Political orchestra directed by Generals Kayani and Pasha (illustration by Sabir Nazar)
Related post: APC: civil façade of foreign policy — by Farhat Taj
Working the levers of patriotism
Friday, September 30, 2011
No one can work the engines of patriotism better than the army and its ideological wing, the ISI. In actual combat their performance may invite questions. But in ideological combat their skill is unsurpassed.
In the annals of Pakistani democracy no fiction is more endearing than that of parliamentary sovereignty. The army and ISI set the score and music of national security. Civilian governments and politicians perform vigorously to this music and call it parliamentary sovereignty.
The corps commanders led the national outrage over the Kerry-Lugar bill, the jihadi media taking its cue from there. We know what deft hands first generated and then dissipated the hype over the Raymond Davis affair. Left to itself the federal government might have handled matters differently. But then the ISI wouldn’t have been the ISI if it had allowed this to happen.
When Sheikh Osama’s hideout was busted in Abbottabad, the first reaction of both President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani was sensible. But they weren’t counting on the deep sense of humiliation felt in General Headquarters. Realising their error they changed tack and hurriedly joined the national chorus of patriotism which had begun belting out lines about wounded sovereignty.
Few people paused to ask whether the sharper blow to national pride was dealt by the Americans or the Sheikh who, with his computers and disk drives, had installed himself in Abbottabad for close on five years. Where lesser mortals might have directed their anger at Al-Qaeda we went blue in the face denouncing America.
No praise is too high for Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief, for playing the subsequent in-camera session of parliament the way he did. Towards its end most of the parliamentarians seemed to be eating out of his hands, all speaking the same language of honour and national pride with which he had prefaced his briefing.
Now in the latest outbreak of patriotic fever in the wake of Admiral Mike Mullen’s excoriating remarks about the Haqqani group and its real or presumed linkages to the ISI, it is again the army and ISI orchestrating the national response, and the government and much of the political class following suit and reading from the script prepared by the supreme guardians.
The corps commanders met first and Prime Minister Gilani swung into action later, calling up the assorted characters who presume to speak on behalf of the Pakistani people, and inviting them for an all-parties conference (APC). If past experience is any guide, there are few activities more pointless than this gathering of the good and the not-so-great. It is safe to say – these lines being written before this momentous event – that the emphasis will be on verbosity and beating the drums of national honour. At the end will come the refrain, the nation stands united.
The Pakistani nation caught up in the throes of patriotism is usually a dangerous sight – mostly a prelude to something bizarre and foolish. What a mood of excitement we built up in 1965, closing our eyes to the reality that our rulers of the time, for no rhyme or reason, had started the whole blooming adventure. No one punished them but the country is still, in myriad ways, living the consequences.
In 1971 every vehicle in Lahore carried the sticker “Crush India”. We know who was crushed and who wasn’t in that conflict. The Afghan jihad, the conflict in Kargil, our predilection with managing the affairs of Afghanistan, when everything points to the conclusion that we are far from able to manage our own….the list of our militant follies is endless.
The US may be using too broad a brush and putting too thick a coat of paint on our warped strategic theories, but there is a growing body of opinion in Pakistan itself that the time for our strategic games is up. Mike Mullen did not say the ISI was attacking Kabul. We should read his testimony more dispassionately. He was saying the culprits were from the Haqqani group and that this group had strong links with the ISI.
Who the intrepid soul who would deny this last point? Don’t the Haqqanis have havens on this side of the border? The ISI doesn’t micro-manage them, it has no operational control over them. But in the name of all that is profane, don’t they have a presence there and here?
They are assets for the future, our strategic grandmasters will say. Haven’t we played enough of Afghan games and isn’t it time to let that unfortunate country be on its own? No one should wish more misfortunes upon the Afghan people but if they must fight their own internecine wars what drives us to the necessity of being a part of them, directly or indirectly?
Not only is it high time the army redrew its priorities, it is also time it stopped forcing its theories on hapless civilian governments. Every malevolent adjective in the world this government – indeed the entire political class – richly deserves. We have a set of ineffectual people at the helm, their capacity and competence no secret to anyone. But, I would venture to suggest, that even these clowns, if left to do their own bit, would manage relations with the US better than our brilliant army commanders.
There is no more difficult negotiating partner in the world than the MQM. He who can handle the MQM can deal with anyone, even the spirits of the dark and the deep. If we settled for cheap terms and low wages in 2001, broad-chested generals were in charge of national affairs not weak-kneed civilians. When the time was for negotiating something sensible and equitable with the Americans our army command blew it. Now when events have moved on and a new dynamic is in play, the army command just refuses to dismount from the high stallion of national honour and inviolable sovereignty.
What kind of a country are we? After India tested its nuclear bombs in 1998 Lal Kishan Advani only had to make a few threatening statements for Pakistan to go into panic mode and rush into its own tests. Israel hasn’t carried out any nuclear tests. Is its nuclear arsenal any less effective because of this? What, if exercising better judgment – admittedly, a tall order – we hadn’t tested in May 1998. Would our bombs have melted or just disappeared? And would Indian tanks have invaded Pakistan?
Here we are bedevilled by the wages of terrorism and a falling economy and yet we speak the language of Prussia at the height of its military power.
And now Mullen’s congressional testimony and some tough talk by the US secretary of defence Leon Panetta have thrown us into a panic in 2011. The corps commanders, forsaking their beloved golf, meet on a Sunday and the good and the patriotic get together for the Pakistani variant of that all-time farce called the APC.
Philip, Alexander the Great’s father, held out this threat to Sparta: “If I enter Laconia (Sparta’s other name), you shall be exterminated.” The reply was a single word, “If”. It’s too much to hope that Pakistan can emulate such brevity but at least our response to real or imagined challenges could be less windy and extended than they often tend to be.
Why should the Americans attack us when a few statements can so thoroughly unnerve us? We are already talking again – the Americans and us – and let no one say that American pressure, calculated or fortuitous, hasn’t worked. The corps commanders hurriedly called to meet and the pantomime of the APC are reminders less of a nation united than a nation easily jolted.
But more than semantics and the right tools of verbiage we have to put a rein on our strategic theories. The threat to us is from within, from the cumulative consequences of past follies. India is an elephant. Living cheek-by-jowl with an elephant is always a problem. But can we please get out of the calculus of India posing some kind of an existential threat to us? From the realm of dreams and fantasies, and imagined threats, isn’t it time we stepped into the real world?