The parameters and paranoia of the bygone Cold War just refuses to evaporate from the psyche of Pakistan’s military-establishment. That war might have folded with the folding up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it seems Pakistan’s military-establishment is still largely stuck (albeit willingly) in the thick muck that this war threw up in this region in the 1980s.
One can understand why. This establishment and its ‘natural allies,’ such as the religious parties, the more militant expressions of political Islam and some upwardly mobile conservative outfits have for years ignored a number factors that facilitated the anti-Soviet forces to defeat the former communist empire on the battlefields of Afghanistan, sticking instead to a narrative that puts the Pakistani establishment and its allies at the center of the universe that undid the power of the Soviets.
Of course, all the major reasons behind the Soviets’ defeat - such as massive American financial and military aid to Pakistan and to the anti-Soviet Islamist groups, as well as the Soviet Union’s own rapidly disintegrating economic system - are conveniently bypassed and thus, one can still hear former military men, ex-ISI chiefs and members of various Islamic parties claiming how it was ‘jihad’ alone that decimated a superpower.
With almost all the wars that it fought with India going in the favour of the enemy, one can understand the need within the military-establishment to hold onto the many myths of the ‘Afghan jihad.’
A ‘jihad’ in which this establishment and its religious allies get goose bumps from a projected memory: i.e. of them being the brave figurative heroes on horsebacks vanquishing the forces of ‘kufar’ (infidelity) instead of merely being the well-paid intermediaries and suppliers between Ronald Regan’s anti-Soviet neo-conservatives, the American CIA and Afghan Islamist guerrillas.
It is these ‘memories’, constructed from some genuine exhibition of gallantry of the Afghan guerrillas, but filtering out the cynical fattening and baseness that the Pakistani military-establishment enjoyed from US handouts and support during the ‘jihad,’ that the military wants to jealously guard.
Haunted by its defeats at the hands of the Indians and the humiliation that followed, it found itself bestowed by a new-found prestige and political and economic enrichment during the ‘Afghan jihad’ and the Ziaul Haq dictatorship; a fact and piece of luck the military-establishment was now willing to protect at any cost.
In this it feared civilian set-ups the most. It still does. Announcing itself as the most competent and natural guardians of ‘national interest’, it continued to place its artillery on the Indo-Pak borders, but after the ‘Afghan jihad,’ it became more-than-interested in what takes place in Afghanistan as well.
But, of course, the economic and political perks and privileges that it now enjoyed within the country, also saw it being equally busy keeping an eye on civilian political set-ups that might threaten these perks.
Topping the establishment’s list in this respect was Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). To the military the PPP was a remnant of ‘civilian authoritarianism’ that could (through the populist vote) begin to undermine the military’s post-Zia upsurge and economic interests. By the 1980s these economic interests had also become strategically and ideologically tied to those of the industrialists and the traders (especially in the Punjab).
So there is no surprise in the fact that the establishment decided to construct a right-wing anti-PPP alliance of conservative parties (led by an industrialist-turned-politician), Nawaz Shaif, and religious parties, many of whom had been the military’s partners in the US-Saudi-funded ‘Afghan jihad.’ These too had benefited handsomely from all the dollars, riyals and weapons that had poured in during the war.
Just before Benazir’s first government was left packing – for ‘corruption,’ but more so for undermining the military’s self-imposed and galvanized role as sole foreign and defense policy experts and guardians of ‘national interest’ – intelligence agencies, industrialists and sections of the press had gotten together to help fund the publishing of a series of press ads in national dailies against the ‘corruption’ of the PPP regime.
But then the establishment committed a mistake that it is yet to learn from, proving that it might fancy itself as being a clever political institution as well, but, really, its understanding of populist politics is as astute as that of a drawing-room ‘strategist’s.’
Buy facilitating Nawaz Sharif’s pro-military and pro-business (thus ‘pro-Islam’) Islami Jamhoori Itehad (IJI) come to power, the military-establishment did not (and still can’t) grasp the fact that once a leader and a party starts engaging with the politics of votes and populist fanfare, he or she is bound to attempt to create constituencies through policies that, in spite of being even slightly ‘pro-peoples’ or ‘awami’, are likely to go against the economic interests of a rich military.
Of course, that’s a very ‘corrupt’ thing to do. Not that civilian regimes have been clean, far from it; but what goes missing in the great debate about corruption in Pakistan is the fact that corruption had been institutionalized not during civilian set-ups, but mostly during military dictatorships.