March of the skeletons

By Mahir Ali
Wednesday, 16 Sep, 2009 (Dawn)
The plethora of talking heads on private television channels has yielded a few intriguing insights. —File Photo
The plethora of talking heads on private television channels has yielded a few intriguing insights. —File Photo

GOING by the rate at which former operatives from a plethora of military and other agencies have been emerging from the woodwork and spilling the beans, it almost seems as if someone went around spiking their preferred beverages with truth serum in the run-up to the month of fasting.

If only it were that simple. Were there is some sort of guarantee that their outpourings consisted of nothing but the truth, it would be possible to applaud the skeletons that have steadily been striding out of all manner of cupboards in recent weeks.

Back in the dying years of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev laid considerable store by his policy of glasnost, which was an attempt to fill in the blank pages of his nation’s history. Much of the material that saw the light in those heady days was, of course, already common knowledge outside the USSR.

There can be little doubt that there are many blank pages in Pakistan’s history, but the present process of filling them cannot reasonably be compared with glasnost. A crucial reason for this is that invariably the source of the so-called revelations and the motivation behind them is more relevant than the content. The ‘why’ has more value than the ‘what’, not least because the latter often involves a regurgitation of established facts.

For instance, did anyone seriously doubt that the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) was cobbled together by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) 21 years ago in an attempt to thwart the electoral appeal of the PPP? Surely, the abortive attempt to keep the PPP out of power following the 1988 elections could not have eluded even a casual observer of those shenanigans. And it was followed by efforts to destabilise and, ultimately, abolish the PPP-led government.

Is there any element of surprise, then, in the nugget that the ISI distributed largesse among the PPP’s political opponents in the run-up to the next election, or that it was involved in buying loyalties during the effort to push through a motion of no-confidence against the government of Benazir Bhutto?

It has also long been rumoured that Osama bin Laden was generous to Benazir’s opponents, and the allegation that he met Nawaz Sharif five times a dozen or so years before 9/11 is of passing interest in the wider context of the Saudi role in Pakistani politics.

Intriguingly, the claim comes from former ISI official Khalid Khawaja, who reportedly heads an NGO called Defence of Human Rights, an organisation that focuses exclusively on those whose rights may have been violated by the US and its allies but can evidently summo n up no sympathy for the victims of terrorism.

Khawaja was arrested a couple of years ago for distributing ‘hate material’ outside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, and one thing he decidedly shares in common with the other bean-spillers – not least the retired brigadier Imtiaz Ahmed, formerly of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and ISI – is that they personally have a great deal to answer for.

However, what seems crucial at the moment is the question of who or what has instigated them to start talking openly about misdeeds in which they were intimately involved.

Was it an attempt to distract attention from the moderately mysterious minus-one formula that dominated media attention for a while (the one in question being President Asif Ali Zardari)? Or was it primarily intended to bury the demand for former military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s trial? Or were there multiple motivating factors, including an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the neo-fascist Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) – whose leader, settled in London for 17 years, has established a new paradigm in political cowardice?

Musharraf, like Altaf Hussain, is domiciled in the British capital, albeit rather more tentatively. The argument that placing him alone in the dock would be a travesty, given that there is a long list of people whose constitutional transgressions and related offences qualify them for prosecution, is certainly not without merit.

Tragically, it is more convincing than the idealistic hope that an ex-dictator’s trial and punishment would deter future military takeovers. In fact, it is quite conceivable that the army would feel obliged to flex its muscles in the event of its former chief being made to answer for his crimes. And that may not be a risk worth taking.

It is harder to agree with those who see little point in revisiting the recent past, fearing that history’s ghosts could block the road to reconciliation – but perhaps forgetting that no meaningful reconciliation can occur without an explicit recognition of what has gone before.

This is not to suggest that the current cacophony of probable falsehoods and motivated semi-truths qualifies as an adequate – or even desirable – reckoning. At the same time, the plethora of talking heads on private television channels has yielded a few intriguing insights. It was extremely interesting, for instance, to encounter former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg’s ingratiatingly reverent references to the Bhuttos, père et fille, and even an expression of sympathy for al-Zulfikar.

It is well worth remembering, among other things, that while Z.A. Bhutto’s prime ministerial tenure had its redeeming features, it was also the period during which Saudi and ISI interference in Pakistani politics was initiated. It didn’t pay off for the PPP. Unlike their recent gesture towards Musharraf, the Saudis made no effort to save Bhutto’s life.

The extent to which they are willing to coddle Nawaz Sharif remains to be seen, but there can be little question that recent indications that the latter would be a considerably more popular choice as helmsman than the incumbent are based on selective amnesia.

Meanwhile, as Zardari hits the handout trail yet again, bringing his personal philosophy – that money is the solution to every problem – to bear on affairs of state, it’s worth noting that Pakistan’s poverty reflects not so much the absence (or, rather, incredible disparities) of wealth as the preponderance of stealth and, above all, heavily depleted stores of honesty.