Lull before the storm | Abbas Nasir


A STAND-OFF over the appointment of a new head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate between the two main components of the incumbent hybrid system is continuing and the atmosphere appears so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife.

The impasse was triggered by the Oct 6 announcement by the ISPR that the current Director-General of the ISI Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed was being posted as Corps Commander XI Corps (Peshawar) and would be replaced by Lt-Gen Nadeem Anjum currently Corps Commander V Corps (Karachi).

What was seen as a formality and a routine announcement, after necessary consultation between the relevant stakeholders, turned out to be something much more complex and has clearly become a bone of contention between the major power wielders/players. And mind games are being played.

Read: What is the process of appointing Pakistan’s spymaster?

It does not take rocket science to figure out why each of the two sides is taking the stand it is but the resultant mess is clearly not good for the fragile economy and will most likely spell the end of the hybrid power-sharing arrangement which was so meticulously put in place a mere three years ago.

The horse they bet on to romp home a winner turned out unfocused and generally disinterested.

It is clear that the hybrid performance over the past three years has mostly resembled a train wreck and now that the continued devaluation and the consequent inflation have eroded the common man’s ability to even have one, what to talk of two square meals a day, public anger is mounting.

This has forced a rethink among the key architects of the system as things have not gone according to plan. The horse they bet on to romp home a winner with a flourish turned out lame, unfocused and generally disinterested in anything concrete save for flitting from one vague idea to another.

Not just this. As it happens in such cases with most desperate aspirants to high office, and more so incumbents, when their mindless actions rock the boat, they resort to invoking faith to use as a crutch rather than look for performance and good governance oars to steer them to safety, away from troubled waters.

If incompetence in office — which could not have been washed away with mere slogans, empty from start to finish — was all that the architects had to contend with, it would have been bad enough. The ineptitude was accompanied by a vicious witch-hunt where political opponents were hounded and hunted with inexplicable ferocity.

A lot of this ‘retributive politics’ was obviously done using the arsenal of the entire hybrid set-up as such brutal power could rarely have been in the gift of the junior partner in the system. Now that three years of a bad joke seems just about the most people could take, and with a backlash starting, there seems a move towards neutrality in order to cut losses.

And that is what has led to the stand-off. Everyone knows the most likely outcome of the senior partner opting for neutrality: the hybrid marriage on the rocks. Understandably, considerable anxiety is being caused.

Therefore, there is reluctance on one side to let go of one of the past guarantors of support and longevity. Somehow it is being felt that salvation does not lie in delivery or upping the game but by hanging on to that individual’s coattails, in manoeuvring for room to move pieces on the institutional chessboard, in order to retain that support.

When survival and self-interest become the prime motivators it is difficult to gain so much space from an institution that has its own dynamics. Foot-dragging might prolong the crisis and is unlikely to deliver the hearty, healthy dividend that is being sought. Learning to live with a little neutrality would be better.

Left to fend for themselves on the media in the quasi-neutrality (trial) period, the junior partner’s spin doctors have lost whatever little subtlety they might have had and are now reduced to raving and frothing at the mouth ie demonstrably in self-destruct mode.

Instead of attacking everyone they don’t agree with and questioning independent journalists’ integrity and motives, they’d be well-advised to pay attention to those who sustain them in power via their votes in parliament.

Yes, Friday night’s few clips on Twitter from Shahzeb Khanzada interviewing Senator Kamil Agha of the PML-Q and Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui of the MQM on his Geo programme were tell-tale. Kamil Agha described the DG ISI ‘controversy unnecessary and ill-advised’ as it had caused fissures in the set-up.

Elaborating, he said his leadership believed that the ‘one-page’ was better for Pakistan’s national security, economy and stability but that had been disturbed now. He was also critical of the government, which his pro-establishment party has resolutely supported for three years, saying it lacked direction.

Asked if his party and leaders offered counsel to the government, he said they were either not consulted or, when they were, their views and suggestions were not accommodated or implemented. He called for the immediate resolution of the DG ISI issue.

For his part, Mr Siddiqui also said he was sure that the DG ISI appointment issue would have adversely affected the harmony between the government and the military: He added his party would chart a future course of action after being dissatisfied with the government’s performance.

The stance of the PML-Q and MQM is not without serious implications for the PTI government as their support enables the governing party to enjoy a majority in the National Assembly. And it rules Punjab with PML-Q backing. As we speak, the strings of both can be pulled from elsewhere.

One can be sure the prime minister is aware of this. He can’t be playing such high-stakes poker without holding some significant cards close to his chest. Let’s see when he chooses to show his hand and then if it is good enough to keep him in the game.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2021