The prevailing narrative – and it’s worth finding out from where it has sprung up and how it has spread like a virus – is ‘isolation’. We are alone in the region and relations with the United States, godfather to our various elites, are frayed.
What’s responsible for this dread isolation? Our jihad predilection of course – the soft corner for all the musketeers of jihad, Hafiz Saeed, Maulana Masood Azhar, the Haqqanis et al – and who’s responsible for this fatal course? Why, the army of course, and since it is Gen Raheel Sharif leading the army the subtle message is that it all comes down to him. It really is his fault.
Most ordinary Pakistanis may look upon the general as a hero for leading from the front and being a decisive commander…rolling back the tide of radical Islamism in Fata and restoring a semblance of peace to Karachi. But circles close to the ruling party, the PML-N, are painting him – ever so subtly – as the father of isolationism.
India, with some help from the US, started the raag of cross-border terrorism after the attack on the Uri military base in Occupied Kashmir. This raag was for international consumption. But its most telling effect was on Pakistan where suddenly from different corners there arose dire cries of Pakistan’s ‘isolation’.
The truth of this isolation few people have bothered to dissect. Isolated from whom? India? It’s a laughable proposition. Afghanistan? When were we on the best of terms with that perennial battlefield of a country whose problems if America couldn’t solve Pakistan certainly can’t? We can send all our tanks and F-16s to Afghanistan but it lies not in our power to bring peace to that country. They call it ‘the graveyard of empires’. Since when did Pakistan become the custodian of such graveyards?
The US is unhappy with us not because of India or anything like the Uri attack but because of the defeat of its ambitions in Afghanistan. Is Pakistan responsible for this American failure? If it were we should be flattered but it’s not true. The Haqqanis were of course based in North Waziristan but after Zarb-e-Azb they no longer are, not that many people will believe this. More to the point, the problems of Afghanistan cannot be reduced to just the Haqqani faction. Those problems are bigger than the Haqqanis.
India is understandably angry about the Uri attack. We would be angry too if 18 of our soldiers were killed in a similar happening. But it’s also true that India’s real problem is not an isolated attack but the restive, explosive situation in Occupied Kashmir as a whole. The Kashmiris are sick and tired of Indian rule. How can Pakistan solve this problem for India? Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Masood Azhar can be transported to the Andaman Islands but angry mobs in Kashmir will still come out to protest Indian atrocities. Can Pakistan, even if it wanted to, fix this problem?
So let’s not magnify the isolationist bogey. We could improve relations with Iran, that’s for sure. But there are no peace conquests to be made with India and Afghanistan. And there’s nothing Pakistan can do at this juncture to placate our American friends. They need a scapegoat to blame for their Afghan failure and no one fits this bill better than Pakistan. So let’s not worry our heads too much about American irritation or anger. Pakistan is not a popular flavour in Washington at this time. We should be able to live with this.
So who’s peddling the line that things are going wrong on the foreign policy front and Pakistan faces isolation? Elements in the government. And because the army command is being held responsible for these failures, this tack, suddenly so pronounced, amounts to an indirect assault on the army…a chance to get back at the army command for all the acute discomfort caused to the government over the last three years by Gen Raheel Sharif’s public standing…his popular hero status. But there is also a more pragmatic angle to this line of attack.
As Gen Raheel’s retirement draws nearer, and the question of appointing his successor comes to the fore, raising an alarm over Pakistan’s purported drift towards isolationism at the army’s hands is a way for the government to claw back space and freedom to appoint its own man as the next army chief.
One Raheel Sharif has been enough for the Sharifs. They can do without another, especially when they face a serious challenge from Imran Khan, and the outlook for the next elections in 2018 has begun to weigh on their minds.
The Sharifs have won most of their other battles. The PPP, their onetime serious rival, is no longer a threat. The Supreme Court they successfully assaulted and tamed way back in 1998. Two problematic presidents they were able to see the last of, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari. The art of controlling the bureaucracy no one knows better than them. But they haven’t found a solution to two problems: 1) Imran Khan and 2) the army.
Imran, always a thorn in their side, is their biggest political threat now. The march on Islamabad set for the 30th of this month could turn into anything…we don’t know. But it would have been noticed that the government’s friends in the media sound worried, especially after Imran’s grand show of strength outside Raiwind on Sep 30. Even the ruling party’s regular fixtures, its brass band of cheerleaders, so ready to turn their guns on Imran have gone relatively quiet…all because of the Raiwind jalsa. If he could pull that one off what might he not be able to do in Islamabad? There is thus a tremor, a fear of the unknown, in the air.
And the Sharifs have not managed to appoint a loyalist with whom they could feel comfortable as army chief. This is one disappointment which rankles. So this is their last chance to fix the problem and they don’t want to get it wrong. A whispering campaign against Gen Raheel has already started and there has been news of a top-level meeting where purportedly the ISI’s jihadi policies, and their contribution to Pakistan’s purported isolation, came under harsh scrutiny.
The details of this meeting almost suggest that the army was in the dock and assuming the role of chief invigilator and inquisitor was the intrepid chief minister of Punjab.
The foreign policy debate is thus a cover and a smokescreen. Behind it is being played the game that matters for the ruling clan the most: ensuring their own man, and not Gen Raheel’s choice, in General Headquarters.
This whole question has broader implications. Once it is settled to the Sharifs’ satisfaction they would be in a better position to meet and fend off the challenge from Imran Khan. Their flanks would be covered, their confidence would revive and the Panama revelations of the ruling family’s offshore wealth would be consigned to that deep underground chamber where Pakistan’s unresolved mysteries lie buried.