Islamabad diary: Army chief speaks; where’s the president?

Ayaz Amir

General Ashfaq Kayani’s statement—coming not a moment too soon—to the effect that there was no agreement permitting American forces to launch attacks on Pakistani territory should have come from the government or newly-elected president, Asif Ali Zardari. But that it should come from the army chief tells us something—perhaps tells us a lot—about how the military and civilian leaderships are responding to a war dictated by American interests, or American necessity, but into which we have been sucked because we are too weak to think for ourselves.

This is not the army chief meddling in the political domain. We should be clear on this score. This is the army command trying to fill the leadership vacuum created by civilian dithering. Just consider the scorecard.

President Bush lumps Pakistan with Iraq and Afghanistan—describing them as different theatres in the same conflict—and urges Pakistan to shoulder its “responsibility” in the “war on terror”.. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, goes a step further and at a congressional hearing states that Afghanistan and Pakistan were linked in “a common insurgency”, implying that a revised strategy had to include “militant safe havens” in Pakistan.

Both Bush and Mullen are doing no more than to give verbal expression to a policy that the US is already following on the ground. In recent days US drones have attacked targets at will in our tribal areas, leading to civilian deaths and stoking widespread anger in an area where revenge is an article of faith. The assault by US special forces on a village close to the Pak-Afghan border, in which women and children were indiscriminately shot, shows the same approach to winning hearts and minds that the US has pursued in Iraq.

This is the background, the urgent background, to Kayani’s statement, the Americans bringing their war to FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and threatening to become more aggressive about it in the days ahead.. They have visited death and destruction upon Iraq and Afghanistan and now Pakistan, against its will and better judgment, is to be treated like Iraq, the vital difference being that whereas Iraq was subjected to American aggression against its will, Pakistan and its army are expected to go along with American designs regardless of the consequences.

Even as he stepped into the presidency, President Zardari could have tried to dispel the impression that Pakistan’s tribal areas were about to become a happy hunting ground of US special forces. What he did instead was to invite Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the chief guest at his inaugural ceremony…Karzai who in his own country is considered little better than an American stooge. At a joint press conference (what need was there for one?) both impresarios sang the same tune on “terrorism”. Is Karzai to be Zardari’s role model now? Heaven help us.

At the press conference Zardari said something about Kashmir, that in a month’s time there would be some “good news” about it. What world does he live in? Is India about to come up with a startling initiative? People in the Kashmir Valley have risen up against Indian rule in the strongest demonstration of Kashmiri anger and discontent since the uprising of 1989, but so low have our fortunes sunk and so lost is Pakistan’s leadership that not a word has been said in support of the Kashmiri people or against Indian repression. And Zardari expects good news on Kashmir in a month’s time.

Not even those singing Zardari’s praises, and there is a whole enlisted army of them out there, expected him to be an instant international statesman. But he could have saved himself and Pakistan, whose chief spokesman he now is, the embarrassment of (1) inviting Karzai and giving him the opportunity of sounding patronising about our resurgent democracy and (2) floating that empty balloon about Kashmir. Are these the lessons in diplomacy he has received from Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s UN ambassador? If Zalmay, an ethnic Afghan, and neo-conservative warriors like him are to be Pakistan’s friends, we don’t need any enemies.

A mug shot of President Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the Foreign Office says it all. Gillani looks reasonably relaxed but Qureshi is ill at ease while the president seems to be in the throes of the acutest discomfort. Was the briefing not up to the mark or was the president out of his depth? Some explanation would help.

“Democracy is the best revenge” is the war cry of the Zardari-led PPP. If the leadership on display be part of the fruits of democracy the nation is entitled to bow low at the altar of democracy and beg that its revenge take a slightly different form.

We should not lose sight of some ground realities. Zardari stands indebted to the Bush administration for the help he has received from it, and without which he wouldn’t be where he is. Zardari’s being sprung from prison and allowed to go abroad by Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, Musharraf being made to take off his uniform, the ending of all corruption cases (real or alleged is beside the point) against the couple, the holding of elections and the pressure on Musharraf to ensure that the elections were not rigged, were all elements of the deal brokered by the Americans.

With Musharraf’s resignation and Zardari’s election as president Pakistan’s return to democracy, or at least the forms of democracy, is complete. But let us be under no illusion as to how this has come about. The people made the best of the opportunity presented to them. But the opportunity itself was created by a combination of factors: the lawyers’ movement which weakened Musharraf by eroding his authority, and the nudging from America which led Musharraf to concede ground to political figures he had earlier reviled.

Zardari plainly feels himself under no obligation to the lawyers’ movement. But everything about him suggests that he feels indebted to his American friends/patrons. Let him by all means discharge this debt and show gratitude where he must. But not, if he can help it, at the expense of the Pakistani nation.

Karzai may be some kind of a figure to look up to for Zardari. Most Pakistanis don’t think much of him. President Bush has lost his domestic audience as far as Iraq is concerned. We shouldn’t be taking his prescriptions as the gospel truth. How does Pakistan deserve being seen together with Iraq. And if it is, does it not follow that what was good for Iraq is good for Pakistan?

We are caught in a war. No doubt about it. Al Qaeda has no business holing up in FATA and if elements of it are there, for our own sake rather than America’s we should be thinking of ways and means to get them out. But we should do this on our own and not by looking at the problem through American eyes. Let us remember de Gaulle’s warning about America’s talent in the foreign policy sphere: “You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that our beyond imagination.”

The Bush administration has not been good for the US. Its policies, rather than anything Osama bin Laden could have contrived, have made the world a more dangerous place. Afghanistan was attacked to eliminate Al Qaeda. The threat of WMD (anyone remember them now?) was cooked up to justify the invasion of Iraq. America is bogged down in both countries. The threat posed by Al Qaeda looms larger than before. Desperate to somehow find a way out of this mess, the Bush administration in its dying days wants to expand the theatre of conflict—more like a theatre of disaster—by drawing Pakistan into its ambit. We are already in this conflict, our army and paramilitary units taking severe casualties, but America’s war captains are not satisfied. They would like to see Pakistan bleed more, and its army bogged down more in FATA than it is, to be convinced that Pakistan is “doing more”..

Zardari should be getting all concerned on board and calibrating a Pakistani response to this American pressure. He needs to be seen as his own man and a guardian of Pakistani interests. The impression he’s giving—and admittedly these are early days for him as president—is of being an American apologist. That is not what the nation needs or what it expects of him.


Source: The News, 12/9/2008

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