Obituary of a scandal : A first draft on Pakistan’s “Memogate”

By Myra MacDonald, Reuters

One of Pakistan’s most bizarre political dramas appears to be running out of steam.  What began as an unsigned memo seeking American help to rein in the military escalated into a full-blown power struggle between the civilian government and the army after Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz accused then ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani of writing it. Haqqani, who denied involvement, resigned and returned to Pakistan to clear his name.  But that did nothing to stem a crisis in civilian-military relations which carried uncomfortable echoes of the 1990swhen government after government were dismissed in a decade which ended in a coup in 1999.

With Haqqani now living in virtual house arrest in Pakistan, the so-called “Memogate” affair is far from over – it remains subject to judicial and parliamentary enquiries. But after weeks of drama, from coup rumours to allegations the army had already sought Gulf backing to take over – both denied by the military – to unusually spirited criticism of the army by the government, to the more farcical circulation of an old video featuring Ijaz commenting on naked female wrestling – the media feeding frenzy triggered by the memo appears finally to be satiated. Ijaz, meanwhile, has said he is unwilling to travel to Pakistan to testify, citing fears for his safety, diminishing his utility as a star player.

As things stand, not only has the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari survived, but it may even be on course to pull off an unprecedented feat in Pakistan – to serve its term, hold elections and hand over power to another democratically elected government. And while elections are not due until 2013, it is widely expected to hold them early with a real possibility of winning enough seats to stake a claim to lead a new coalition. Pakistan’s constituency-based system makes it hard for outsiders like the Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) of rising politician Imran Khan to break the traditional grip of the PPP and its main rival, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Yet to suggest that the civilian government has come out on top in its confrontation with the generals would be to vastly overstate the significance of  “Memogate”,  and to grossly underestimate the distribution of power in Pakistan.

Step away from the minutiae of Memogate and look back over the period since the civilian government took office in 2008. It began its term hoping to improve relations with India, a crucial factor in determining the civilian-military imbalance within Pakistan. The rivalry with India has traditionally helped the army to bolster its power as it soaks up resources in military spending to counter what it sees as an existential threat. It has also fuelled support for Islamist militant groups to counter India in Kashmir and Afghanistan – groups whose relationship with the Pakistani state ran  through the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, again increasing its power relative to the country’s civilian politicians.

Conversely, peace with India would expand the space available to a civilian government by increasing trade,  allowing a greater share of a growing economy to be used on non-military spending, and cutting off the oxygen which helped Islamist militant groups to flourish.  You might even argue that the government’s desire to improve relations with India was as much to do with countering the power of the army at home as it was to end a bitter divide dating back to partition in 1947.  Extend that argument further and you can begin to understand why the army, whose DNA is configured to confront India, might have been genuinely alarmed by the memo, which not only talked of clipping its powers to manage Islamist militants, but offered to bring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under international supervision.

Indeed, back in 2008 Zardari even went so far as to suggest that Pakistan could adopt a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons – a huge encroachment on the power of the military which considers nuclear weapons its own preserve, and sees the credible threat of first use as necessary to offset India’s conventional superiority.  The suggestion enraged the army – one diplomat told me that the language used by senior officers  to describe Zardari’s offer, particularly after a good few glasses of Scotch, did not bear repeating.

The November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants put paid to any idea that civilian politicians could carve out an independent foreign policy as both the military and the civilian government closed ranks in defending the country against Indian outrage.  From then on, the government more or less ceded the space to the army in setting foreign and security policy.

Occasional attempts by civilians to assert themselves – the army blamed ambassador Haqqani in 2009 for provisions in the U.S. Kerry Lugar aid bill giving the government greater power over the military – were quickly beaten back.

Meanwhile, the United States made clear its principal interlocutor in setting Afghan policy was the army;  it feted its chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, in Washington, while the government took the rap for the kind of cooperation with the Americans that was becoming increasingly unpopular at home.  Far from winning the struggle with the military, the civilian politicians ended up in a worse position, with responsibility but no power, while the army had power but no responsibility.

It did not help that the political elite was widely seen as corrupt –  to a Pakistani public struggling to understand the peculiar relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and dealing with the spillover from the Afghan war in the form of gun and bomb attacks –  by far the easiest explanation was that the country had been sold out to U.S. interests by crooked politicians.

The government appointed by Zardari survived, almost against all expectations, by cutting one political deal after another with opposition politicians.  Yet the flexibility which allowed Zardari to make deals was also his downfall – the government seemed unable to see anything through and to the charge of corruption was added incompetence in governance.  After two consecutive years of devastating floods, a global financial crisis and a turbulent relationship with the United States (how much easier it was, the critics would say, when Washington simply had to pick up the phone and speak to the general in charge), the government’s track record is not looking good.

The country is fragmented by a competition for power between the military, the government, the judiciary and the media, among others.  Even some of the old certainties are breaking down. The “Military, Mullah, Militant” nexus which gave a semblance of stability to past military dictatorships has been challenged by groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and their Punjabi allies who are fighting the same army which once nurtured the cause of Islamic jihad. Even the Lashkar-e-Taiba, traditionally the militant group closest to the military establishment, appears to have gone its own way in the execution of the Mumbai attacks.  The trope that Pakistan could be defined by the three A’s – “Army, Allah and America” – makes little sense any more when Washington and the Pakistan Army are at each other’s throats and its people killed by those who claim to fight in the name of Islam.

Meanwhile, the country faces a bitter separatist insurgency in Baluchistan,  and continued violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. The urban middle classes – squeezed like middle classes everywhere else in the world by the global financial crisis – are in little mood to share even more of their declining incomes to pay for Pakistan’s rural poor let alone to fund economic development in areas like Baluchistan and FATA which have long been seen as peripheral to the country’s Punjab heartland.

Ultimately, and frustratingly for those of us who prefer facts over propaganda, substance over politics, perception rules. Whatever the underlying reasons, when Pakistanis look back at their latest experiment in democracy over the last three years, their perceptions – at least as far as individual self-interest is concerned – will be negative.  And bear in mind, in Pakistan’s previous cycles of military and civilian rule, the yearning for order has  eventually triumphed. Military coups were always welcomed.

What happens next? We don’t know. The country is in some ways ripe for European-style fascism to pull its many fragmented parts together – think Italy, a country united for only 60 years, linguistically divided, economically struggling, harking back to the glory days of the Roman Empire and finding common ground only in religion, when Benito Mussolini rose to power.  But since history never repeats itself exactly, the model will be different. If such a sudden shift happens, it will likely be born out of a 150-year old Islamist response to British colonialism in South Asia.

Or Pakistan will quite literally “soldier on”. Elections will be held; a new civilian government will take office; and the army will continue to define foreign and security policy. It may even eventually take over again if the next government ends up being as disappointing – at least by its own definition – as the current one. The expected crisis, or failed state, will never quite materialise, but nor will Pakistan become successful. Then as the United States gradually withdraws from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, Pakistan will be forgotten by all but those who live there or in the neighbourhood.

And historians will puzzle over why so much ink was spilled over “Memogate”, and why so much airtime was so loudly filled.

Courtesy » Reuters

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