking their first political steps their favourite method of inter-acting with important generals was to make them gifts of BMW cars. If a general accepted – and there was talk in those days that some upright generals did – he was considered a good fellow, trustworthy and dependable. Anyone who refused was looked at with suspicion.

Gifting BMWs is now out of fashion, Pakistani politics having moved on. It’s not just Gen Raheel Sharif. Any army chief who is not a complete dunce will have problems of communication with the present elected leadership. I am not exaggerating. This is a systemic problem…and when they can’t talk properly to the army brass – although heaven knows there are not many rocket scientists in that quarter – the grapevine is set alight with whispers that democracy is being undermined.

So we are at a funny pass. The army command has no business calling the shots. The civilians lack the capacity to call the shots. Small wonder, Pakistan at this moment looks like a cart being pulled in opposite directions…the civilians mired in the Panamagate scandal and not able to concentrate on the larger picture of national policy and the army command striking out in all directions. Foreigners know how this is playing out, which is the reason every visiting foreigner makes it a point to call on Gen Raheel in his eerie at GHQ, all too aware that that’s where the real power resides.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, may have problems at home, what with critics accusing the ruling BJP of espousing intolerance and the politics of Hindu exclusivity. But abroad he gives every impression of a masterly performance. And there is continuity in Indian policy. It was under Manmohan Singh that the American-Indian nuclear agreement was concluded. Now Narendra Modi is pressing ahead with the same. And when the Indian prime minister addresses the US Congress he makes it a point to say that terrorism may be a global problem but it was “incubated” in India’s neighbourhood, the reference to Pakistan not lost on his audience, and there is loud applause.

Pakistan continues barking up the tree of sovereignty, not realizing that every time there is a mention of the drone attack which killed the Taliban leader, Mulla Akhtar Mansour, it inevitably triggers the question: what was Mansour up to in Pakistan? When we are caught on the wrong foot, how does it suit us to turn complaining into an art form?

We are in the same boat as Saudi Arabia. The latter is unhappy with the US for a variety of reasons ranging from the Iran deal to the handling of the Syrian crisis. And we are unhappy with the US because it is getting close to India and forgetting the yeoman services we rendered in the ‘war on terrorism’.

This is one constant in our relations with the US. As our performance in the first and second Afghan wars testifies, no country has rushed faster into America’s embrace when the opportunity has presented itself. When the moment passes and the embrace slackens we feel jilted and cheated. It’s happening again. Why don’t we go a bit slow with our embraces in the first place? Why can’t we moderate the initial ardour?

This is the lesson we should learn from our American experience. Our problem is our feckless elites who lack the power of independent thinking…because their idea of heaven is not the heaven of the Quran – perish the thought – but of an American education for their kids and a fortune stashed away for themselves and their precious ones in the US. And we expect such elites to look out for that hazy concept called the national interest.

That our polity on current reckoning is fractured doesn’t make Pakistan look good. Foreigners ask who is in charge and wonder, as indeed do many Pakistanis, what the future has in store.

The Pakistani conundrum can be summed up like this: in democracy lies our salvation but the war on terrorism, Zarb-e-Azb and all that, was fought not by democracy but the army. The civilians should have initiated the whole process but they came late to it and were unable to provide the requisite leadership. The leadership came from the army, the sacrifices from there too, and because of that the army has become an outsized performer, dominating everything and putting democracy in the shade.

But the army is not the answer to our problems. We’ve seen this in the past, our whole history pointing to this conclusion. So what do we do? Where do we go from here? The army has done wonderful things under Gen Raheel Sharif. But there is no escaping the circumstance that as an institution its outlook and its mental horizons are limited. If they weren’t we wouldn’t have made a mess of Afghanistan and jihad and the Taliban.

The Pakistani problem, however, goes beyond the limited outlook of the general staff. If anything, democracy’s products are more limited when it comes to performance and outlook. The answer is to weld democracy and the army together and make of them a seamless whole. This is Pakistan’s foremost challenge. But where is the Achilles about whom it could be said that there at the foot of yonder mountain he stands ready to fulfill this task?