By Khalid Hashmani
The South Asia Studies Program of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) arranged a discussion with prominent Pakistani journalist and editor-in-chief of “The Friday Times” Mr. Najam Sethi on Monday, November 7, 2011. The former Pakistani ambassador Touqir Hussain, who is a senior Pakistan fellow at SAIS, moderated the discussion. The session was titled “Tail Wags the Dog: US-Pak Relations and Internal Dynamics of Pakistan”. Mr. Sethi impressed audience with his wit and some amusing stories about Pakistan. It appeared that he was trying to leave the message that Pakistan’s two main political parties PPP and PML-N are now outdated and that Mr. Imran Khan is now the darling of the Pakistan military and Media.
US and Pakistan Relations
Mr. Touqir Hussain began the discussion by telling the Americans in audience that “You are in conflict with someone, whose help you need!” He said that “media” and “military” are the most powerful players in determining what happens next in Pakistan.
Najam Sethi started his remarks by saying that he was in the United States to “recharge his batteries” but never explained what he meant by that. He said that four years back, although Americans thought Musharraf as a good friend, they concluded that to be more effective Pakistan needed a government that had both civilian and military participation. Since Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif were old adversaries, PPP was encouraged to be that civilian partner with Musharraf. However, the partnership between PPP and Musharraf could not be sustained because PPP viewed Mr. Musharraf as one of the murderer of Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf could never trust PPP.
After the success of the Osama Bin Laden operation, U.S. asked the Pakistani government if they would like to also take credit for the success of mission and join in a joint statement. Mr. Sethi said that Zardari was very keen to join in that joint statement that Pakistanis and in the support of this argument referred to an article published in the Washington Post newspaper under the name of Asif Zardari. Then very quickly, Mr. Sethi added that President Zardari really did not write that article as he could not even write five paragraphs straight, It was written by the current Ambassador of Pakistan to USA, Mr. Haqqani.
On the question of the China card that Pakistan could play, Mr. Sethi said that is an over blown notion since the relationship so far has not achieved the advertised results. For one thing, the cheap imports of small goods from China have all but destroyed the small industry in Pakistan. For another, the Chinese are reluctant to extend credit facilities. He noted sarcastically that yet that view of some in Pakistan is that the Chinese should not be criticized because they can do no wrong.
While the civilian government was ready to quickly patch up the Raymond Davis case based on the excuse of diplomatic immunity, the military through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Punjab government vetoed that idea initially. The ambassador of Pakistan was saying something else and the Foreign Ministry was saying something else. By taking such actions, Pakistan Military had discredited the civilian government and elevated themselves in the eye of public, which is largely become anti-American. Military is not doing anything to discourage anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
Once people disagreed were called “Indian Agents” now if you disagree, you are labeled as “American agent”. Mr. Sethi added that calling someone an “American agent” in Pakistan has become an invitation to be killed.
When American announced the decision to leave Afghanistan and gave a withdrawal schedule, Pakistan Military has started to prepare for the post-withdrawal era. They seem to have concluded that they Military and Pakistan can survive without much US Aid through remittance of Pakistanis working overseas and continued IMF support. The Pakistani establishment thinks Al-Qaida and Massood group of Taliban are bad and can to be attacked, but the Haqqani wing of Taliban are considered good and need to be taken in confidence.
The Raymond Davis situation is when Pakistan military asserted that relationship between Pakistan and the US had to be redefined.
Mr. Sethi said that Pakistan military has won. They have the USA where they want it to be. America is now saying that Pakistan will have a central role in the development of Afghanistan. Mr. Sethi referred to a recent statement of US Secretary of State Clinton that Pakistan will have a “central” role including training some Afghani police and defense services units.
Is Pakistan Military looking for a new Civilian Partner?
At each and every crucial step, the military has fought with their current civilian partner (PPP) and is in no mood to let go their control of strategic decision-making process.
One year into its rule and encouraged by the USA, PPP announced that the civilian government was going to take control of ISI. A swift negative reaction from Pakistan military made PPP to back down from that decision within few hours. Citing another example of Pakistan Military’s rebuff to PPP, Mr. Sethi said that the Military went out of its way to criticize certain cosmetic language in the Kerry-Lugar bill. Sethi added that ordinarily, such clauses would not raise much reaction. However, the intensity with which Pakistan military criticized was very unusual and was aimed to send a message to both the civilian government and the USA that any agreement initialed by the civilian government must receive prior approval of the Pakistan military.
Mr. Sethi gave the example of Zardari’s initial attempt to have friendlier relations with India. As General Musharraf had begun the process of normalizing relations with India, President Zardari thought that the military still supports that view. When Zardari started showing warmth towards India proposing more concrete steps, he was cut to size as military told him that as he did not know much in this area, he better not cross certain boundaries.
There was a time when serious rumors were encouraged that PPP is not delivering goods so judiciary and military were going to jointly topple it. However, for some reason Army withdrew that support and later the judiciary also backed out. Imran Khan even talked about this in a TV interview so he may have been privy to that plan.
The indications are that the military does not like Nawaz Sharif for the following reasons:
1. He wants to normalize relations with India more than what they feel would be appropriate. 2. Wants military budget to be open to public. 3. Wants military to be under civilian control.
Zardari has realized that to complete the full term of his office, he and PPP have to accept the supremacy of military. Thus, in essence, PPP has become the party of the establishment. Yet, many of the cases of politicians being taken by the Pakistan judiciary seem to be against PPP and their allies.
Mr. Sethi reiterated that on key decisions, military calls the shots. Citing an example that some Media members claiming that they have more than 150 tapes showing atrocities of Taliban but they cannot show them for fear of reprisals by extremists. They went to the military to seek their permission. The military neither encouraged nor discouraged this. Later on, when the media decided not to show those tapes, the messages were sent to them that it was a right decision. He noted that political leaders are under attack day and night, but media cannot dare to criticize religious leaders and leaders of some sectarian groups such as MQM. The rule for criticizing the military is that it is not desirable to engage in any criticism.
Zardari has to go and Nawaz Sharif is not acceptable so they are ushering second son of Punjab Imran Khan. The D-Day for the change is arriving as politicians have lost credibility in the eyes of people.
Answering a question that when there is so many things going wrong, what people have to say (implying the elections) rather than rumors of corrective actions to be orchestrated by military and judiciary, Mr. Sethi said that the politicians in Pakistan are reflective what people say and do.
Military prefers a good “indirect” control rather than “direct” control. They have mastered the art of exercising indirect control. Although they want to make all strategic decisions.
The scenario that appears to be panning out is that there will be three main groups contesting the next elections (PPP, PML-N, and Imran Khan). PPP has traditional support of agriculturists mostly in Sindh but some in Punjab, Balochistan and its alliance with ANP and MQM. Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League has support in the Punjab heartland. Imran Khan, who is very vocal against American drone attacks and working with religious parties and younger urban voters, has been gaining popularity in Punjab and religious parties. Media is also supporting Imran Khan. In a close election and an era of intimidation, few thousands of religious voters in each constituency can make a big difference in winning or loosing that constituency.
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