Asking for trouble?

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It’s better to engage than to confront

 

George Bernard Shaw famously said: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

Thanks to recent intemperate statements – more akin to the Punjabi bharrak than civilised discourse of the two federal minister Khawajas, Mohammad Asif and Saad Rafiq, the myth of the harmony between army and the civilian leadership has finally exploded. The normally reticent COAS Gen Raheel Sharif spoke through an ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) press release. His salvo: the army will resolutely preserve its dignity and pride.

In the backdrop of tenuous relations that Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and even in the opposition has enjoyed with successive military chiefs, it was expected that this time round caution would not be thrown to the winds. But, alas, those who staunchly refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Khawaja Asif as defence minister should have been doubly careful in his utterances. In an obvious attempt at damage control while speaking in the same talk show in which he had lambasted Musharraf – and the army in the process a few days back – he clarified that his remarks were solely meant for Musharraf.

The Khawaja, who rightly prides himself over his democratic credentials, also maintained in the same programme that his utterances were his own and not made on behalf of the prime minister. He also lamented the fact that his speech in the parliament pillorying the army now gone viral on social media was actually made back in 2006.

Khawaja Asif’s statement betrays a mindset held by a vast swathe of public opinion that meddlesome generals have destroyed democratic institutions in the country. The military also shares the blame for turning Pakistan into a national security state. Gen Ziaul Haq’s nexus with the mullahs in order to self-perpetuate in the name of Islam and his successor generals using jihadists as the military’s cat’s paw is history that cannot be denied.

If Nawaz Sharif wants to last his full term without unnecessary hiccups, he and his associates should display restraint in dealing with the army. Gen Raheel Sharif is hopefully a break from the past. He is neither laidback like Kayani nor reckless like Musharraf. It is better for all to engage, rather than to confront him.

In that sense, the responsibility for the present scourge of terrorism is lies more on the door of the military than civilian leadership.

Nevertheless a defence minister should be more careful about the institution he technically heads. Rather than washing of dirty linen in public, now is the time to put up a united civilian and military front in the face of various existential threats to Pakistan and the fast changing regional scenario.

If ever there was a time to move on, this is it. South Africa under Nelson Mandela could work together with erstwhile white supremacists. Or closer at home, if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s widow Nusrat Bhutto could drink the poisoned chalice by forming an alliance for restoration of democracy with those who had collaborated with Zia to hang her husband, why Sharif and his cohorts cannot move on?

Nawaz Sharif is undeniably a protégé of dictator Zia. The ruthless dictator’s lieutenant general Ghulam Jillani literally nurtured him, first to become the finance minister and later chief minister of Punjab.

Of course, Sharif has now evolved to become a born-again democrat. But he heads a Punjab based party with central Punjab being its core stronghold. Hence he must be aware that public criticism of the army pinches the rank and file where it really hurts.

The military’s present differences with the civilian leadership are perceived to be on two fronts. Although treatment meted out to former military chief and dictator Pervez Musharraf is cited as the major bone of contention. However a bigger issue with potentially long term ramifications is the so-called peace process with the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).

It has become a one-way street in which interior minister Ch Nisar Ali and his cahoots have embarked upon a policy of capitulation and appeasement in the name of peace. The peaceniks obviously have the blessings of Sharif, who seems to be sold out on the idea of keeping Punjab, the rump of his support base free of terror. Of course, he has the support of Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and the religious right in his quixotic endeavour.

The military lost more than 5,000 thousand men in the war against terror, and under the leadership of Raheel it sees things differently. Unlike his predecessor, who was loath to upset the apple cart while enjoying the three-year extended tenure, Raheel launched a decisive military operation against the terrorists holed up in North Waziristan.

If Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s widow Nusrat Bhutto could drink the poisoned chalice by forming an alliance for restoration of democracy with those who had collaborated with Zia to hang her husband, why Sharif and his cohorts cannot move on?

However, adept at disengaging when the going gets tough, as the hitherto recalcitrant Taliban opted to come to the negotiating table with indecent haste, Raheel’s military action in the badlands was nipped in the bud.

But it is obvious that the TTP want peace on their terms. Its multifarious demands include peace corridors, withdrawal of security forces from N. Waziristan and release of prisoners. All of the above relate to the military directly.

Even in an established democracy with firm civilian control over the armed forces, the military will be part of the consultative process on such existential issues. But more so in the case of Pakistan where the military has been traditionally calling the shots even in areas way out of its ambit.

Hence such unilateral decisions, like the recent release of 19 so-called non-combatant Taliban prisoners, was bound to raise the khakis’ hackles.

During the now expired 40-day ceasefire devastating terrorist incidents took place, two of them right in the capital. Obviously the interior minister who had brazenly claimed that Islamabad was terror free, courtesy his own efforts has been left with a lot of egg on his face.

In all fairness in a decent democracy with a modicum of accountability, he should have at least offered to resign. But who cares in the Isalmic Republic?

The stated irritant – Musharraf’s trial for high treason – has also ruffled feathers at the GHQ. It is alleged that the former dictator presented himself in front of the special court as a part of a deal but the government reneged on it.

Publicly gloating over Musharraf’s fate was tantamount to rubbing salt in the wounds of the military rank and file. Speaking to the Special Services Group (SSG) commandos at the Ghazi Base near Tarbela, former home of Musharraf as SSG commando, the army chief reportedly faced harsh questions on the issue. Nonetheless making public his response through an ISPR presser was his decision alone.

A message to the civilian leadership has been deliberately driven home. It would, of course, have been better if these concerns had been privately aired between the two Sharifs. Perhaps that was done, too. But knowing Nawaz Sharif’s penchant for dominance, it obviously did not work.

Tenuous and fast changing internal and regional situation demands that the country should put up a united front. But realities on the ground tell a different story.

Ironically the liberal and centrist parties favour dealing a tough hand to the TTP and oppose the government and religious rights’ policy of appeasement. Their narrative is closer to that of the ubiquitous establishment.

Not only the civilian and military leadership’s difference have surfaced, political parties are also divided on how to deal with terrorism. Ironically the liberal and centrist parties favour dealing a tough hand to the TTP and oppose the government and religious rights’ policy of appeasement. Their narrative is closer to that of the ubiquitous establishment.

In the wake of the present mess hopefully better sense will prevail in the ruling party circles. Notwithstanding the treatment meted out to Nawaz and company after Musharraf ousted his government in October 1999, now is the time to move on.

The former dictator has been indicted – a first in Pakistan’s history. Once the legal process is over, the parliament would decide his ultimate fate. Heavens will not fall if he is allowed to travel broad on whatever pretext.

Similarly, if Nawaz Sharif wants to last his full term without unnecessary hiccups, he and his associates should display restraint in dealing with the army. Gen Raheel Sharif is hopefully a break from the past. He is neither laidback like Kayani nor reckless like Musharraf. It is better for all to engage, rather than to confront him.

1 COMMENT

  1. nice column but lesson fr pm shareef & also military.no doubt khawaja,s r democratic but must watch history.

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