The ISI-Nawaz Sharif alliance: Too old to recall?

Reinventing history —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

The current debate in the electronic and print media on the 1992 security operation, first in rural Sindh and the then in Karachi, is not a non-partisan, fact-based study. The debate is highly polemical and divisive, which could undermine interactions among the political parties

Political developments in Pakistan over the last couple of weeks show that there is a deliberate attempt to reinvent history regarding the 1992 security operation in Karachi, ISI funding to anti-PPP political leaders in 1990, and Pervez Musharraf’s trial for high treason. This is being done against the backdrop of the “minus one, two or all” formulas and the stories about dubious American presence in and around Islamabad.

The key issue is why these stories are being re-told. Is the aim to search for the truth or are these narratives meant to demonstrate how the army/intelligence agencies can manipulate and buy off politicians?

Perhaps some retired officers want their role as history-makers acknowledged, as none of them seems to regret the fact that they helped undermine democracy and caused distortions in politics and society. These stories may also aim to divide political leaders and parties by reminding them of their ‘free-for-all’ struggle for power during the 1990s civilian interlude between the Zia and Musharraf military governments.

The past is relevant to the present and the future if history is examined in a dispassionate, comprehensive and non-partisan manner to understand historical processes in their proper contexts.

Many political groups adopt the ‘pick and chose’ approach towards history to justify the on-going political expediency. Those wanting to dominate the present and the future often want to control the past in order to justify their current agendas.

The current debate in the electronic and print media on the 1992 security operation, first in rural Sindh and the then in Karachi, is not a non-partisan, fact-based study. The debate is highly polemical and divisive, which could undermine interactions among the political parties whose role is crucial to the smooth functioning of the on-going political order.

There is nothing new in the information on the ISI funding some anti-PPP political leaders prior to the 1990 general elections. Its details are on record at least since June 1996, when the then Director General ISI submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court. This issue is being revived thirteen years later ostensibly to add to the current political controversies. Most political leaders denied accepting any money from the ISI when their names became public in 1996. They are not expected to change their position now. However, the revival of the issue engages the attention of political leaders of all kinds.

The third issue dominating the current political discourse is the prosecution of General Pervez Musharraf for high treason under Article 6 of the constitution in light of the Supreme Court judgement of July 31, 2009. The PMLN is spearheading the campaign for the trial of Musharraf, although it is clear to its leadership that they are not going to succeed. The Jama’at-e Islami is also championing this cause. The Jamiat-e Ahle-e Hadees (another Islamic party) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf are also supporting a trial of Musharraf.

This issue has polarised the political forces. The PMLN and the JI are using this issue to build pressure on the PPP-led government at the federal level. The PMLN and the MQM are engaging in polemical exchanges on the issue as well, because the MQM is opposed to the PMLN proposal for the trial of Musharraf.

The ‘minus one, two or all’ formulas for removal of top people in the government have evoked interest in political quarters. Some would like to see Asif Ali Zardari removed from power, while others would prefer the entire PPP government to be removed. This is being coupled with a propaganda campaign about increased corruption in various government agencies; and some are going to the extent of accusing people in and around the presidency of involvement in shady financial deals.

It would be interesting to track the source of these ‘minus’ proposals. If they were floated by some political circles opposed to President Zardari, there is not much to worry about; they can be described as part of the polemical debate between the government and some elements in the opposition. However, it becomes a serious matter if some elements in the ISI or the MI have directly floated the proposal or encouraged some political elements to do so. That could have serious implications for the future of the political system.

On top of all this is the issue of expansion of the American embassy in Islamabad, including the presence of some American troops. A section of the media, along with Islamic political parties and circles, has described this as the setting up of an American military outpost that would be a challenge to Pakistan’s sovereignty. This debate, based less on facts and more on emotions, deflects attention away from Pakistan’s current acute problems and increases political pressure on the government.

The simultaneous surfacing of these five issues does not appear to be accidental. It is a planned effort to divide and fragment political forces. The underlying idea is to divide them so sharply that they are no longer in a position to work together.

The major political parties have shown much restraint in their interactions after the February 2008 elections. Despite their differences and complaints against each other, they have not resorted to free-for-all war against each other because they now recognise that unrestrained competition would uproot the democratic experiment, and all of them would lose to religious extremists and the military-bureaucratic elite.

If the dynamics of the current effort to reinvent the conflicts of the 1990s is not fully appreciated by the political forces, they will fall into the trap of those who have no stake in the present system or want to weaken it to wrest the political initiative. It is interesting that the 1990 ISI funding and the 1992 episode are being reinvented though retired army/intelligence officers who could hardly be sympathetic to the present-day political leadership.

The experience of the 1990s suggests that all minus-prime minister formulas were implemented with the blessings of the army chief, and prior to the removal, stories of corruption and mismanagement appeared in the press.

If the minus one or all formula does not have the blessing of the army/intelligence agencies, there is nothing to worry about, because such formulas cannot be implemented without their support. If the formulas have the blessings of some elements in the army and its intelligence agencies, this reflects a shift in the orientation of the top brass from professionalism to cautious dabbling in politics. It would be unfortunate if some elements have started toying with such an idea because, under the present circumstances, the military will be confronted with a more complex situation, compromising its capacity to counter terrorism.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst