By Dr Mohammad Taqi
April 17, 2014
What the ISPR calls undue criticism is actually the elected representatives telling the plain truth about the excesses the former dictator committed against an elected government and the judiciary
The Pakistani security establishment is visibly upset. Its reservations are about former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s trial for high treason and the negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The army — let us face it, the other two services are not really the movers and shakers in the euphemism ‘establishment’ — appears to have decided to take it out on the Minister of Defence, Khwaja Mohammad Asif. On April 7, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) released a statement saying, “Pakistan army upholds the sanctity of all institutions and will resolutely preserve its own dignity and institutional pride, the COAS said while responding to the concerns of soldiers on undue criticism of the institution in recent days.”
No names were named but, taking their cue, some sections of the media went after Mr Khawaja Asif with a vengeance. A hard-hitting speech that Mr Asif had made in the National Assembly’s 2006 budget session, criticising the junta and its exploitation of the country, has since been played ad nauseam on various channels.
The campaign against the defence minister appears like a well-orchestrated job and the establishment seems keen on making an example of him. Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif would be well advised to thwart their designs resolutely. If appointing Mr Khwaja Asif as the minister of defence was the PM’s way of indicating who is in command, relieving him of this portfolio, as some have started demanding, would send the exact opposite message. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) sacrificing one of its own to placate the establishment is likely to leave the government weaker in the near to midterm if not through the rest of its stint. The establishment tried similar gimmicks against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), starting with first resisting the civilian attempt to bring the ISI under its control, then blaming the PPP for the conditions levied in the US’s Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act and finally pulling off the Memogate affair.
The idea was to keep the PPP consistently on the defensive, done to the extent that the PPP completely ceded national security and foreign policies to the military establishment. After every coup d’état and the ensuing military rule, the Pakistan army goes into the so-called arbitration role, ruling from behind the scenes. National security and foreign policy remain a complete no-go area for civilians during these phases. The vitriol against Mr Khawaja Asif is not just to browbeat him into submission but to shoo the PML-N government away from some of its foreign policy objectives, including the ones involving India, as well as securing General Musharraf’s release.
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif indeed has the responsibility to defend his outfit, as he apparently was doing at the Special Services Group’s Ghazi Base, Tarbela, but it is also imperative for him to explain to the men under his command that General Musharraf was not exactly a George Washington of his era. What the ISPR calls undue criticism is actually the elected representatives telling the plain truth about the excesses the former dictator committed against an elected government and the judiciary. The pro-establishment voices in the media, especially a handful of retired servicemen, as well as General Musharraf and his attorneys want him off the hook by dragging the army into his case. Siding with General Musharraf and owning his subversion of the constitution would entail more, not less, criticism of the army. The incumbent COAS should try to make a clean break from the past rather than appearing to insist on a get out of jail free card for Pervez Musharraf. The tin-pot dictator’s recent shenanigans, right from his ill-advised return to Pakistan to his flight to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) for a dubious illness, have undermined the army’s reputation. Musharraf’s three-month-long sojourn in the AFIC, presumably for a cardiac illness, has to be one of the longest hospital stays in the history of medicine where definitive testing and treatment was not instituted. And then came his miraculous recovery, literally overnight, complete with a longwinded speech in the court the next day. Musharraf’s childish antics, not Khwaja Mohammad’s Asif’s eight-year-old speech, are what draw ridicule from the people.
The other sticking point between the PML-N and the army is said to be the negotiations with the TTP and releasing their prisoners. The PML-N’s point man for the talks remains Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who is said to belong to the section of the party clustered around Mr Shahbaz Sharif, which has been pushing for rapprochement with the army for years and also favours a safe passage for General Musharraf. It seems unlikely that Mr Nisar Ali Khan would have been so gung-ho about the talks had he sensed that the move would irk the security establishment. I have maintained in this column that the security establishment has never been interested in a full-scale operation in North Waziristan (NW) and that position has not changed, all the chatter about the army being unhappy about the talks notwithstanding. The Pakistani establishment’s current plan for the jihadist militants in NW seems to be to let the TTP factions fight it out among themselves, first to weed out the wayward ones and then reorient the pliable ones towards Afghanistan. The ‘good’ Taliban of the Mullah Omar, Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur variety will remain unmolested in this process. So they will huff and they will puff but are unlikely to blow the good Taliban’s house down.
PM Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N may be disposed towards negotiations with the Taliban for their own reasons but it is also not lost on them that the security establishment is in no rush to take the fight to the militants. Mr Sharif will have to live with the political consequences of his decisions, whether it is about retaining his defence minister or dealing with the TTP. He is answerable to the people at large, not just the ones in uniform. He must not allow himself to be arm-twisted into taking steps that are out of sync with his political stance of the last 14 years. Mian sahib should rest assured that this is not 1999; the indefensible cannot only be not defended now but also not repeated unless the junta seeks to turn Pakistan into an international pariah.