KA-CHING. That’s the sound that would have gone off inside President Asif Zardari’s head as it dawned on him that the Americans had taken out Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil without informing the Pakistan Army.
And why not? His government’s term had just been guaranteed.
The connection between the army’s humiliation and the government’s longevity is obvious enough.
While it had been clear for some time that the government was more likely to complete its term than not, the shambolic state of governance did leave a faint question mark hanging over Zardari & Co. If nothing else, as the army’s perks and privileges come under threat from the deficit chasm, the incentive for it to strike would have increased a smidgen.
But the extraordinary blow dealt to the prestige and credibility of the army high command by the OBL debacle was an extraordinary stroke of luck for Zardari and the PPP. With knives out everywhere for the establishment, the possibility of the establishment slipping a knife into the back of the government or politically decapitating it has now evaporated.
And this was before Nawaz Sharif came out swinging against the army. With the only real electoral alternative to the PPP turning the screws on the army, the PPP looks a safer bet than ever. And so the accidental president and his ramshackle government appear poised to achieve the improbable: complete a term.
But it will be a hollow victory. What Asif Zardari and his government have taught us is, that which strengthens a civilian government’s hand isn’t necessarily that which strengthens the democratic project.
Today, we can say with reasonable confidence that this government will complete its term. But so what? On Asif Zardari’s watch the security establishment, aka the Pakistan Army, first staged an improbably quick comeback from the lows of the Musharraf era and now looks set to ride out the worst crisis of confidence in the army since ’71 without so much as a mild critical remark from the political government of the day.
If you happen to believe the civil-military imbalance — the euphemism for the army’s internal predominance — is asphyxiating democracy in Pakistan, and by extension the overall progress of the country, then the Asif Zardari-Gen Kayani era has been yet another missed opportunity for the civilians.
Put yourself in Gen Kayani’s shoes and try thinking of a better available partner than the accidental president with the one-point agenda of having his government complete its term in office?
First, the strongman general snatched away the foreign policy and national security domains from the meek president and his weak government. And then, when the choices made in those arenas by the uniformed lot have led to a full-blown crisis, the besieged army high command has been let off scot-free by the civilian government. Tails I win, heads you lose — it’s a pretty good deal, if you can get it.
So has Zardari got it totally wrong? Not exactly.
The goal of completing a term is a necessary one. Holding regular, properly spaced-out elections is a key element of political stability — and political stability ought to bring with it a qualitatively better democracy. The problem is that Zardari has fetishised the goal of his government completing its term, subordinating every other consideration to it.
Governance and policy-making have never really interested the president, neither in his present incarnation nor his previous ones, so to expect him to have morphed into a policy wonk was a bit much. But the man who has shown a surprising deftness of touch in the political arena has been stubbornly unwilling to modify his strategy when it comes to the army.
Supporters will point to the early attempts to try and roll back the army’s predominance — the abortive attempt to bring the ISI under the interior minister’s heel and the flirtation with nuclear strategy — but in truth those episodes betrayed more about the inadequacy of the PPP’s approach than the army’s ability to adroitly slap away attempts at trying to collar it.
Fast-forward to the present and compare, or rather contrast, Nawaz Sharif’s move to pressure the army with the government’s hands-off approach. Cleverly, Sharif’s call for a judicial commission has put both the army and the government on the back foot — the government because it will now have to explain why an in-house army ‘investigation’ is sufficient (as the army clearly wants Pakistanis to believe).
But more than the tactic, it’s the thinking behind Sharif’s move that is important. Sharif appears to have grasped, and more importantly is willing to act on, a central fact in the quest to rectify the civil-military imbalance: the army will not surrender its ascendancy over the civilian politicians without the fiercest of fights.
Take the ISI example. In 2008, Zardari clumsily tried to begin the process of bringing the ISI to heel. When the first foray failed, Zardari folded. Two and a half years later, the army had grabbed so much space that it was able to confidently pretend a second extension for the ISI chief was an internal army matter.
Take on the army, and the politicians will likely lose the first, second, third, fourth and fifth time. And probably the sixth time, too. But baulk at challenging the army’s domestic pre-eminence and the politicians are guaranteed to be on the losing side forever.
Sometimes you need valour, not discretion. Zardari’s original goal was right. But inflexibility in the face of a stunning, historic opportunity to chip away at the civil-military imbalance will hurt the democratic project — and possibly come back to haunt the president and his party in 2013.
The writer is a member of staff.