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Do we still need saving?

Updated July 12, 2013

LO and behold, the report issued by the rather drably-named Abbottabad Commission has finally made it into the public domain.

That its findings have been revealed to us civilian hordes circuitously via Al Jazeera’s website rather than by way of an official release is hardly surprising. Why, after all, would our holy guardians want to trouble us with the details of their innumerable sacrifices in the greater national interest?

Those who we elect to represent us, on the other hand, are generally keener to keep the public abreast of goings on, even if only due to the compulsions of democratic politics.

In the case of the Abbottabad Commission, however, parliamentarians of all stripes chose to remain mum. It should not be forgotten that the report was compiled and handed over to then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in January.

It is a little more than disingenuous for mainstream politicians to be waxing lyrical about the matter on talk shows now after so many months of silence.

Having said this, politicians — or at least those who harbour some contradictions vis-à-vis the men in khaki — have a legitimate axe to grind. They have suffered the brunt of public criticism for all of this country’s problems for the best part of six decades. And all the while the generals and brigadiers busy saving the country from its own people have continued to make merry.

Yet neither politicians nor anyone else in this country who has struggled for the cause of democracy should be feeling particularly smug reading the Abbottabad Commission report.

Even if it is pleasantly unusual for the men in khaki to be called to account for their countless abominations, the commission members have offered no practicable suggestions about how to cut the military establishment down to size.

Let us not forget that it has been almost 40 years since the Hamoodur Rahman Commission completed its inquiry into the military’s conduct in erstwhile East Pakistan and presented a report to prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto which was arguably much more scathing than the Abbottabad Commission report appears to be.

At the very least Justice Hamoodur Rahman and his colleagues openly identified the uniformed perpetrators of state terror against Bengali civilians, a course of action that Justice Javed Iqbal and his brothers in arms have studiously avoided.

Yet even if the military was knocked off its perch for a short while in the early 1970s, it had very much re-established itself as top dog in Pakistan even before Gen Zia toppled the Bhutto government.

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission was powerless to stop the coup or the subsequent militarisation of state and society.

The Abbottabad Commission report too is likely to become another footnote of history. Already the hawks are out doing what they did in the immediate aftermath of the May 2 raid that confirmed both the presence and demise of Osama bin Laden.

At that time they diverted attention from the fact of the military’s patronage of jihad by raising a hue and cry about the ease with which the Americans entered Pakistan and got their man; on this occasion they are raising the spectre of NGOs purportedly facilitating the intrigue of Western spy agencies.

The brutal truth is that the so-called civil-military balance in this country is not about to change all that quickly. What the Abbottabad Commission report confirms is that our holy guardians still exercise a virtual monopoly over most significant affairs of state, and — perhaps more importantly — feel entitled to maintain this monopoly and ruthlessly punish any civilian entity that dares challenge it.

For their part, our mainstream parties have still not made a definitive commitment to taking on the men in khaki in full public view. Yes they pick a fight here and there, but do so all too often behind closed doors and while still adhering to the retrogressive statist slogans that function as the military’s raison d’être.

Ultimately something will have to give. The world is changing too fast for an army to retain the kind of power that ours continues to possess. The question, as ever, is what price Pakistani society will collectively have to pay for the military to beat a decisive retreat. We are a people already brutalised by political violence, much of it perpetrated by the state. How much more can we possibly take?

My feeling is that neither the military nor society at large has yet reached the threshold point. In a sense this means that things will have to get worse before they get better. In fact I believe that the men in khaki actually abide by a simple strategy: either we rule the roost or we make sure that enough chaos comes to pass that no one else can.

Some important constituencies in this country, including a certain brand of progressives, believes that we should consider standing in solidarity with dominant imperial centres because only the latter can do the needful and put us on the right track. Lest we forget too soon, imperial powers have stood by the military for most of the country’s existence.

It is time we stopped obsessing about external actors, whether we believe that they have evil designs on Pakistan or to the contrary if we perceive them to be liberators.

Imperial powers, and capital more generally, will do what they do. When push comes to shove, it is ordinary people inside this country that are going to have to say loud and clear that they neither want saving nor will they continue to tolerate the military’s dominance.

In the peripheries, resistance has been ongoing for decades. This is why it is time for the Punjabi heartland to stand up and be counted. More of the same is simply not good enough anymore.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.