In Pakistan, history may not even rhyme, let alone repeat

December 24, 2011

In his book, Between Mosque and Military, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani wrote of how military coups in the past were carefully planned, yet carried out in such a way as to give the appearance of being a spontaneous reaction to an emergency.

“The Pakistan military always insists on an immediate provocation as the trigger of its coups,” wrote Haqqani, who was forced to quit last month after being accused of involvement in a memo seeking American help to rein in the army, an allegation he denies.  “The army’s ability to swiftly execute a military takeover within hours of a supposed provocation is often attributed to its having contingency plans for such occasions. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals a pattern of careful prior planning, including disorder in the streets orchestrated with the help of the reliable street power of Islamist political parties.”

No one in Pakistan is expecting an outright military takeover – the army has specifically denied it. But that ghost of coups past is haunting Pakistan in its latest political crisis, one which could ultimately force out the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

First of all, the signs pointing towards a civilian-military confrontation have been there for months – before the scandal over the alleged memo. The U.S. humiliation of the Pakistan Army in the May 2 raid which killed Osama bin Laden, and subsequent attempt to corner it over its alleged support for Afghan militants, put the military’s back against the wall in a way not seen its disastrous Kargil war of 1999. That conflict led to the ouster of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup.

Secondly. the economy is in a mess, governance has ground to a halt, and the politicians are bickering, just as they did in the 1990s. To a military mind, that is no way to run a country, and especially not a country which the army – the ultimate arbiter of national security – sometimes finds hard to distinguish from itself.

And thirdly, the army has had plenty of time to make careful preparations, if indeed it were to choose to move against the government.  Its grumbling against Zardari and his alleged corruption has been an open secret for years – rising most noticeably to the surface after the president left the country to visit France and Britain during the devastating floods in the summer of 2010.

It was around that time that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was first cited as an alternative. Here was a man untainted by corruption allegations, whose views broadly match those of the army, and who might be groomed by what Pakistanis call “the establishment” to rise from his position as a virtual nonentity in politics to become strong enough to challenge the existing political parties.

Though he denies taking support from the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) is now on the rise. It plans a big Christmas Day rally in Karachi after bringing out tens of thousands in support in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, in October. (At the crudest formulation of Pakistan’s conspiracy theories, the military – aided by the judiciary – would drive the PPP-led government out of office, force elections earlier than the currently scheduled 2013, and install their own man at the head of government.) 

Then to complete the parallels with the 1990s, the Islamist parties – including the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba – have been out in force, holding in Lahore this month what the Express Tribune called “the biggest Wahhabi-Deobandi gathering seen in a long while”.

Yet for all the many parallels with the 1990s, history does not repeat itself. Even even the adage that “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme” does not necessarily apply. In Pakistan, it jars.

This is not the 1990s, when then army head General Pervez Musharraf could launch a military coup in 1999 and keep the Punjabi urban middle classes who dominate Pakistan’s political discourse sweet with economic growth.  Now, in the midst of a global economic crisis and with regional security threatened by the Afghan war, any new government installed through forced early elections would quickly become unpopular through its inability to deliver.  So why rush at it, when the PPP-led government is currently taking all of the heat for Pakistan’s many problems?

Or as columnist Ejaz Haider wrote in reference both to the so-called Memogate scandal and Imran Khan’s argument that his political party is gaining the force of a tsunami, “Let’s also assume the army manages to get rid of the current government by acting as a force-multiplier in combination with sections of the media, the judiciary and the political ‘tsunami’ that’s about to engulf Pakistan. Would the structural problems that keep begetting us these crises disappear?
The answer to these and many more questions is a big no.”

Unlike the 1990s, Pakistan’s chaotic media is far more outspoken now. Nobody can claim they don’t know what may be happening behind the scenes. The  army has been forced to issue two public statements about its intentions - first denying allegations that ISI chief  Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha sought support from Gulf Arab leaders to launch a coup after bin Laden was killed, and then stating that it is not planning to take over. Every word of those statements is parsed and debated on Twitter within hours, or even minutes, of their release.

And while the Urdu-language media is accused of supporting the military, the English-language newspapers have been forthright in their insistence that the democratic process must be respected, whatever their views of the government and president currently in office. ”The army has to remember this: a real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works,” wrote Mehreen Zahra-Malik in The News. “Back off boys!” 

