26 April 2014

Pakistani Generals Baring Knuckles

By Karamatullah K Ghori

Old habits die hard: of jaded scribes like this one who, in their misplaced exuberance, may think and jump to conclusion that one swallow makes a spring. Scribes writing about Pakistan ought to be a little more circumspect than that.

What they can’t afford to discount in the context of Pakistani Bonapartes is their apparently infinite capacity to hit back. And they did hit back with force since my last column on the civilians gaining the upper hand in Musharraf’s trial.

GHQ in Rawalpindi took exception—a robust one—to some ministers of Nawaz Sharif speaking their mind out loud on Musharraf and insisting, in so many words, that nobody should be deemed above the law and that if other generals thought of abusing the law—as Musharraf obviously did—they, too, should be ready to face the music.

Ministers are politicians, and politicians all over are in the habit of shooting their mouth, isn’t it? And what politician worth his salt would pull back from making a statement if that could make catchy headlines and land him copious exposure in the media? Professional politicians have to earn their bread, too.

But not so according to Pakistan’s military culture. The generals, who have traditionally arrogated to themselves the sole title on Pakistan’s land and ideological frontiers, feel the ministers in power must calibrate their public pronouncements in line with them, if not seek prior clearance. They took umbrage at the stinging comments of minister of defence Khwaja Asif and railways minister Saad Rafiq. Both spoke with candour to remind any Bonaparte-in-waiting that Pakistan had come out of its “Dark Ages” and its democratic aspirations were now robust enough to call any bounty hunter’s bluff.

For the sake of argument it might be said the railways minister was, perhaps, out of his depth but was the defence minister, too, in the same boat? What good will be a defence minister if he couldn’t speak on matters of his jurisdiction?

However, GHQ thought Asif was also punching above his weight. So a warning shot came the very next day of his unguarded comments from the bow of none other than Nawaz Sharif’s hand-picked Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif. Addressing a company of the Special Services Group where Musharraf had earned his spurs as a “commando” General Sharif warned his Pakistani audience that the army knew how to defend its “honour”. The chief’s bleating was echoed the following day by a hastily summoned meeting of the corps commanders, the elite of the military brass that also expressed “deep concern” at the military’s “honour” being dragged in the dirt.

“Come on, generals,” a seasoned Pakistani knowledgeable of their military’s insatiable appetite for raw power might ask in disgust, “you should be the last to talk of honour.” “Where was that honour when 93,000 Pakistanis, bulk of them in military uniform, surrendered to the victorious Indian Army in Dhaka and became the largest body of prisoners of war?” “And what honour did you bring to Pakistan by hogging political power for the better part of its sovereign existence and making a mess of its democratic moorings and institutions?” “And what about the dignity and honour of Pakistan, its institutions of democracy and judiciary; haven’t you any regard for them, generals?” “Is there honour in subverting elected governments?”

Nawaz Sharif seemed to be hunkering down, initially, on the side of his ministers; they’ve been through so much thick and thin with him, after all, and suffered ignominy and humiliation at the hands of Musharraf and his ilk.

Nawaz got timely help aplenty from his chief political rival, Asif Zardari, when the former president flew into Islamabad in style, on board a helicopter, for a “summit” of Pakistan’s two “star politicians” in media limelight. Zardari’s spokesman later told the media their party would stand shoulder to shoulder with Nawaz if there was any threat to democracy from outside the constitution—a clear dig at the army.

The battle lines looked drawn in sand when Nawaz suddenly buckled under an intense military backlash; his brittle backbone couldn’t stand the heat generated from GHQ. In an obvious back-tracking, the defence minister—his arm twisted by his boss to make a U-turn—came out with a meek apology. His press statement of April 18 could only be sickening to any advocate of a military interference-free democratic Pakistan: “It was neither my intention nor my objective to undermine an institution…as a Pakistani I am proud of the valour and sacrifices of the men in uniform for the defence of the nation.”

The next day, Nawaz was “invited” to preside over the passing out parade of young cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. In his keynote address he paid unabashed and effusive tributes to the professionalism of General Raheel Sharif. But his body language didn’t make him look too comfortable.

Nawaz’ cameo bravado in taking on the brokers of raw power in the military has apparently not paid him dividends. What the episode—which generated so much speculation and excitement, especially among those who advocate civilian supremacy in a democratic dispensation—has rekindled is the harsh reality of Pakistan’s macabre culture of governance. The army, at its most charitable, is prepared to “tolerate” the civilians as co-equals in power-sharing but certainly not as superiors. The brass would like the democracy aficionados to gulp and digest this bitter moral without throwing it up.

However, the attempted murder in Karachi of Hamid Mir, an ace anchor of Geo Television, the same day as Nawaz was kowtowing to the military elite at Kakul adds a sinister twist to the unfolding episode. Mir became famous for a rare interview of Osama bin Laden. He’s also a bitter critic of the army’s meddling in politics and favours Musharraf’s trial for treason.

The plot has thickened because of Geo’s sensational disclosure, within hours of Mir’s attempted murder, implicating the army’s notorious spy outfit ISI in it. It said Mir had foretold his fellow scribes, family and friends after a previous abortive attempt on his life that any repeat of it will have the ISI’s fingerprints all over. He named ISI chief Lt General Zaheer-ul-Islam as the principal architect of the threat.

According to Geo, Mir had sent recorded copies of his forebodings to media outlets abroad. That raises the bar on the sordid drama. ISI may soon find itself in a lot of hot water, internationally. The generals, swayed perhaps by an extra dose of power-induced inebriation, may have bitten more than they can chew.

Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.

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