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Opinion

Legal Eye

May 19, 2018

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Trotting out traitors

Nawaz Sharif is no imbecile. To say that he was tricked into an interview where he let his mouth run is to deny him agency. But that’s our cultural ethic. The younger brother can’t publicly say that the older brother was wrong. It is the same ethic that frowns on anyone critiquing our security policy in public. We shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public, we tell ourselves. And that is why the PML-N will remain the N-League – no matter which Sharif is in control and in the establishment’s crosshairs. And that is also why we won’t candidly discuss our civil-military imbalance.

In accepting our friend Cyril Almeida’s interview request in the aftermath of all that brouhaha over the Dawn Leaks, NS was sending a message. Cyril didn’t frame NS. NS picked him. The message was that NS understands that a no-holds-barred war has been declared on him. And that he won’t cower under, but instead pick up the gauntlet. Speaking of non-state actors, NS asked whether we should “allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai?” The word ‘allow’ in relation to a past event isn’t susceptible to multiple interpretations.

The most charitable explanation of the statement is that NS isn’t the smartest cookie or good with words. He is a well-meaning guy, a patriot at heart, a son of the soil, and his words have been taken out of context. This is how Shahbaz Sharif and PM Abbasi have spun it. The problem is that NS isn’t putting up with the apologia. He could have given context to the statement if he had meant to say something else. He hasn’t. The PML-N’s formal explanation is gibberish. And NS has denounced the National Security Council statement denouncing his statement.

Truth is the best defence in the face of an offensive speech. Except that, in this instance, the principle doesn’t apply. NS is no outsider critiquing policies he sees from a distance. He has been in and out of top echelons of power for three decades. As a third-time elected PM till last year, he is as much an insider as any civilian can ever be. So the statement volunteered isn’t the outcome of an epiphany. NS says he has had the discussion in-house too, which came to be known as the Dawn Leaks. Why then did he at the time scapegoat two ministers to appease the khakis?

NS is now saying what Dawn had reported back then: that the civilian part of the NSC stated that Pakistan is isolated in the world due to its security policy. That the world doesn’t deem credible our narrative of practising zero-tolerance towards terror and it suspects that our good-versus-bad-terror policy is still intact. If the Dawn report were true, why did NS sack ministers over it? And if they were sacked for leaking confidential national security discussion, how is it okay for NS to speak about the issue in public when he received the information as an insider?

Whistleblowers have long been chided and celebrated simultaneously. They are insiders by definition. Is NS a whistleblower who, by outing irrational policies pursued by the state and exposing their deleterious effects, will redefine our national interest and how it is to be pursued? If that were the case, it would be a worthy cause. But we’ve been here before. NS advocated and set up military courts. He authorised Raheel Sharif to negotiate the end of the dharna. He lived with the military’s overreach so long as it didn’t displace him from power.

In the Charter of Democracy, NS and BB committed themselves to establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would inquire into military coups and also fix responsibility for incidents such as Kargil. That was in 2006. Instead, what transpired in 2007 was reconciliation between Musharraf and the PPP. If the PPP cut a side deal with Musharraf and thus no Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2008, what prevented NS from setting one up in 2013 when he was sworn in as PM? Now he’s demanding one again – after being ousted again.

Whistleblowers are driven by principle, and speak truth to power despite threats of reprisal. NS has said that he knows many secrets which he will reveal at the right time. There are hints that he might divulge details of those involved in orchestrating the dharna. How will he explain sitting on such information all this while? If he knew that officers breached oaths and indulged in politics to destabilise an elected government, why wasn’t action taken against them under his watch in accordance with the law? Did NS hold on to the information for use at the right time?

The tragedy of Pakistan is that the conflict between NS and the establishment, being presented by both sides in moral terms, is about power and not principle. Each side is using dirt it has on the other as a negotiating chip. We’ll see winners and losers in Election 2018, but in the longer term it will be Pakistan that will lose out due to our civil-military divide. NS traversed many elections as the establishment’s candidate only to replace his erstwhile nemesis as the main anti-establishment voice. Opposition politicos calling him a traitor should learn from his journey.

In Pakistan, there is no consensus today on who is to run the country and how. The doctrine of necessity is ingrained in our polity as never before. Nature abhors vacuums, we are told. Because the executive doesn’t do its job, someone else has to step up. And that is the justification for military adventurism and controlled democracy etc. The problem with this solution is that it isn’t one at all. Ad-hoc interventions might expose the rot, but they don’t fix anything. Our approach so far has been not been to fix institutions but to demonise and bypass them.

Back in December 2016, with a new army chief appointed and the PML-N sitting firm in the saddle, I had written the following:

“The civil and military domains in Pakistan are not neatly demarcated. In fact, they overlap. There is a constant tug of war between civilian governments and the military as the two see each other as competitors vying for control of the state’s political power and not as parts of a whole, with one subordinate to the other. As its institutional interests continue to grow, the military’s approach to power is expansionist. And while its professional ethos dictate preservation and practice of esprit de corps in relation to self, it identifies civilian institutions as the ‘other’.

“Civilian governments on the other hand are completely oblivious to the need of institution building. Their strategy for fixing the institutional imbalance is to try and pick [those] individuals for key positions whose personal loyalty to the ruling regime might trump institutional interests and mindset of the military. This is a failing strategy as it misunderstands the problem. Consequently, we continue to witness a decade long cycle after each military rule that first leads to a contraction and then expansion of [the] military’s power and influence in the state.

“If Nawaz continues with the belief that personal loyalties override institutional interests, he might attempt to regain turf lost by civilians. If the new chief develops the god complex of being Pakistan’s saviour once he settles down, his patience with the civilian government would recede. 2018 will mark the culmination of the cycle kicked off with PPP-led regime assuming political control of the state in 2008. At such point, continuation of the PML-N regime for another five years might not be an exciting prospect for the military.”

So we are here now and it isn’t the first time. It is no longer about an election or sane conversations about right and wrong. It is now a fight between virtue and evil, patriots and traitors. Virtue and patriots will probably win like always – with the force on their side. But once Election 2018 is done and dusted and a new government settles in and begins exercising the authority it believes it is vested with under the constitution, we’ll be back debating how the civil-military imbalance is holding us back with a new set of patriots and traitors.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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