On a knife edge

Published October 30, 2016
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT’S not the confidence — he’s always had that. It’s the snarl and the menace. Imran is moving in for the kill.

And this time the prey is in sight and within reach.

Nawaz is in trouble. Locked in a self-created pincer, he’s given reason for his ouster — national security threat! — and given the means, too — corruption!

The dilemma for Nawaz has been that if he cuts one loose, the bleeding will never stop — more and more heads will be demanded.

The oldest of scripts is back.

If everyone else can see it, then you can bet Imran sure as hell can, or has had someone show him.

From here, the plan ought to be straightforward. Get people to flow towards Islamabad on Nov 2. Not in large numbers, but just enough to cause alarm.

Because the government is already alarmed, even the minimum could work. A bunch of stragglers here and there chanting and marching towards police barricades, TV cameras in tow.

Then, let the government do its thing and be its ham-fisted, overkill, aggressive self.

Police charging at protesters, women getting roughed up, men being thwacked over the head by batons; melee and mayhem. In minutes, a national crisis — and space for real danger.

The real danger being blood on the streets. A policeman too quick to use his gun. A protester armed with more than stones and his fists. An interloper inserted to create mischief.

But the N-League has several cards of its own to play.

First, it has disrupted the PTI’s run-up to Nov 2. Scattering protesters, detaining leaders — it will have an effect on potential crowd size next Wednesday.

That could reduce the protests to a manageable level, allowing for the police to remain disciplined and the N-League to not go into full panic mode.

Second, the N-League could release some pressure on the civ-mil front. Offering up Pervaiz Rasheed, albeit temporarily, and green-lighting a military-heavy inquiry buys time — and casts doubt over the finality of Imran’s mission.

In the 24 days since the story dropped, this much has been clear: the military wants to hack away at Nawaz loyalists who have long been judged too hawkish — and dangerous because they’re willing to take risks.

But the dilemma for Nawaz has been that if he cuts one loose, the bleeding will never stop — more and more heads will be demanded, in this round or the next, whenever that arrives.

So why not make the best of the worst and do a partial sacrifice that gives something to both sides just as the PTI threat is peaking?

The suspension of Pervaiz Rasheed helps address the military’s demand for someone significant to be offered up, while the at-the-moment temporary punishment offers solace to Sharif loyalists that the boss won’t just abandon them to the wolves.

And given that Imran’s protest has been turbocharged by the spectre of acute civ-mil discord, the suggestion that a solution is being worked towards on the civ-mil front helps Nawaz defuse the Imran threat.

Third, Nawaz could just appoint a new chief. It has been an option from Day 1, but it also quickly became apparent that it is the option of last resort, the nuclear option.

The problem for the N-League isn’t the will, but the way the military works.

Appoint a new chief with the other guy still having a few weeks to go and all power doesn’t immediately drain away from the latter and flow to the former.

The chief is still the chief till his last day and as long as you’re chief, you’re all-powerful. And with the current chap it’s not like allies will suddenly desert him in the midst of a civ-mil fight.

So, fiddling around with succession plans in the middle of a crisis is about as high-stakes as it can get.

And then there’re the bits no one wants to talk about. Does the current chap want to stay on — same place, same job? Or is he at all inclined to try the ultimate?

Here is where neither side can truly know, a blind game based on guesswork by each side about what the other wants out of it.

What is apparent is that at its root, the present crisis is about power — who wields it, how they wield it and to what end do they wield it.

The more Nawaz chafed at being sidelined in foreign policy and national security, the more likely it was that a crisis would emerge.

Now, it perhaps comes down to two questions, one for each of the principals.

For Nawaz: how determined is he to be something more than chief inaugurator of bits and bobs of road and electricity megawatts?

For Raheel: how willing is he to believe that Nawaz will in fact go back into his box and stick to being inaugurator-in-chief and nothing more?

If Nawaz wants more, he’ll bash the PTI and batter the protesters — a message to one and all that he won’t be bowed.

Defiance could end in defeat, but it’ll force the other side to explicitly team up and for the real power struggle to come out in the open.

If Raheel doesn’t believe Nawaz can be convinced to return to his box and to remain there, the dogs of protest may be unleashed in the streets and hawkish Sharif loyalists hacked away quickly and determinedly.

And if that doesn’t prove enough, the ultimate script is already written:

A national security threat who has pillaged the nation and corrupted high office can’t remain PM, can he?

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2016



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