Grabbing power by its reins

Updated May 05, 2011

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Osama hosue
Osama hosue
Journalists and local residents surround the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad May 3, 2011. - Reuters Photo

“All praise is for the Almighty who bestowed sovereignty upon the army, then made the people subservient to the army and the army subservient to its own interests” — Justice M R Kayani

Here we are today, at the lowest point in our recent history. Found not in a cave of Tora Bora or in the ragged mountains of Waziristan but in the serenity of Abbottabad, living within a mile of the famous parade ground of PMA Kakul, next door neighbour to an Army Major and in the city that hosts three regimental centres, Osama Bin Laden, in our very own country. Many had feared that this day would come, but never imagined he would be living in such a suspiciously well protected manner.

By this time, I can assume with a high confidence that opinions and columns in the hundreds, if not thousands, have been written on what was Pakistan’s role in the raid, how Pakistan could have missed the most wanted man on Earth, what it means for Pakistan and how to move on. But, in the midst of all, we are losing a battle that we, the ‘bloody civilians’, have been eager to fight for too long.

Imagine this. The hurriedly called morning meeting at the roundtable in GHQ on May 2. Major and Lieutenant Generals tense and nervous, not knowing what to say. The General, K, possibly broke the ice by asking everyone about their last evening’s score on the 9-holes at the state subsidised Rawalpindi Golf Club. It was a birdie on the difficult 6th, he said. Oh, and he allegedly met the Chief Minister of Punjab too for some unknown reason.

What goes on in the corridors of military power is a mystery to us. What guides their actions remains a complex web of calculations, strategic they say, often immoral, disgusting, irrational and suicidal in our eyes. They value their assets, they hedge their bets and they play both sides of the game and try to bluff the single most powerful country in the world, to which they have played as a near mercenary force for a fair time (“Our Army can be Your Army” said Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the darling of the khaki apologists).

What we know today is that this is possibly the biggest embarrassment the military has faced in a long, long time. Forget 1971, it was far more morally disastrous but it had its jingoistic and racist supporters, but even in the eyes of the khaki-apologist, today the military is naked and deserving of criticism. The khaki apologist who becomes a constitutionalist when it comes to the failings of the army (the politicians are the constitutional power holders, they guided the actions, they “sold the country”, not the Army – is the usual defence) and are cognizant of the military’s powers only when it is on the good side of things, is angry today too. There are too many questions.

Did we protect him? Did we give him refuge? Why would we do that? If not, did we ignore his presence? Are we this incompetent? Did the Field Intelligence Unit (FIU) never ask a question about a mysterious seven kanal house with a three-story building, built by settlers known from being Waziristan? Is the holy mother of all agencies so inept and useless that in the sweeps done around areas visited regularly by the Army Chief and the upper hierarchy, they never got suspicious of the house and its residents? How did bin Laden come to Abbottabad in the first place? Did he take a Rs. 70, 13-seater Hiace ride from Mansehra and stop off at the Baloch Regimental Center?

If not, then why did they allow a foreign power to come in and hunt him down? Did our forces coordinate and collaborate with the US on the raid? Why are they not speaking? It is not as if they would not want to take credit for it. The logic of avoiding the local terrorists’ wrath is just too pathetic, they already target us. Mullah Omar’s, Hekmatyar’s and Haqqani’s anger be damned, this is their protector we are talking about. It is stupid, nay unimaginable, that our forces collaborated extensively and do not want to take credit for it. They would not risk inviting the wrath of the international media that they have called upon themselves today.

And then there is the ultimate nightmare. If they did not know about the operation, then really, like the Foreign Office in its poorly worded, shamefully funny press statement says, we failed to respond in time to nothing less than an invasion? At cruise speed, terrain hugging and avoiding radars, a UH-60 “Blackhawk” (or even the secretive stealth helicopter that are rumoured to have been used, although non-stealth Chinooks are alleged to have provided support too) would have easily spent more than 30 minutes inside Pakistani territory before the soldiers roped down into the compound. A 40-minute operation and then the return ride. In all, the US team spent at least an hour-and-a-half inside Pakistan and we failed to respond? Were our radars jammed completely? Did we even fail to respond to visual sighting of a bunch of helicopters? Is our response time so slow? With three regimental centres in a highly militarised town, no one was able to answer to a 40-minute ground operation by foreign forces? Are our defenses so inept and weak? Did we scramble jets? When did we, if, realise that it was a friendly country conducting an anti-terrorism raid and not “the enemy”? What is the purpose of keeping the armed forces if they consume such a large chunk of our budget and fail to respond to nothing less than an invasion that lasted for 90 full minutes?

I am, for not a single moment, arguing we should have shot down the Americans. I for one believe they did the right thing. For all we know, it was the nightmare we have, that some sympathetic group in our very forces protected the most wanted man on Earth. The questions I pose are the multitude that people from various facets of life and inclinations ask. They ask what would happen if India were to carry out the “surgical strike” that their jingoists threaten of? They ask, yes India is not the United States, but how could our air defense systems be so easily jammed and fooled and tricked? They ask, what is the response time to an invasion? What is the purpose of an Army that let’s others not just operate in its territory, but come in, operate and go back?

So, today, we are at a point where the Army’s defenses are weak. It is being criticised by the international community and ever so slightly, by locals too. But the criticism is weak and non-existent in comparison to what it should be. This is the time when the Army is rightfully exposed to the most criticism. If you ever held any views on civil-military balance that did not hold civilians in contempt, right now is the time to shout and be heard.

