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April 3, 2015

The army has to decide, not (hapless) civilians

Opinion

April 3, 2015

Islamabad diary
We should be able to cut through the simulated confusion. If Pakistan gets into any part of the Yemen mess, if Pakistani troops are sent or not sent, if Pakistan gets militarily involved in any way, it will be because the army has so decided, and not because the Sharifs are repaying their obligations to the House of Saud.
The civilian government has received a drubbing – sometimes subtle, at times not so subtle – at the army’s hands for the last year and some more. The government has been taught the limits of its power. It’s been told its place, and it has accepted that position, so much so that there’s no shortage of souls calling this a ‘soft coup’. In any event, it’s clear to everyone that on important questions it is the army which calls the shots. So how come all of a sudden it rests on Nawaz Sharif to decide Pakistan’s approach to the Saudi request for assistance?
Whatever Nawaz Sharif’s personal inclinations, whatever his sense of obligation to his Saudi benefactors, these do not count and are irrelevant because he does not command the army and the army command does not take its orders from him. The army is its own master and its take on every important issue is its own. So it’s quite cute that whereas in other circumstances the ISPR (the army’s publicity wing) is so active on the Twitter front, shooting out tweets in all seasons, regarding the all-important question of Pakistan’s approach to the Yemen crisis it thinks it expedient to observe complete radio silence. In this instance, if in few others, discretion is proving to be the better part of valour.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz have just returned from Riyadh. Does anyone in Islamabad take these two magnates seriously? In his own jurisdiction, Khawaja Asif has about as much authority as a sentry on guard duty at the defence ministry. What report will he or Sartaj Aziz make to the prime minister and what

will the prime minister decide?
The funniest sight these days is of the PM presiding over ‘high-level’ meetings. The setting is surrealistic, Persian carpet, the décor done up, civilians (looking utterly clueless) lined up one side, military officials, slightly more sure of themselves, on the other. I am not exaggerating: the PM looks confused most of the time. It can safely be inferred that he wants to do good by the Saudis. At the same time he would be a fool not to know the risks involved. And the army for once is acting coy…or at least that’s the impression one gets.
So the PM decides to fly off to Turkey, this being in Thursday’s papers, which is a way of looking active while doing nothing. He did the same during the first Gulf War, 1990-91, going off on a Middle East trip when, all eyes riveted on the war, it was scarcely surprising if no one paid him the slightest attention. Not many people will be holding their breaths as he goes off on this trip.
The Chief of the General Staff, Lt Gen Nadeem Asif, and the Director General Military Operations, Maj Gen Amir Riaz, were part of the delegation which went to Riyadh. In army circles both officers are highly regarded, indeed some people going so far as to call them the ‘brains’ of the present high command. What they report to the Chief is what matters and what the Chief and his corps commanders decide is what Pakistan’s stance is going to be. The fig-leaf, and the rhetoric about defending the Holy Mosques, etc, will come from the civilians who can be expected to put on a brave effort to look convincing.
The generals can’t look the all-conquering generalissimos from Waziristan to Karachi and then funk it, or hide behind civilian coattails, when it comes to Yemen. It is his call and that of his generals to decide what is in Pakistan’s best interests. Basically, the question is: does Pakistan act as a sepoy on duty, a paid gendarme, as it did in Afghanistan during Gen Zia’s time and later under Gen Musharraf when the Americans mounted their Afghan invasion? Or does it choose a more subtle course?
Gratitude is neither here nor there. Gratitude is for individuals, not for nations and states. Russia helped crush the Hungarian uprising of 1848. Asked if he felt indebted to Russia, the Austrian prime minister, Count Felix Schwarzenberg, replied, “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude.” Sharp and polished brains are essential for cynicism of this high an order…but you get the drift.
Another example too is worth remembering. Hitler helped Gen Franco win the Spanish civil war (1936-39). After the outbreak of the Second World War Hitler, wanting to draw Franco into the Axis fold, met him at the French border town of Hendaye. Ian Kershaw (one of the best biographers of Hitler) writes, “At one point, Hitler’s irritation was so great that he got up from the table, stating that there was no point in continuing.” As he left the meeting he was heard to mutter, “There’s nothing to be done with this chap.” Hitler later told Mussolini that he “would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out” than go through another nine-hour discussion with Franco.
Thank our lucky stars for an open press. Much has been written about the dangers of getting militarily involved in the Arabia peninsula. It won’t much redound to our credit if we act the role of sepoys again. Gulf Arabs already talk of Pakistanis as ‘miskeens’. Far from anyone being grateful to us, the danger is that we will end up reinforcing this image.
Nawaz Sharif, however, is no Gen Franco. If it were up to him Pakistan would send half its divisions to Saudi Arabia with no questions asked. It is the army which has to fashion the right response. For it can’t take a front seat when it suits it, and take a back seat when a tough decision has to be made.
Thus there is no point in seeking a clue to Nawaz Sharif’s thinking because his thinking does not matter. What is the army thinking? That’s the important thing. And excuses just will not do because no one in Pakistan needs a tutorial on where the real power lies. But even as Pakistan agonises over what to do, one thing should be clear. If the army makes a false move, one not consistent with the public mood at this point – the public mood clearly not in favour of military involvement – the army’s carefully cultivated image of national saviour of last resort goes up in smoke. And returning to haunt the national mind will be the thought that this country is incapable of change.
Saudi Arabia has got itself into a strategic imbroglio. It can’t win this war. It can’t restore Mansour Hadi to the presidency. The Houthis, despite the air strikes, continue to hold the upper hand in the fighting. As for a ground incursion it is folly even to contemplate it, the Saudis in no position to sustain one. So what is Pakistan expected to do in this situation?
It is not simply a question of having enough problems of our own. Hezbollah has Israel to face but despite that its fighters are fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s army. Do we have a similar interest in Saudi Arabia?
This is no time for false sentiment, or cheap rhetoric regarding the defence of the Holy Mosques (which are under no kind of threat). The calculation has to be cold and hard-headed but, appearances apart, we have to be clear that this calculation will be made in General Headquarters, not the prime minister’s office. So whether the decision is right or wrong, there should be no doubt as to where the responsibility will lie.
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