Pathankot and power plays

Published January 12, 2016
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

India has provided Pakistan ‘actionable intelligence’ regarding the attack on the Pathankot airbase and demands satisfactory follow-up action by Pakistan if the foreign secretary talks are to start in three days’ time. Our prime minister has assured the Indian prime minister he will do the necessary. The US is urging India not to postpone dialogue. Reports suggest a number of Nato countries consider the intelligence supplied (including mobile phone conversations between the attackers and suspected handlers in Pakistan, a Jaish-e-Mohammad letter, DNA samples of the attackers, their voice record samples, etc) to be credible leads if not conclusive evidence. Pakistan’s international legal obligations require it to follow up on these leads to determine whether or not some elements based in Pakistan were involved in the attack.

Otherwise, the worst assumptions about Pakistan’s international conduct will continue to be made by the international community. A repeat of the Mumbai stand-off would expose Pakistan to ridicule and ignominy. Pakistan could come under immense international pressure, including the threat of sanctions, if it is seen not to be cooperating with India in the hunt for possible suspects.

While suggesting Pakistan may need time to conduct its investigations, the US agrees with India that Pakistan must take the leads seriously. Along with India, the US and Nato countries lean to the view that the attack probably was planned and supervised from Pakistan by elements with a history of association with the intelligence establishment, whether with or without its direct or indirect connivance. After the judicial assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan lost control over crucial aspects of its foreign policy to violent non-state actors backed by the security establishment. The bill for this incredible irresponsibility is still being paid.

If we set our ties with India in the context of people’s interests and dreams, our policy options will multiply.

It is not yet clear what our military’s attitude was to Modi’s stopover in Lahore. We know that Kargil happened after Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in 1999; Mumbai occurred after progress in the backchannel talks of the mid-2000s; and now Pathankot takes place after another Lahore yatra. Has our prime minister once again been ‘reined in’ by ‘the boys’ to let him know who is boss? The participation of the COAS in a meeting chaired by the prime minister to consider the information provided by India is to be welcomed. However, it does not necessarily mean the military appreciates the prime minister’s attempts to wrest exclusive control over Pakistan’s India policy.

We do not know whether the prime minister is aware of his longer-term responsibilities towards the people of Pakistan, other than throwing money and concrete about, all of which will have to be paid for by the people. We do not know whether he is interested in summoning the commitment and courage to face down challenges to his political authority and credibility. We do not know whether US admiration for his handling of Pathankot will last. We do not even know the nature of his political calculus.

In Pakistan, the concept of civil-military relations is dubious. It excludes civil society. It provides cover for civilian political delinquency and military political ambition, whether working in tandem or at cross purposes. It has become the antithesis of democracy. It is a principal cause of incoherent, inconsistent and irrational policies on major domestic and external issues, including policy towards India. It provides a convenient context for unprincipled politicians, including leaders, to protest the reduction of political space for the discharge of their ‘democratic responsibilities’ by unelected and undemocratic institutions. Likewise, it provides a convenient pretext for an ambitious security establishment to cite the corruption and venality of politicians as reasons for arrogating to itself a decisive role in matters that lie well beyond its competence and remit. The perfect vicious circle! How do we break out of it?

This is a large and fundamental question that we shall have to find an answer to if Pakistan is to survive and prosper. However, more dangerous than the distortion of civil-military relations is the relentless waging of class warfare in Pakistan. This pits the entire range of political, economic, social and service elites against the mass of ordinary Pakistanis. It has many disguises. Patriotic and religious enthusiasms are among them. So are passionate, romantic and self-indulgent national narratives. These stratagems take shelter under the sacred. But the ends they serve are largely profane and dishonest. Among their offshoots is the narrative of the ‘existential’ threat posed by Indian hostility and hegemony. This, of course, is rooted in history, fact and reality. But, more importantly, it is also part of the arsenal of our privileged and powerful against the aspirations and interests of our deprived and poor.

Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist and poet, observes that whenever politics is not driven by the dreams of the people it is an “arid and barren machine” designed only for elections. This describes the essence of ‘democratic politics’ in Pakistan where domestic and external policies represent the outcome of power plays; not the shared dreams of its people. If we can set our relations with India in the context of the dreams and interests of our people our policy options will multiply several-fold. But if it remains the preserve of elitist power plays without regard to the interests of the people it will continue to be arid and barren.

If the responses of the rulers of Pakistan convey the message that they are unwilling or unable to control the cross-border activities of anti-Indian and anti-Kabul Jihadis until Kashmir is resolved and Kabul has a ‘friendly’ government, they will do more harm to Pakistan than any enemy could wish for. Nor will they help the Kashmiri freedom struggle one iota. None of this may bother them. They probably regard such concerns as ‘philosophical’, and ‘irrelevant’. Moreover, given our dysfunctional power structure and the arid and barren quality of our ‘democracy’, they may have a point. How Pathankot and many other domestic and external issues of national importance are handled will determine whether or not their point remains regrettably valid.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2016


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