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Monday, July 18, 2011

Nation and Army: Facing the Storm-Winds Together

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“My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.”

– Marshal Foch (First World War)

Under attack from all sides, this should be the motto of the Pakistan Army in these trying and, I daresay, bracing times. For what can be more bracing than the winds howling, the storm-clouds bursting, the earth shaking beneath your feet, but your heart steady and your resolve unshaken?

The army’s past is less than glorious. It has done things for which it has been justly criticised: interventions a hapless nation could have done without, saviours and messiahs – a depressing gallery of four – whose collective output has contributed more than anything else to bring us to our present pass.

But, in a remarkable turnaround, the army has started doing the right things: refraining from political interventionism, thereby supporting democracy; standing up to the United States and refusing to subordinate national interests to American interests. Far from getting credit for this welcome change of course, it is being targeted by agenda-driven cynics from within and American scheming without.

Not that the Americans are our enemies. We should avoid going down this road. But they have their own agenda, and their own pressing concerns vis-à-vis their quagmire in Afghanistan, which may not be in full harmony with our interests.

The Americans want the Pakistan army to expand its Pakhtun wars, to go into North Waziristan in a big way and set ablaze the entire length of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Only then will their insistence that we “do more” be appeased. This at a time when they are exploring avenues to talk to the Taliban.

In other words, as they themselves explore the peace option they want us to go all-out for the war option. Wanting to ease the pain of their exit from Afghanistan, they are entitled to look out for themselves. But doesn’t the same logic apply to us? The Americans may be past bothering about what happens to us when they begin their long retreat from Kabul and Kandahar, but we have to look out for ourselves.

And because the Pakistan Army, after the blind acquiescence of the Musharraf years, has finally started to think for itself instead of jumping to American dictation, the Americans are deeply upset because they are not used to this, certainly not from us.

They are right to insist that Pakistan should not play double games: running with the Taliban and hunting with the Americans. These double games have hurt Pakistan more than anyone else. But they are wrong to insist that in operational matters – the how, why and when of Fata operations – General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, should take its cue from Central Command, Florida.

So not liking this new streak of independence, the Americans are striking back in whatever way they can: editorial broadsides in the New York Times (often a sounding board if not outright mouthpiece for the American establishment) calling for a change of command in the ISI; and, in the latest from Washington, the suspension of 800 million dollars of military assistance.

This last doesn’t make sense at all. Far from making the GHQ bend it will only stiffen its resolve and strengthen those who say that Pakistan should say good riddance to the American alliance. But then great powers, imperial powers, are not unknown for doing things that don’t make sense. That they may be able to get away with it is an altogether different story.

If ours was not a house divided – if external pressure was the only thing the army command had to worry about, it would be no great matter. But apart from American pressure, the army is also under snide and cynical attack from within because, and this is the astonishing part, of its support for democracy.

Support boils down not to extending bayonet protection to the government but simply to non-intervention, a demarcation of lines between the political and military spheres. This precisely is what makes some elements of the domestic scene deeply unhappy; for the past three years their most cherished wish has been for the ISI to destabilise the government and the army to step into the ring. They are not bothered about the consequences as long as the army forsakes its neutrality and swings a battleaxe to the central government’s head.

A section of the media, indeed a very determined section, retired civil servants, diplomats and generals – dignified by the appellation of civil society, which is a new coinage in these parts – have been in the forefront of this campaign. But the GHQ not obliging, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is being attacked for not doing his national duty.

Which is pretty tough for any army chief: damned if he does, and now damned if he doesn’t. There’s no pleasing Pakistan’s cynical chattering classes.

From all the signs available, the Americans would dearly love to see the last of Kayani. But since this is easier said than done, they are gunning for the next best thing: a change of guard in the ISI, their real bete noire since the Raymond Davis affair. And they are being aided, even if inadvertently (unless it is not inadvertent at all), by domestic voices accusing Kayani and Pasha of shirking their responsibility by not playing the political games their predecessors played with such zest, and with what disastrous consequences we don’t have to be reminded.

The answer to this scheming, and there is a whole lot of it afoot in Islamabad – a city dedicated since its ill-judged inception to conspiracy and intrigue – is to keep calm and not panic. Not a lesson easily learnt because, if we remember, after the Bin Laden affair the GHQ’s response, either by itself or through its conduit the Foreign Office, was to sputter and fulminate – issuing communiqués that were barely literate, let alone being shining monuments to logic.

But there was a welcome change of tone in the statement after the last Corps Commanders’ Conference – the first after the suspension of US military aid. It was restrained and controlled, as such things should always be. Fulmination may suit pulpit-mongers, but not soldiers.

We were taught precis-writing, the shorter writing of a longer note, when I was in Kakul (1967-69). More than ever is this skill required in these storm-tossed days.

But to return to the main road, not only is the army under attack, Pakistan is under attack. Nor can we harbour the illusion that this hostility will cease any time soon...because the more the American adventure in Afghanistan goes sour, and doesn’t play out according to American wishes, the greater the temptation to strike out at scapegoats, none more readily available than Pakistan.

So we should keep calm, always remembering Odysseus’s words, “Patience, stout heart, thou hast endured far worse than this.” Drum-beating and wailing, two sub-continental proclivities, we should avoid and engage with the Americans civilly – leaving shrillness to the howling of the winds – and keep to our course. But also remembering that the days of double hunts and double games are over. On some middling Himalayan peak we should bury the remains of jihad and raise a monument over it, offering our final prayers as the bugles sound. Of all the follies perfected by GHQ, which what once-upon-a-time gave the appearance of being a veritable foundry of follies, this was about the worst.

As for domestic cynics who would like to push the GHQ into the fires of interventionism – and who wouldn’t be found anywhere when the need arises to pull the army’s chestnuts out of the fire – they are best left to their own devices. No need to agonise over their well-deserved misery.

The next 18 months, leading up to the next elections, are likely to be about the most crucial in Pakistan’s history, for they will determine whether we are at all capable of a peaceful and democratic transition of power. Imperfect and rickety as the applecart of our present democracy is, there is no alternative to the democratic process, however much we may hate some of its manifestations. The GHQ’s role is crucial. It has to help in keeping the ship of state from rocking too much.
The old Mukesh song has it wrong: “sub kuch seekha ham ne, na seekhi hoshiari”... we have learnt everything except cleverness. The Pakistani nation has learnt too much cleverness. Now it must learn a bit of patience.
Tailpiece: Another person who could learn the virtues of restraint is Zulfiqar Mirza. Of a walking time-bomb there is no more perfect example.
By: Ayaz Amir , Email: winlust@yahoo.com