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Belling the cat

July 14, 2013

FORGET for whom the bell tolls. We already know: for all of us. More pertinent: who will bell the cat?

Pasha’s testimony before the OBL commission has simplified matters. The army cannot, will not, submit to civilian supremacy. The civilians are corrupt, incompetent, unpatriotic and dumb. The army is well intentioned and, more to the point, knows what’s best, for all of us.

So now what?

Conferences, summits, consultations, moots, strategy, tactics, operational expediencies — it’s all a waste of time, really. Who, in God’s name, will bell the cat?

Nawaz has been cautious. He knows it’s down to him, but he’s not ready to pull the trigger yet.

So the boys have had it all their way so far. They want to own Afghanistan? Let them. They want to pound Tirah? Go ahead. They want to chuck foreign journos out? So be it. They want to wield a soft veto on India? Whatever. They’re OK with drones, but want others to hate them? Sure.

For now. The problem is, the longer Nawaz waits, the more he becomes hostage to circumstances.

The OBL report leak helped make that point. Maybe — probably — someone sold it for a tidy sum. But will they, the boys, ever really believe that?

With your conspiracy hat on, the possibilities are obvious: either the PML-N did it to embarrass the boys or the PPP threw an early curveball.

Plumb the depths of conspiracy and the missing page suggests another possibility: some of the boys did it themselves, perhaps to head off the possibility of yet another term for Gen K.

It doesn’t matter what’s real and what isn’t: as Pasha so arrogantly demonstrated, a belief is a belief is a belief, the facts be damned.

The problem, then, for Nawaz is that in waiting for the right window of opportunity, many other, wrong windows can, and probably will, open first.

What, for example, are the risks of waiting until Nov, when a new chief could mean, in Nawaz’s mind, a new opportunity to reset ties? June to Nov is, after all, just a few months of a five-year term; why hurry?

Because stuff, events, tends to happen here. Like the OBL report leak.

Before you know it, you’re in fire-fighting mode and the great strategic things you may have wanted to work on become more and more elusive.

Wait till Nov on India, for example, and it means the Indians will be about to plunge into their election campaign.

But there has been some movement this week and it looks like Nawaz has zeroed in on two goals: intel sharing and police reforms.

The first goes to the heart of the civ-mil imbalance. The second is the Trojan horse or analgesic, depending on your point of view, necessary to get the first job done.

Again, Pasha’s testimony helps illustrate the point. From para 469:

“With regard to sharing information with the police, the concern was one of the need for confidentiality. There were too many instances where information shared with the police had been compromised. Accordingly, the ISI preferred to act alone. It was important that the Internal Security and Counter Terrorism Wings of the ISI be granted powers of arrest. Similarly the Police needed to be restructured and made a professional force based on merit.”

The only point that matters is “the ISI preferred to act alone”. It’s the only point that matters because Pasha — and let’s not pretend his are the views of an individual — tells us what he ultimately wants: more power for his agency.

But, because the boys are smart, they don’t say it directly. That would be bad form. Instead, they blame the alternative for not being up to scratch. The police is corrupt, incompetent and politicised, as are the civilian intel agencies, Pasha tell us.

Since we can’t wait to have an honest, competent and depoliticised police and civilian intel apparatus — can’t wait because the threat from terrorism is clear and present — the ISI should formally be given the powers it has arrogated to itself anyway, Pasha explains.

Clever, isn’t it?

Nawaz’s one-two is meant to corner the clever ones.

Boys, the PM is saying, this business of intel sharing and coordination has to be figured out. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. And I understand your concerns about the other folk not being up to scratch, so I’m going to work on that, too.

Intel coordination made possible by the Trojan Horse/analgesic of police and civilian intel reforms. Can it work? Possibly.

But it depends, ultimately, on how much resistance the army will put up. And how much resistance is put up depends on how the army ultimately sees its role inside Pakistan, which takes us back to the civ-mil imbalance and the question of, who will bell the cat?

Or perhaps, will the cat allow itself to be belled?

For the ISI’s predominance in the intel arena is the very tool through which the lopsided civilian-military balance is engineered. Take that away and you’re in an entirely different world of relations between institutions.

There is a possibility the army may relent. A core national interest — domestic stability — is under threat in a way that the army alone cannot fix. So circumstances may force the army to reconsider its prerogatives in the greater national interest, or even just institutional survival — the army itself being a direct and systematic target of militancy, terrorism and extremism.

But it is only a possibility. Pasha’s contempt for civilians could be where the matter actually rests.

And if that’s the case, who in God’s name will bell that cat? Godspeed, Nawaz.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm