AT WAR WITH ITS OWN SHADOWS
Published: July 4, 2011 - 17:48 Updated: July 11, 2011 - 14:54
Post Operation Osama, with the swagger of the army generals gone, it’s time Pakistan rejects the ideology of conflict and fundamentalism, and unleashes the politics of peace, pluralism and progress
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
In the dark of the night on May 2, 2011, when US Special Forces landed at a non-descript house in Abbottabad to smoke out the elusive Osama bin Laden, they outed Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence’s (ISI) best kept secret. The operation struck a body blow at the much vaunted prowess of the Pakistani army and its infamous ISI. In a matter of few hours, Pakistan’s most significant institution, the army, which has been credited all these years for keeping this turbulent nation intact, had fallen in esteem of the baffled and
The army’s duplicity, corruption and institutional weakness stared at ordinary people like never before. It was a watershed event that may change the power dynamics in a nation that is in the throes of a serious existential crisis. How it plays out could impact the politics of Af-Pak as well as Islamabad’s ties with India.
No one believed, within the army or outside, that the ISI was not in the loop about Osama’s comfortable stay in Abbottabad. Foreign journalists who visited the cantonment town were told by some careless beat constable that the “house” was an “ISI safe house”. Beat constables seldom go wrong. A look at the architect’s design shows that the house was tailormade for someone who had to keep safe, away from prying eyes.
On that night, Pakistan’s security forces were found to be clueless. Chatter among top army and air force commanders turned out to be an unending quiz about whose choppers were those. Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani army, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is more powerful than the civilian bosses, suddenly found himself looking for a valid explanation for this serious breach in security.
His swagger and ability to look the US military leaders in the eye were gone. Kayani, who has been an enduring military leader, was forced to explain to his restive officers and cynical parliamentarians about the presence of Osama in Pakistan and the brazen US operation. Reports of Kayani nervously pulling on his cigarette before heading to the parliamentary inquisition gladdened the hearts of many who have been fighting to restore genuine democracy in Pakistan.
Even before security forces could recover from the Osama embarrassment, they were rudely hit by a terrorist operation at the Mehran naval base in Karachi. Not only did terrorists blow up two Orion aircrafts, the attack revealed how much the security forces have been infiltrated by a radical ideology that was determined to take over Pakistan. Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, Washington, told Hardnews, “My favorite option about Osama is that they were keeping him on ice, and were surprised that the US was able to grab him — even more disturbing was the naval base attack, which raises questions about the integrity of Pakistan’s internal security apparatus.”
Not only was the army found wanting in taking on the external threat, but it failed in looking after its own bases. Worse, the ISI was killing journalists — Syed Saleem Shahzad — who dared to write about how army and navy were infiltrated by extremists, who, at times, were actively encouraged by the State. Similar brutality against the media, largely unreported, has been taking place in Balochistan, where people have been agitating for long against the repression of the Pakistani State.
Despite attempts by the army to forcefully convey to the Pakistani civil society that they are the only force that can save the country from being taken over by radical Islamic groups, no one is really convinced by their arguments. It is possible to come across some tweets that defend the army, but, largely, the media and social networking sites are spewing undiluted hatred against the security forces.
Eminent activist Asma Jehangir, in a TV interview, was unsparing against the army, pleading that they should return to the barracks and stop governing Pakistan. She hit out against the self-aggrandising ways of the Pakistani officers and how they had been clamouring for plots of land. Others rubbished the generals for their feudal ways and spending too much time at the golf courses.
People have not forgotten the ugly manner in which the ISI and the army went about radicalising Pakistani society for attaining domestic and foreign policy objectives. It was the generals again that gave strength to Wahabism that is now endangering Sufism in these parts. They were helped by serious funding from Saudi Arabia and USA. What started during the Afghan war to oust the Soviet Union has carried on in 2011. The ISI created assets like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Toiba to lend traction to issues of its choice. Cross-border terror and even the ‘war’ at Kargil in 1999 were Pakistan army’s devices to ensure that Kashmir remained an embarrassing hot spot for India.
The Osama operation and subsequent happenings have delegitimised the Pakistani army. This can redefine the way the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani conducts itself domestically as well as with its neighbours. Army’s weakened position was visible when Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai came to Islamabad recently. Unlike in the past, when the Pakistani leadership talked down to him with the likes of ISI chief Shuja Pasha smoking on his face, he was treated with respect. Karzai has always insisted that the fountainhead of terror is Pakistan, and he asked Islamabad to rein in the hotheads.
In April this year just before the Abbottabad ‘event’, Gilani, during his trip to Kabul, reportedly told Karzai that he should stop looking up to USA since it was a declining power, and should think of building a compact with China, which has a stake in this region. Clearly, Gilani, goaded by his army commanders, was trying to pursue a forward policy on the western side of the border once the drawdown of US troops begins in July 2011. At that time, Pakistan, by building on its growing control over Afghanistan’s affairs, was looking at increasing its arc of influence to Central Asia. Since then, its army’s best laid plans have suffered grave setbacks.
For starters, the US government has made it clear that even after 2014, when the complete withdrawal of troops takes place from Afghanistan, it would maintain some presence in the country. Washington is negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government, and has seemingly rejected Pakistan’s attempt to seek control of Afghanistan to achieve ‘strategic depth’ against India. Islamabad has resented India’s development projects and even the growth of its soft power in Afghanistan. The London Conference on Afghanistan in 2010, and the manner in which India was sidelined, had raised questions about the safety of India’s $2 billion investment in Kabul, but, since then, a lot of water has flown down river Amu Darya.
After Osama’s killing, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul and announced India’s resolve to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction by promising an aid of $500 million. India has jettisoned its cussedness about Karzai dealing with a section of Taliban to bring stability; it is aiding in these efforts. Singh’s initiative seemed to square with the US plan after it pulls out its troops from the war-torn country.
Recently in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in the Shangri La dialogue, elucidated that the US partnership with India was a pillar of stability in South Asia and talked of India “aiding development in Afghanistan”.
These fast-paced developments in the neighbourhood have compelled Delhi to tweak its foreign policy and renew its engagement with Pakistan. The latest talks between the foreign secretaries to reduce the trust deficit after the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai is an outcome of the realisation that the ideology of conflict could be detrimental to both the countries. Peace talks and enlargement of economic ties could marginalise violent extremists and increase wealth in this region. After all, the ferment in the Arab world is seriously linked with justice and employment. Young suicide bombers who are blowing themselves up in Pakistan are falling in the trap of their vicious recruiters due to misery, alienation and poverty.
Conflict on Kashmir has resulted in lost economic opportunities running into hundreds of billions of dollars. India’s Partition cut off traditional trade routes, facilitating smugglers and criminals to get richer and become stakeholders. As if not to destabilise the shadow economy, the two countries are following a minimalist path to restore damaged ties. This will not work.
Another terror incident in India could set the clock back, and give another reason for the army and anti-India radicals to bounce back and marginalise democratic forces. The Indian government fears such a scenario, but has shown little imagination to seize this crucial moment in South Asia’s life. It is important to find an early solution to Kashmir, and bring peace and prosperity to a region that has got pauperised due to an unnecessary arms race and failure of the region’s leadership to stand up to the big powers. Indeed, economic crisis in the US and Europe has forced the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, and presents new opportunities to Pakistan and this region to rediscover theirs true calling.