By Husain Haqqani
August 10, 2014
There is virtual denial about real problems like rising extremism, increasing intolerance, widespread violence and the prospect of global isolation. Denial leads to self-deception
The current political chaos reminds me of a conversation I had with then US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, soon after the covert US operation that resulted in the discovering and killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Grossman, who was in Islamabad at the time of the May 1, 2011 operation, described the atmosphere in the Pakistani capital as “surreal”. He told me that he felt that Pakistani officials and the rest of the world seemed to exist in “parallel universes”.
The veteran US diplomat noted that, instead of realising the need to be apologetic about the world’s most wanted terrorist being found in their country, Pakistanis angrily protested the US’s decision to kill bin Laden on Pakistani soil without informing Pakistani authorities. As Pakistan’s ambassador to the US at the time, I could not tell Grossman that I agreed with him. But, like many Pakistanis who worry about their country’s future, I have often noted my compatriots’ tendency to live in a world all our own.
The rest of the world is clearly concerned about the inadequacy of Pakistan’s efforts in eliminating the jihadis. The spectre of terrorism impacts Pakistan’s economy adversely and makes it difficult for Pakistanis to find jobs or travel abroad. Sri Lanka recently withdrew its visa-on-arrival facility from Pakistani citizens, further reducing the number of countries where Pakistanis might travel without a visa. But these adverse reports barely find mention in Pakistan’s media, which remains preoccupied with the shenanigans of people like Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. Such is the media noise that Pakistanis are often kept ignorant of how the rest of the world looks at their country and remain confused about considering jihadist terrorism the principal threat to the country’s survival.
Pakistani leaders seem to prefer hyper-nationalist rhetoric and allegations of corruption against their rivals to an honest debate about the country’s loss of direction. Thus, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are not behaving differently from the way Sharif and the lawyers’ movement acted against Zardari in the preceding five years. Calls for change of government, even if it is only a few months after its election, serve as a substitute for serious debate about how Pakistan may have lost its direction as a nation. There is virtual denial about real problems like rising extremism, increasing intolerance, widespread violence and the prospect of global isolation. Denial leads to self-deception. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey recently found that even in Pakistan’s closest ally, China, only 30 percent of those polled had a positive view of Pakistan. But the poll and its implications were barely discussed in the Pakistani media, which has been focused on the verbal duels between Sharif’s supporters and opponents. Parallel universes indeed!
It has been barely 14 months since the PML-N ostensibly won a general election convincingly. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is being asked to resign amid threats of street protests already. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based Sunni cleric Tahirul Qadri plan marches on Islamabad around August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. Several politicians and parties known for their close ties to Pakistan’s deep state have announced support for the anti-Sharif protests.
Sharif will most likely ride out this first wave of attack. He retains an absolute majority in parliament and, by most accounts, there is no appetite in the country for a military coup. But the protests will weaken Sharif and sap the elected government’s energies, diminishing its effectiveness. That is exactly how the wings of the previous civilian government led by Asif Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani were clipped. Then the judiciary played a critical role in tying up elected leaders in knots though this time the judges have yet to get involved.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half its existence as an independent country. When it cannot govern directly, the military and its intelligence services still want to exert influence, especially over foreign and national security policies. At any given time, there are enough civilian politicians, media personalities or judges willing to do the military’s bidding for this manipulation to persist. Those unwilling to do the military’s bidding are also not always smart enough to govern effectively and turn the tables on the deep state. Currently, the military wants Sharif to curb his enthusiasm about normalising ties with India and turn away from Pakistan’s past policy of meddling in Afghanistan’s politics. It also wants an end to the treason trial of the former dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif has proved himself to be less canny than Asif Zardari in ensuring the survival of the democratic regime even if it involved difficult compromises.
In the Pakistani military’s worldview, coup making should not result in a trial for treason. The armed forces represent patriotism even if their errors result in the loss of half the country’s territory, as happened in 1971 with the loss of Bangladesh. Civilians, on the other hand, can be judged traitors merely for advocating a different path forward for the country.
Ironically, the latest effort to destabilise an elected civilian government is taking place at a time when the Pakistan army is ostensibly waging war against Jihadi terrorists in North Waziristan. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has promised that the war will continue until all terrorist groups are eliminated. Usually, war unites political rivals but there has been no effort by the military and its civilian political allies, or for that matter by Sharif’s PML-N, to overcome polarisation.