If there’s anything that can be guaranteed, it is that the military will remain the most dominant player in the echelons of power for the times to come. And because that will happen, we will continue to fight for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, we will continue to hold India as the mortal enemy, we will continue to amass even more nuclear weapons, procure even more fighter jets and buy another air refueler and what not. We will remain an impoverished, militarised, third world country. And as long as we remain militarised, and existing only to fight against the mythical enemy, the schools will remain dysfunctional, the hospitals non-existent and the people, poor, hungry and malnutritioned.

Barely 40 hours before the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or SEAL Team Six, fast roped down into the compound of Osama bin Laden, our Army Chief told a ceremony at the annual ‘Youm-e-Shuhuda’ (Day of the Martyrs) that prosperity must not come at the cost of honour and dignity. Where was the honour and dignity when, like the Foreign Office says, soldiers from another country basically invaded ours, operated and went back, without even so much as a bird being swatted in response?

The political process is an evolutionary one. Slowly, and slowly, we are moving towards a functional democracy. A Public Accounts Committee functions well today, maybe another institution of accountability and justice and public service will improve tomorrow. The politics of urbanisation is here. But amongst all this evolutionary change, unless the fish with the small legs comes out of the water, the process of evolution will face the ultimate barrier – the military.

I do not aim to demonise the military here. Our soldiers have laid down immense sacrifices for the protection of our boundaries. They have protected us from threats, both internal and external. Even today, make no mistake, we are at a state of war for such a large active deployment of soldiers is nothing short of a full-fledged war, and they are the constant targets of the forces of evil and enemies of humanity. But it is the higher direction of war that is misguided and irrational. We wanted to liberate Kashmir in 1965 and we failed. It only resulted in a large loss of life, loss of sympathy for the Kashmir cause and a permanent setback to the economy. We sent soldiers to die on the peaks of Kargil, fooling a Prime Minister and a nation and thinking that the world would accept that those were “non-state actors” and not our own soldiers. We abandoned our own uniformed men to die on the peaks when we could not even supply them with the basic food supplies for our war was adventurous and the shenanigans of a would-be autocrat. We have lost too many soldiers to the misguided policies of our higher brass. The soldier is just a pawn in the games of the powerful, for his life is a small price in the game of chess they play.

For all their failings, the politicians we have are ones we elected. Incompetent, greedy and often despicable as they are (supporting rapists and honour killers), they represent the collective will of the people in a system marred by inefficiencies and problems. Today is the time for them to come into action. It is not the time to be busy installing gas pipes in UC-84 of Muzaffargarh or to be making sure that their brothers and cousins got the 10 kilometre road construction contract. Today is the time to hold the military accountable for their failures and their actions and bring some direction to the state of affairs.

If there was a time for all facets of society to collectively bargain for change and demand action, this is the time. Come what may, a loosely tied group of non-elected, unelectable, “civil society activists” cannot bring change. Change has to come from the political class. Only they have the tools and the platform to do it. It is directly affected by the media and the perceived voice of the public. The fire breathing demagogues of television ape each other. Kharbooza kharboozey ko dekh kar rang pakarta hai. One of them rips apart a poetic self-righteous line on sovereignty and others feel the need to do so. Imagine that if we can collectively raise hue and cry, how the politicians cannot become sensible and secure enough to take action and hold the military accountable. While it would be commendable if they could resign for their failures, but they get extensions, it is upto the public to demand accountability. Intelligence failures in 1965 were never addressed, the concerned officer was promoted(!). In 1999, the adventurer toppled the government. Isn’t it time we demanded accountability of the powerful and unaccountable?

The Kargil Review Committee Report, commonly called the Subrahmanyam Report, was just a small step in the evolution of India’s civil-military balance. The politicians held their military accountable for the failures of Kargil. We never did that. Today is the most opportune time to do that. Constitute a Parliamentary Commission, for we do not have a Subrahmanyam, nor should we rely on ex-bureaucrats to do that. Select a few hawks, a Tehmina Daultana and a Khawaja Asif. Select a few mild, calculated and efficient politicians, a Raza Rabbani and SherryRehman. Do not put dubiously pro-military politicians like Chaudhry Nisar or ex-generals like Jehangir Ashraf Qazi on it. Summon the DG ISI, DG MI, DG IB. Summon the Army Chief. Summon the bureaucrats. Summon the experts. Summon everybody. Make them testify. Ask them the tough questions. Make the report, if not the proceedings, public.

What should they ask them? I cannot imagine that anybody would even want to ask the unimaginable (did we protect him?). It can only be an intelligence failure inquiry. The good that can come out of this exercise is enormous. A much needed and necessary reform in the intelligence community, a reform in the civil-military balance and a reform in the culture that defines the rules of Islamabad. For once, we could even bring the ISI under civilian control and make it focus on intelligence and counter-terrorism not chasing journalists on CD-70s. For once, we could, just maybe, begin to redress the civilian-military [im]balance in the favour of the civilians. Define the policy, make the policy and own it. Do not let the Generals do it for you anymore. We can, for the first time ever, dream of a national security and foreign policy dictated not by Rawalpindi and Aabpara, but one where civilians make competent decisions, impose their supervision and enable the military to competently implement it.

The op-ed writers, the TV anchors and the pundits are busy answering the questions that either the west has or the old, aged line around the smokescreen of sovereignty. They are missing the point. There is good that holds for us in this.

In the wake of 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed gagging orders to prevent the media from criticising the military. The soldiers who returned later were protected by the state and no one was allowed to criticise their actions. Their honour was literally restored by Bhutto. And they sent him to the gallows.

We must not put a shroud on the failures of the military anymore. We have embarrassed our country a lot already. Today is the time for reform, redress and for us to start a new beginning.The military must face music for its actions and failures. Civilian power must be recognised. Strike while the iron is hot.

Shahid Saeed likes to read history and tweet at @shahidsaeed