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A circle of disillusionment

Published May 16, 2011 01:47pm

Supporters of political party Pakistan Muslim League rally in favor of Pakistan army holding a picture of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Karachi, Pakistan on Friday, May 13, 2011. Pakistan's intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, admitted "negligence" on the part of authorities in failing to find bin Laden during a closed session in Parliament on Friday. – AP Photo

Has the Pakistan army come full circle? The criticism directed towards it since May 2, when American troops entered the country to raid Osama Bin Laden's hideout, forces one to ask this question.

Be it the American anger and doubts or the reaction from within Pakistan, it is evident that the army will face the brunt of the May 2 fall out.

What else would have compelled the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to rush to three garrisons to hold 'frank question and answer sessions' and indirectly point the finger at the media and the political government for the criticism that has been directed against the state institutions since the raid.

That a weak and powerless prime minister was roped in to give his vote of confidence to the military further expresses how dire the situation was. Yusuf Raza Gilani is the man who usually cited the army's support to lend credence to his assertions that his government would complete its term.

No wonder then that when on Wednesday afternoon PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif criticised the military's agencies, it was strangely reminiscent of the period just a few years earlier when the then COAS, General Pervez Musharraf, earned the military considerable flak.

If there is an analogy that can be used it is the story of Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. An individual who makes a Faustian bargain that allows him to lead a hedonistic life while it is his portrait that ages and disfigures over time, providing a mirror to his acts.

In the case of Pakistan, the acts are of individuals but it is the image of the institution that is tarnished.

In recent years, this was first witnessed during Musharraf's tenure. His political decisions beginning from the referendum to the 2002 elections produced the first signs of ageing and disfigurement. By 2006, the process of disfigurement accelerated and by the next year, it was in freefall.

And initially when Kayani took over from Musharraf in November 2009, he focused on the image.

Step by step after that, the 'sins' of Musharraf were washed away; a repair job as complex as the restoration of the grand masters was undertaken by the new chief of staff.

Painstakingly it began when his first decision after taking over was to visit the troops deployed in FATA. Away from the frontlines, he got rid of signs of wear and tear by recalling army men from political jobs, warning soldiers to staying away from politicians and a formal announcement also to stay away from the elections of 2008. Repair work was helped along with the crises the politicians created such as the long march on Islamabad in 2009 when Kayani's behind the scene efforts were seen as a conscious decision to not plunge into politics.

But as Oscar Wilde noted in his novel, the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it, another Dorian Gray succumbed – in July 2010. The soldier's soldier, as Kayani was called, yielded to political considerations and accepted an extension of his term.

A second term is rarely ever kind to politicians, who usually are allowed one (think of Ronald Reagan who faced the Iran Contra scandal in his second one and Bill Clinton who dealt with the Lewinsky saga). For a soldier at the top the price is paid by the army.

Each decision of his then is seen to stem from an agenda, an agenda that is linked to the extension. Everything sticks — to the image of the army.

There were the cable leaks in December of last year, revealing his political wheeling and dealing and the reports that agencies were behind the hysteria whipped up over the arrest of Raymond Davis, who was freed once the CIA-ISI reached some sort of an understanding.

A wart became visible when the army chief criticised a drone attack after having ignored them from years; press reports suggested that the motives were driven by politics and not concerns for law or human lives.

But it was May 2 that dealt the worst blow.

There are rumours and conjectures and conspiracy theories about what the army high command knew or didn't about bin Laden's presence and the US raid.

The issue is not that there is any truth to the rumours or not; the issue is that not a soul inside the country or outside is willing to trust what the army has said about the raid. The conspiracy theories point to the skepticism that exists which is no less than the disbelief that meets a politician's assertion that he is not corrupt.

Critics sneer that Opposition leader Nisar Ali Khan is only indulging in political point scoring when he lashes out at the military or the agencies in his speeches in the parliament; but the important thing is that Khan feels that hitting out at the army will earn him brownie points with the people. Whether or not he means what he says is irrelevant.

A junction that we have reached but three years after the military swept through Swat in a blaze of positive media coverage, not just in Pakistan but worldwide.

From 2007 to 2009 and now 2011. The present is far too similar to Musharrafian past.

Evidently, we are destined to witness successive acts keep repeating the same story — on tarnishing, repairing and then another bout of disfigurement.

There is no denouncement and no end. Just a circle of disillusionment.