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Democracy under a cloud- Ayaz Amir

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Pakistan’s American relationship will surely survive the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) but Pakistani democracy –the post Feb 2008 phase of it–may not. One of the stated, indeed touted, aims of this bill is to strengthen democratic institutions. The way it is turning out, the KLB –or rather the manner of its handling by our diplomatic and political wizards –may well be the demolition explosive which brings the house of democracy (our perennial house of cards) down. Think again of the law of unintended consequences.

To be fair to the KLB, it isn’t the sole or primary cause of tensions between the Presidency and General Headquarters (GHQ). These tensions predate this controversy and centre on a growing level of mistrust between these two centres of power. But the KLB has brought this mistrust into the open. Pretence has vanished and good manners too are falling by the wayside –if there is any truth to the report that Interior Minister Rehman Malik received a cold shoulder when he went to place a wreath at GHQ (for the dead in the GHQ attack).

Are the knives out completely? Is another night of the long boots at hand? This is pretty melodramatic stuff and we may not be at that stage yet because, with Pakistan engaged so closely with the US in its Taliban wars, it may not quite be the season of unilateral decision-making (also translatable as unilateral adventures). But the signs are ominous and Islamabad’s atmosphere is once more heavy with foreboding. The faces of those who matter –or those in the know of such things –are getting noticeably longer.

The Joint Explanatory Statement read out by Senator Kerry with our increasingly quixotic foreign minister in attendance alters nothing. It is merely an explanation of provisions in the bill and, in legal terms, worth less than a statement on a Rs20 stamped paper from the District Courts, Islamabad.

Why is the foreign minister so in awe of his American interlocutors? When the KLB was first passed he hailed it as an historic achievement. If only he had checked the temperature in Islamabad he might have saved himself this misplaced bravado. Once again he is pushing his luck by declaring that the Explanatory Statement was “historic”. Israel is America’s closest ally. No Israeli official behaves like this in Washington.

Of course, if we are looking for a face-saving formula, and provided everyone is on board, including the praetorian element in GHQ, we can paint this as a huge concession–which it is not–and raise a joint toast of acceptance to the KLB. But this wouldn’t square with the current mood in GHQ which, if journalist friends in touch with the army are to be believed, is about as dark as ever. The army in one of its super-patriotic moments: it is no laughing matter.

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. I may have splashed too much colour on the canvas. But this should take away nothing from the fact that things are grim and could get worse if the political class doesn’t wake up and arrest the slide.

What is GHQ’s major grouse against the Presidency? Nothing more damning than the perception that it has a one-on-one relationship with the Americans above and beyond the usual channels of engagement and communication. Singled out on our side as the key players in this relationship are two figures: our man (or suspect, depending on one’s taste) in Washington and my friend Herr Rehman Malik in the interior ministry. In the praetorian mind the emotion they arouse the most is suspicion touched with anger.

And why is this out-of-the-loop American connection so worrisome for the guardians more of our ideological than geographical frontiers (for their success in guarding geography has been less than impeccable over the years)? Judging by the buzz emanating from army-savvy media conquistadores, the army high command is worried about two things above all: the CIA’s expanding footprint in Pakistan–too many Americans going about business that few people seem to have any clear idea of–and the threat that this may pose to our nuclear programme.

From this it would seem that the army’s real objection to the KLB relates not so much to such high-sounding concepts as honour, national dignity and inviolate sovereignty as to the fear that the KLB will provide an enabling environment for the CIA to further expand its presence in Pakistan, thereby posing a greater threat to our nuke arsenal.

The irony couldn’t be richer. The world in its more paranoid moments thinks Pakistan’s nukes could fall into the hands of the Taliban. The Pakistan army thinks that if there is a threat to our nukes it comes principally from the knights of Langley.

At the heart of army angst lies another sliver of suspicion. All previous aid programmes from the US were the property of military regimes: Ayub, Zia, Musharraf. This one is painted for the most part in civilian camouflage and the army doesn’t trust the civilians in charge.

Musharraf opened the floodgates to American intrusion and interference. It is only now we are getting to know some of the concessions he gave the Americans, unchecked entry through our airports being one such concession amidst a host of others. The CIA station in Islamabad is amongst the biggest CIA centres in the world. To honour one of its greatest facilitators it should raise a statue to Musharraf in its courtyard.

To think that the army endured Musharraf for eight and a half years but its cup of patience vis-à-vis Zardari is spilling over after only a year and a half. Obviously, different standards are at work in GHQ when it comes to evaluating threats to national security: when a military strongman is in the seat of power and when it is democracy’s turn to enter the well of death (maut ka koonwan).

And the catalyst of all this, the thing which has brought army suspicions to the boil, is the KLB. Senator Kerry may not be remembered for anything else but he might command a footnote in history as the unwitting layer of the minefield which brought grief to Pakistani democracy once again. This was a land always dedicated to intrigue and cynicism. Now in its list of dedications must also be included irony.

Does the army have any right to monitor the political horizon? Of course not. Politics and governance are not its province. But since when did a verbal position, or constitutional niceties, stand in the way of 111 Brigade, for much of Pakistan’s history its highest judicial forum? The constitution was no bar to Zia’s generals when they overthrew an elected government and seized power. It did not stand in the way of Musharraf’s generals when they deposed another elected government. Article Six of the constitution, which prescribes the death penalty for subversion of the constitution, will remain a fantasy –a daydream to beguile Pakistani minds –if democracy is not backed and buttressed by superior political performance. If generals could be kept in check by sermons we would all be riding the finest race horses.

Zardari is an elected president –there can be no quarrel with this. But his performance or, more accurately, his inadequacy is hastening the demise of democracy. If he is to survive, and Pakistan’s fledgling democracy is not to collapse, some of the political baggage he carries will probably have to be discarded. The clouds on the horizon, if not the gods, are demanding a sacrifice and to appease them some heads may have to roll.

This is not a happy prospect, for after the Feb 2008 elections we had convinced ourselves that democracy was secured and the era of Westridge interventions (where 111 Brigade is stationed) was forever over. The more things change … the more they add to the sum of Pakistani cynicism.

The fresh wave of terrorist attacks –from the audacious assault on GHQ to the coordinated multiple attacks on police centres in Lahore –is adding a further note of grimness to an already dark situation. For these attacks could be cited as justification for wrapping up the civilian order and taking on the Taliban under a ‘unified chain of command’. We had a unified chain of command under Musharraf and look where it took us.

Anyway, the horses are out and, to echo Ghalib, there is no hand on the reins and no foot in the stirrups. And even Ghalib had no idea where the galloping steed would come to rest.


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