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A wearily familiar bag of tricks

June 16, 2011

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ONE set of rules for themselves. Another set for the people they rule over, or who dare cross them. The army has been busy rounding up the OBL support network.

But not the network which helped the world’s most wanted terrorist hide a stone’s throw from where the army chief boasted his forces had broken the backbone of the terrorists.

No, the army has gone after the support network that helped capture and eliminate the world’s most wanted terrorist. You couldn’t make this stuff up — unless you knew what makes the army tick in the first place.

The army high command has two constituencies: the public at large and the military rank and file. With those two constituencies won over, and with their rear and flanks thus covered, the army high command is able to do what’s necessary to retain its internal predominance.

Since May, however, those two constituencies — so key to the army high command’s image of itself and what it’s able to get away with at home and outside — have been up in arms.

Perhaps most critically, the army rank and file (the ones at the top have more to lose and so are less inclined to criticise openly) has expressed deep unhappiness with the policies of their institution, increasingly exposed by events as duplicitous.Which leaves Gen K and his diminishing band of supporters in desperate need of something to stop the haemorrhaging of support accumulated through a combination of serendipity and shrewdness since the end of the Musharraf era.

No brilliant thinkers or strategists among them, they have turned to the obvious: pander to the populist tripe they have helped perpetuate and which has become an article of faith for people in uniform — that the US ultimately seeks to harm Pakistan and we must wriggle away from its deadly embrace.

Kicking out the Raymond Davis clones, arresting anyone remotely western-looking on an expired visa, detaining the people who helped piece together the goings-on in the OBL compound — all is meant to try and send a message that the army knows who the enemy is and is willing to take them on.

There is also signalling at another level. The infamous corps commanders’ statement was more carefully crafted than first recognised. “It needs to be clarified that Army had never accepted any training assistance from the US except for training on the newly inducted weapons and some training assistance for the Frontier Corps only. Even that has ceased now.”

See what that does, bold typeface and all? It says, the army is a self-sufficient fighting machine and doesn’t need Americans to teach it how to fight. In the macho world of soldiering, nothing is worse than having to rely on others to defend oneself.

In fact, the entire statement can be read as a point-by-point rebuttal to and reassurance on issues raised during Kayani’s town hall-style meetings with his troops. Faced with a choice — do you put some daylight between the US and the army to appease the rank and file or do you locate the relationship with the US in a necessary and pivotal fight against terrorism and extremism? — the army high command appears to have decided to appease its core constituency, the rank and file.

The path chosen shouldn’t come as a surprise. While the ability for this institution to self-reflect or course correct is non-existent, the survival instinct is well-entrenched. A disgruntled rank and file is never a recipe for survival.

The trouble is, attempting to win back the affections of the rank and file and the admiration of the public at large in this way means pushing the US further away — but that comes at a great cost and in any case, the US has developed a few tricks of its own to hit back.

Since May 2, the media has been used with great success by American officials to keep the squeeze on the army and prevent it from wriggling away.

After the OBL raid, the army was forced to keep changing its account of the American operation almost on the hour. What was initially spun as a ‘joint operation’ eventually became a humiliating admission of failure to detect the US intrusion into Pakistani airspace. Then, when Hillary Clinton presented a list of demands to the generals, American officials made sure those demands were leaked to the media one by one, forcing the generals here to deny yet more secret deals were in the works.

Soon, the North Waziristan bomb factories made their way into the news, ostensibly once again exposing the army’s perfidy and earning it a fresh round of criticism from the US. Now, we are told the local CIA spy network which helped capture OBL is in the army’s bad books — embarrassing the army by making it look petty and vindictive, or worse.

Weak, stupid, vulnerable, secretive, duplicitous — with each successive media leak, the US is chipping away at the army’s self-belief, eroding the space for it to convincingly vilify the US while further vilifying the army in the minds of many who already regarded it with suspicion.

(Of course, this being Pakistan, where things are never simple, the Americans may be being too clever by half. The campaign of embarrassing media leaks may actually be making it more difficult for the army high command to do anything but embrace anti-Americanism further, rendering the anyway likely into the certain.)

All the while, the public at large — the army’s second core constituency and internal line of defence — has been looking on in bewilderment, unsure of what it all means but pretty sure they have been lied to at all times.

What comes next? Unhappily, more of the same for now, it seems.

But at least this army high command won’t be able to argue, after it, the deluge. The deluge is already here.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com