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It’s now or never

Any new Govt which emerges from today’s election that wants to win the battle against extremism must distance itself from US if it is to carry credibility with the people of Pakistan, writes Amit Baruah.
By Amit Baruah | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 17, 2008 10:35 PM IST

This crisis is not just going to blow over. Today’s lacklustre democratic exercise in Pakistan, welcome as it is, can only be part of a larger effort to correct the trajectory of this country of 170 million people.

Pakistan, as pundits and non-pundits never tire of saying, is run by the three ‘As’ — Allah, Army and America. For my argument, the first ‘A’ can be left out of the equation. But the other two ‘As’ are critical to what happens next in Pakistan.

Let’s begin with the army. As things stand, the army and President Pervez Musharraf, till very recently General, are part of the problem, not the solution. Whether it is Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf, all military leaders have failed Pakistan and its people.

Even when civilian prime ministers have been in the saddle, the army, along with a pliant civil bureaucracy, has been in command. For long, it has justified itself as the arbiter of Pakistan’s destiny and sentinel of its nationhood.

After 1971, the army was able to re-invent itself — projecting itself as the bulwark against an expansionist and hegemonic India. But, today, it’s all beginning to unravel. The ‘jehadi blowback’ is there for all to see and the political dangers in the country all too evident.

The growth of the extremist cancer reflected in the carnage of policemen in picturesque Lahore, the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto and the death of hundreds of innocents in suicide attacks and bombings can be traced to the 1980s Pakistani-American jehad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The unbecoming spectacle of soldiers ‘surrendering’ to the jehadis in the Pakistan-Afghan border belt is a sign that despite the use of helicopter gunships and absence of human rights pressures, the army has been unable to deliver stability.

In the six-and-a-half years after Pakistan became a ‘frontline ally’ in the so-called war against terrorism, Musharraf’s projected moderate Islamic State has actually become a very extremist nation.

Conveniently, Musharraf has shed his uniform and, the army establishment may, in the future, lay the blame for the period October 1999 to February 2008 at his door, absolving the institution of failure. But that’s not going to cut much ice.

Pakistan is today a far more unsafe and unstable nation than it was when 9/11 happened. The American attack on Afghanistan temporarily dislocated the al-Qaeda and Taliban elements from their safe haven. Soon enough, they realised that Pakistan was a better base to operate from.

To please the Americans, the Pakistani military did apprehend some top al-Qaeda leaders. Indeed, it appeared, that each time the US made some noises about Pakistan being a sanctuary for the Qaeda, a ‘senior militant’ would be pulled out and handed over.

At the same time, the al-Qaeda and Taliban turned their attention to launching major attacks in Pakistan, including on General Musharraf (twice) in December 2003 and then again on Karachi corps commander Ahsan Saleem Hayat in June 2004.

If I am getting ahead of my story, there’s a good reason. The other ‘A’ — America — has an umbilical link with the army. Both have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with one feeding on the other.

Make no mistake about it. If it was Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, it was Musharraf in 1999, the ‘crisis’ is always so serious that the military is important without which American and Pakistani interests would simply collapse.

On January 18, 1980, Zia famously described a $ 400 million offer of aid to take on the infidel Soviets, when the word ‘jehad’ was given an outright military meaning in a modern context, as ‘peanuts’. Later, he was to accept $ 3.2 billion from President Ronald Reagan. It was not as if the Islamist Zia had no choice. He did. Zia could have said no. That General could have saved Pakistan from becoming what it has become today.

Even as he became an American darling, Zia proved to be Pakistan’s most cruel of dictators, stamping out institutions, political parties and individuals who threatened him. As one Pakistani analyst put it recently, it is Zia’s legacy, not that of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, that has proved to be the most enduring one.

The gains made by Pakistani civil society in ensuring a quasi-democratic system after Zia were diluted when Musharraf was able to first rule directly for three years after 1999, and then through proxy PMs like Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and then Shaukat Aziz.

Today Pakistan and Pakistanis have yet another shot at running their country according to the Constitution. But the ballot is in grave danger, yet again, of being manipulated to fit entrenched interests.

Apart from a free-and-fair election, some other steps are required to turn Pakistan into a functioning democracy. The state-within-the-State must be ended once for all: power must be returned from the khaki-clad and the intelligence agencies to Parliament and the judiciary.

For this to happen, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate must be disbanded: surgically removed from politics and governance. The Military Intelligence (MI) must confine itself to staff concerns. Pakistan, like other States, must have an intelligence agency, but it must be created, run and report to only civilian masters.

To do all this, you need an elected government, an effective Parliament, an independent judiciary, a relatively withdrawn military and relief from day-to-day American intervention in the politics of Pakistan.

A tall order? It is. But if Pakistanis are to live in peace, security and stability, all these are bare essentials. Let’s hope that President Musharraf sees a vote in favour of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (N) as a vote of no-confidence and bows out of the country’s politics.

At the same time, let’s hope that General Ashfaq Kayani turns out to be a Jehangir Karamat (Musharraf’s predecessor as army chief, who was sacked by PM Nawaz Sharif) and allows a civilian government to function. Let’s also hope that a new PM and Kayani are able to come to a working arrangement, where one respects the role of the other.

If the military’s role in Pakistan’s politics is to be institutionalised, with primacy being given to the civilian element, so be it. Pakistan may be the better off for it.

Post-Benazir Bhutto, let’s also hope that Asif Ali Zardari is able to keep the People’s Party — the one national party in Pakistan not created by the khakis — together. Some Pakistanis believe that a post-election break-up is a real possibility.

Finally, any new government which emerges from today’s election that wants to win the battle against extremism must distance itself from Washington if it is to carry credibility with the people of Pakistan. A civilian government will need the army as the security element in taking on the jehadis.

Once and for all, Pakistan must move away from semi-client status vis-à-vis the United States of America. Pakistan’s warped polity will take years to correct itself — one can only pray that February 18 will throw up the instruments to do so.

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