The military establishment continues to hog the news, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. True, it is a central actor in the unfolding script of a newly democratic nation state and must have a place at the table. But no less true is the requirement for a discreet and noncontroversial role to anchor the country rather than a bristling, self-righteous and destabilizing one. Consider the record of the last decade or so.
Shortly after the PPP regime came into office in 2008, the US government passed the Kerry Lugar bill to assist Pakistan financially on the condition that it remained firmly on the democratic path without undue military interference. Within no time, however, the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmud Qureshi, was lambasted for enabling such conditions and packed off to Washington to dilute the clause in an appropriate addendum. Shortly thereafter, President Asif Zardari tried to mend fences with India by offering to sign a no-first strike treaty, only to be rebuffed dramatically by a terrorist strike in Mumbai whose footprints were traced back to Pakistan. The Mumbai terror attack put paid to any talk of peace. Memogate followed when Mr Zardari’s confidante and Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, was hounded out of office for allegedly endangering “national security”. Mr Zardari became a nervous wreck and was hospitalized in the UAE. If the Raymond Davis affair of 2011 estranged the US administration from the Zardari government, the Salala-provoked blockade of NATO transit facilities ruptured it altogether. The PPP government bought a reprieve by extending the term of the ISI chief, Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and gave a full second term to the army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Despite these sacrificial offerings, however, the PPP lost one prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gilani, and the second, Raja Ashraf Pervez, was barely saved by the bell tolling new elections.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has fared no better. His vision to build peace in the region in order to focus on economic development and public welfare has been thwarted from Day One. A dubious policy of good Taliban/bad Taliban viz Kabul and proxy warring with India has kept both neighbours alienated and hostile. Meanwhile, any hope that the arrival of General Raheel Sharif, ostensibly an apolitical officer, in 2013, would usher in a period of relative calm was quickly dissipated by the “third-umpire” instigated dharnas of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri. The price for denying an extension in service to General Sharif was high – Dawnleaks was billed as treasonable and cost the PMLN Information Minister, Pervez Rashid, his job.
The PM’s selection of General Qamar Bajwa as COAS has not been without its hiccups, even though it is in line with past practice. First, an unsavoury campaign was launched alleging that he had Ahmedi links or leanings. This was done in order to dissuade the PM from selecting him. Then, when the deed was done, and the COAS indicated a reluctance to follow the interventionist policies of his predecessors, a report was leaked to The Times of London alleging junior officer pressure on him not to tow the elected government’s line. No one cared to remind anyone that if Dawnleaks was a blot on the civilians that entailed an inquiry and censure for undermining national security, TheTimesleak was no less an attempt to undermine the authority of the army chief by sowing discord in the ranks. But, clearly, what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander and the conspirators behind the Ahmedi campaign and TheTimesleak against the army chief go scot free, suggesting that the remnants of the ancien regimes are alive and kicking even in retirement or on transfer.
Now we hear that General Raheel Sharif has landed himself a highly lucrative job with the Saudis, heading an alliance of sectarian Sunni states aligned against Shia Iran and Iraq and Houthi-Yemen and Alawi-Syria. Given Pakistan’s national security interests, this is as objectionable as the practice of a couple of ex-DGs-ISI securing themselves similarly profitable jobs as advisers to the UAE government or a couple of ex-army chiefs enjoying financial benefits from the Saudis. The point is that when civilian leaders seek help in London, the UAE or Jeddah, they are berated and hounded, but when their military counterparts do the same they are not even mentioned.
General Bajwa is now in the spotlight because half a dozen web-bloggers have “disappeared” on his watch and the common perception is that secret agencies under his command have something to do with it because the bloggers were indulging in some rhetorical criticism of the military’s political role in Pakistan. The civilian government is seemingly helpless in this matter because irresponsible criticism or abuse of the armed forces is constitutionally banned. But so is hate speech and incitement to violence against them by supporters of those who have “disappeared” them.
Surely, what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander too.