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A double squeeze

February 25, 2018


NAWAZ got squeezed — again — domestically, the boys got squeezed internationally and between those two confusing, seemingly unconnected things:

Did FATF just save democracy in Pakistan?

Let’s start with the Nawaz stuff. For better or worse, no one has to pretend any longer that the specific chain of events is predictable or that it does not primarily have something to do with the boys.

Because to argue either of that would imply someone could have predicted an on-time Senate election minus PML-N candidates. The timing has been slick, the execution so precise that you almost have to marvel at it.

First came the Balochistan ruse. Easy enough to explain, small enough to disregard, the coup-inside-the-assembly lulled folk into thinking the danger had been absorbed, a bullet dodged.

Phew. So that’s what they had in mind. OK, let’s get on with the business of the rest of the elections. It drew the PML-N into its next mistake: nominating halfway decent, relatively senatorial candidates.

The boys haven’t ventured down this path, walked us all this way, only to let Nawaz win the next election and saunter back into power.

If the N-League had a clue what was coming next, they would have gone with Gullu Butt-types as candidates. Y’know, the kind who would go to the mattresses for the Sharifs.

But the PML-N made its move, nominated mostly goody-goody types, the nomination process closed, the ball left the N-League’s court and, bam!

Suddenly, Nawaz is no longer N-League president and, suddenly, the N-League doesn’t have any Senate candidates. The whiplash-inducing turnaround has also forced a marvellous inversion.

If the N-League cancels the Senate election in Punjab or tries to delay the overall Senate election by fighting it out in the courts, it will be the N-League that is fighting democratic continuity.

And if the N-League elects its own candidates as independents, the N-League will have to wait and see which side of the aisle the incoming senators choose.

You almost have to marvel at it.

But it still doesn’t make the ultimate problem go away.

Predicting the specific chain of events may no longer be possible — predicting an on-time Senate election minus N-League candidates would have been beyond magic, it would have been sorcery — but the final impasse is the same.

The boys haven’t ventured down this path, walked us all this way, only to let Nawaz win the next election and saunter back into power. But Nawaz hasn’t come all this way, put up mystifying defiance and arrived at the threshold of a common-sense defying fourth win, just to chuck it all away.

You don’t have to be a Senate candidate to know a collision is inevitable. If the boys won’t back down and Nawaz can’t back down — that leaves just one option:

The C-word.

Which brings us to this FATF business. Forget the specifics of what it entails and when and how. The experts may eventually tell us or, more likely, events will.

But already it is apparent that FATF is happening because of the US, more specifically the Trump administration. Committed to a military strategy in Afghanistan and determined to raise the cost on Pakistan for defiance, the Trump approach comes down to asking:

What are the Haqqanis worth to you, Pakistan? What is the LeT worth to you? What is Jaish worth to you?

The answer to those questions is unknown to you and me and everyone else. Other than you-know-who, of course.

But for democratic purposes, it may be enough to know that the questions are being asked. Because the Trump administration is trying to get at the boys to force them to answer those questions.

You can see where this is going.

If in the domestic arena the boys won’t back down and Nawaz can’t back down, leaving only the C-option — the external dimension means the Trump administration would jump all over the C-option if it is activated.

FATF as a demonstration of the inventiveness and eagerness of the US can only mean a coup in Pakistan would give the US a straight run at Pakistan. It would strip away the pretence and it could strip away the hesitation and the need to carefully ratchet up pressure on Pakistan.

So, did FATF just save democracy in Pakistan?

There lies the illusion democratic types can be misled by.

The convoluted, theoretical version is the enemy’s enemy is a friend. That somehow a beneficial alliance can be cobbled together. The more pedestrian, realistic explanation is the desperation of the weak: the boys under serious external pressure may open up political space domestically for the civilians.

But for all the wailing and hysteria when the US turns the screws, there is another side. Sure, the US is definitely probing and pushing and raising the costs on Pakistan. The US wants to know what the Haqqanis, LeT and Jaish are worth to us.

But there are two other questions; questions few want to admit that Pakistan — the boys, essentially — has been asking of the US. The questions:

What is Afghanistan worth to you, America? And what is your relationship with us — Pakistan, a nuclear state — worth to you?

The answers to those questions have never been good. At least not good in a democracy-chasing sense that our major political parties, right and left, have desperately wanted the answers to be.

FATF has signalled inventiveness and fresh determination by the US against the boys. But in a way it has also signalled more of the same, rustling around for pinpricks and warnings.

Democracy is, and will remain, a domestic struggle. A Pakistani struggle.

Prepare to be squeezed harder.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018