Meanwhile, pause to consider the internal situation of the army itself.  For all that it remains a professional and disciplined army, that has not stopped mururs  of discontent about a decision to award an extension to army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in his term of office to 2013.  Whatever course of action he takes, he must balance the need to keep troop morale high (in the face of criticism both domestically and from the United States) while allaying any suspicions among those seeking to rise up the ranks that he might be tempted to dig in beyond 2013.   Nearer term, are questions over the future of the Director-General of the ISI (DG-ISI), Pasha, whose extension to his own term of office expires in March.

“The military itself isn’t without its own set of contradictions,” wrote Najam Sethi in The Friday Times. ”The COAS (Kayani) and DG-ISI are both on extensions that remain the subject of disapproval within the rank and file. On top of that, both generals have been found wanting in defending the sovereignty of their own military spaces from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well as those of the country from the Americans. ”

As if all that is not complicated enough, the very structure of Pakistani society does not lend itself to simple solutions.  The ethnic diversity which prompted Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, to pull away violently in a civil war in 1971, continues to plague the country with Baluch, Pashtun, Sindhis and even the Seraikis of southern Punjab resenting the traditional dominance of Pakistan’s northern Punjab heartland.

On top of that, the tensions over the balance of power between urban versus rural populations which were settled in 19th century Europe by industrialisation and urbanisation have yet to be resolved in South Asia – an oft-0verlooked dynamic true of both India and Pakistan. With the voter majority still in the countryside, no political party can easily escape the need to build up feudal patronage networks, usually financed by corruption, in order to win enough seats in parliament.      

(As writer and columnist Ayesha Siddiqa has discussed in detail, the urban middle classes in Pakistan should not be confused with those who forced through progressive policies in 19th century Europe – having grown rich during past periods of military rule, they tend to be more conservative and more inclined to sympathise with Islamists.  For a historical view of how tensions between urban and rural voters, and between provincial demands and centralising authority, play out in the civilian-military imbalance in Pakistan, read Nadeem Paracha at Dawn.) 

So given all these complications, how do the various players respond? 

The army, logically, should bide its time. In its defence, it says it wants a civilian government which can deliver the kind of governance it believes Pakistan needs: efficient, free of corruption and able to provide the economic growth that would make the country strong.  (Kayani has been clear that one of the biggest threats to Pakistan comes from its weak economy.)  But it has had a tendency in the past to behave tactically rather than strategically (the Kargil war being a case in point) so it remains unclear whether it has the patience to wait it out for the right conditions.

Imran Khan is in a hurry – rather like the tsunami he speaks of. He needs to capitalise on his rising support to strike reasonably soon through early elections.Waiting longer to build his political base, as some have suggested, would expose him to charges that his PTI is becoming more and more like any other party, as it collects new members who have built their political support the old way – through the kind of feudal patronage that once characterised the ”rotten boroughs” of English 19th century parliamentary democracy.   

The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)  led by Nawaz Sharif, is pushing for early elections in the hope that it could still win before Imran Khan’s “tsunami” hits land.  Yet at the same time, Sharif – having been deposed in the 1999 coup- is deeply wary of the military. And the army is deeply wary of him – he has until recently been more outspoken than the PPP in his criticism of the military, and has also challenged it with his calls for peace with India.

The PPP is, if anything, in an even more peculiar quandary. Until the latest crisis, it looked set to lead the first democratically elected government in Pakistan to complete its term of office and hand over to another democratically elected government – a badge it wore with a mix of grim honour and expedient compromise.  Yet Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s decision this week to stand up to the army after years of trying to accommodate it has some asking whether he already senses the end is near.  Go down fighting, according to this view, then the PPP can still claim the mantle of the martyr and recover to fight another day.

This is, as columnist Cyril Almeida suggested in Dawn, is a no-win situation for Pakistan:

“Could this all be a Mexican standoff, where everyone in the circle has a gun to the next person’s head, too afraid to pull the trigger but too scared to lower their weapon? If that’s the case, a negotiated settlement could be reached and the country could limp towards the Senate elections (in March). But as the threats and shouts intensify, as fear and anxiety grow and panic begins to take hold, someone could prematurely pull the trigger. Who survives that bloodbath will only be known after the dust settles.”

The long view? Nobody knows what will happen.  If the atmosphere in Pakistan is particularly feverish right now, that is less because people are expecting something to happen immediately in a rerun the 1990s, and more because it has become such a pressure cooker that only the very reckless would predict the outcome.  In such a scenario, it might perhaps be best for other countries to pay attention to the  ”do not disturb” sign on the door.

(File photo of Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani saluting the prime minister)

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