Journey to the brink

By Haris Gazdar

Courtesy:, Monday, 13 Apr, 2009

While much of Pakistan’s civil society celebrated a famous victory in the restoration of the judges it continued to display suicidal indifference to the existential threat to itself.

President Zardari’s misjudgment and Mian Nawaz Sharif’s ambition brought welcome relief to the jihadi apparatus at the precise moment when the international noose around it appeared to be tightening. The road map to democratic transition was obscured, and the contours of the abyss became a little clearer. Extraordinary acts of leadership are needed. Unfortunately, it is not clear if they will be forthcoming or sufficient.

Despite claims of national mobilisation, the long march was a PML-N show and mostly confined to north-central Punjab, a region accounting for a third of the population. Southern Punjab, the NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh were virtually absent and for parties representing voters in these regions the finer distinction between ‘reappointment’ and ‘restoration’ was not a priority in the face of worries such as state collapse and economic survival.

The richer segment of the most powerful region had spoken and claimed to speak for the nation. Battle-hardened activists elsewhere were left wondering how long their own mass protests would have lasted before the hard state made an appearance. A minority, no matter how right, had bent the will of the majority’s representatives and jubilant cries of ‘national triumph’ simply rubbed salt in the wounds.

This was no people’s revolution. Revolutions are about challenging power and they face real power – not policemen who melt away. Pakistan’s centre of de facto power – the military – was not mentioned except in admiring terms for its help. An elected civilian government reportedly at loggerheads with a recalcitrant military was the main target.

In the meanwhile, the real revolution of the jihad variety kept up its march. PPP obituaries are premature, but the battering of the largest secular party with representation across the region cannot be good news. Some saw Sharif’s emergence as grounds for hope. His past connections with extremists and relations with Saudi Arabia and rightwing groups might be assets which could be used to tame the jihadi threat – if taming were possible.

The bottom line is that political society collectively lost ground to other forces. The rise of Sharif at the expense of Zardari barely conceals the fact that Pakistan’s de facto centre of power had regained lost ground. The lawyers and the ‘restored’ judges too might feel that they have emerged as an autonomous power centre. But courts by their very nature are loath to challenging de facto power – their resistance to Musharraf was to his abuse of de jure authority.

The ‘independent’ electronic media which earned worldwide fame for its post-Mumbai denial chorus emerged as another power centre. Whether the rightwing domination of the media is manufactured or genuine, the effect is the same. A minority opinion, if measured in terms of electoral arithmetic, is projected as the national view. This view is defensive about jihadi militancy, hostile to good relations with Afghanistan and India, and prickly about any discussion of nuclear proliferation – all the elements that led Pakistan to be labelled ‘the world’s migraine’.

The long march changed the balance of power precisely at the moment when international focus on jihadi militancy sharpened. US officials said that segments of our military were still connected with the jihadis. This is what many Pakistanis suspected privately all along. Benazir Bhutto was among the few who broke the public silence when in her last book, ignored by many in her own party, she wrote about a jihadi virus infecting the top echelons of our establishment. For all his follies, Zardari, unlike many of his counterparts, is clear about the source of the threat. Meanwhile, unnoticed at home, the federal police won international accolades. The head of Interpol called the police work following Mumbai ‘no less than extraordinary’. He had special praise for Rehman Malik for pursuing leads against jihadi networks. Right or wrong, the same Malik was singled out for attack during the long march and its aftermath. His departure would signal a victory for those threatened by the antivirus – efforts at reforming our intelligence agencies and upgrading civilian-led ones.

Despite statements of goodwill, it is unlikely that hostilities between Sharif and Zardari have ended. Sharif may persist with his prime ministerial ambitions – though he cannot prevail without the military’s tacit help. Zardari might continue to nurture his political insecurity, and get trapped into yet another defeat – this time on the issue of reducing presidential powers in the constitution. In a re-run of the 1990s the judges and the media will corner Zardari first before going after Sharif. Most importantly, the apparatus will succeed in stalling the re-orientation of security priority from India to jihadi militancy. Denial will get its own regime.

But some things have changed since the 1990s. Political society has become further disarticulated, and as the long march itself proved, fragmentation along regional and ethnic lines is a harsh reality. Moreover, strategic theories that are used to justify keeping alive the jihad option have underestimated the determination of foreign powers this time round.

Retreat from the struggle against jihadi militancy will be fatal for civil and political society, but not without cost for the military either. Unwillingness to act will draw further intrusive responses from foreign powers. In the meanwhile, the social base of the ‘world’s migraine’ is now restricted to a specific region. As the state comes under pressure from external powers others will challenge this region’s claim to speak for ‘the nation’ and cut their own deals. This is what the abyss looks like.

Stepping back from the brink will require extraordinary leadership on the part of political society – which unlike other power centres has at least some will and chance of succeeding. Zardari will have to trust his party more, and learn to live with the fact that Benazir’s unquestioned authority died with her. Sharif must understand that he cannot become prime minister without an ultimately suicidal Faustian bargain with the military. He could try to be really brave now and lead the right and north-central Punjab out of denial and into a consensus against jihadi militancy.

This would be Plan A, and it is slipping away fast. For their own reasons foreign powers will pressure our leaders as well as the military to rethink their priorities. But foreigners will respond to their own domestic expediencies first and our needs second, which means that even if Plan A is still on, the time needed to see it through will run out sooner than we think.


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