A ‘damage control’ exercise

The recently released US diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks continue to haunt Pakistan. The cables were not just limited to the political leaders in the country but the military top brass was also mentioned. In one of the cables, it was said that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Kayani hinted at replacing President Asif Ali Zardari with ANP chief Asfandyar Wali while another cable said that General Kayani had learned his lesson from General (retd) Musharraf’s period. Thus instead of going for a direct coup he was doing backdoor politics. In what seems like a damage control exercise, the military is now denying all these allegations. “The army has a demonstrated policy of supporting the political process within the confines of the constitution of Pakistan,” said Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major-General Athar Abbas. Now this statement should be taken with a pinch of salt given the fact that Pakistan’s history is replete with military takeovers. That said, it cannot be denied that post-Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the establishment did not meddle in the electoral process for a change. The 2008 general elections were considerably free and fair. Once a democratically elected civilian government was in place, the military did not interfere when the political brass decided to get rid of Musharraf as the president. Despite the military’s reservations about Mr Zardari, he was elected as the president of Pakistan. General Kayani may have wanted President Zardari to step down but this never materialised. The office of the president was given due respect by the COAS, at least in public.

This government is surviving by default for a number of reasons. The military is not too fond of PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif because of his hot-headedness. The PPP-led coalition government, on the other hand, has not defied the military at any level. On the contrary, it helped create a political consensus in favour of the war on terror. Credit must be given to the government for the partially successful military operations against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan. If the political leadership had not backed the military in fighting extremism, even this partial success may not have materialised. The Americans are also partial towards this government because of the coalition’s anti-extremist agenda. During the Musharraf era, the jihadi extremists were protected by the establishment. It is because of Musharraf’s dual policies that the local Taliban and other terrorist networks were strengthened to such an extent that today they are in a position to challenge the writ of the state. For the time being, there is no other option but to let the government complete its tenure, but this does not mean that the incumbents can afford to be complacent.

In the guise of self-anointed ‘saviours’, we have seen four army chiefs ruling our country. Even when a military dictator is not in power, the security establishment calls the shots as far as the foreign and defence policies are concerned. The ISPR’s latest briefing is a reflection of the military’s embarrassment at WikiLeaks’ candid revelations. The ‘revelations’ did not surprise seasoned analysts; nevertheless the public was taken by surprise. The assurances of Major-General Athar Abbas notwithstanding, the political class cannot afford the luxury of letting its guard down. The threat of an intervention still looms large over the head of the civilians. The army may have taken a backseat for the moment but in this land of the pure, nothing can be ruled out as far as our military establishment is concerned.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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