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Civilian response

September 26, 2011


WHILE politicians bluster about the US, the military maintains its near silence on the issue. Little has been said about the ISI chief's meeting with Saudi intelligence officials on Monday, or about the cancellation of Gen Kayani's trip to the UK. No official statement followed the unscheduled corps commanders' meeting on Sunday. Not much leaked out of it either, with media reports drawing varying conclusions from limited information. According to one view of the meeting, however, the generals talked about de-escalating tensions with America. Meanwhile, the foreign minister is making bold statements about Pakistani sovereignty in New York, the prime minister has stated that the US cannot do without Pakistan, and the interior minister continues to issue dangerously categorical statements denying the Haqqani network's presence and links in Pakistan. And for leaders of right-wing parties it has been a field day, an opportunity to reiterate their anti-Americanism and score brownie points at political rallies.

Setting aside their merits for a moment, are these the actions of civilians serving as mouthpieces for a military that is choosing to play the role of peacemaker? Or are government officials and politicians actually attempting to influence Pakistan's foreign policy? The multi-party conference called by the prime minister for Sept 29 is a promising move, especially the intention to include a briefing by military officials. Presumably one of the things they will be asked about is the validity of Adm Mike Mullen's claims. Given where 10 years of military-driven foreign and defence policies have brought the country, such questioning would be long overdue. The establishment's cherished strategic depth strategy, and the related support for selected militant groups, had already proven to be tragically damaging for Pakistan's internal security. Now it threatens one of the country's most important relationships. If the events of May 2 did not result in attempts to increase civilian oversight, surely elected representatives should seize Pakistan's current embarrassment — and the economic and security risk it presents — as an opportunity to try to correct the balance of power.

This is not to say that politicians — as well as civil society — bear no responsibility for responding maturely and in a measured way. A conference such as this runs the risk of degenerating into a platform for all manner of hawkish, inflammatory statements whose primary purpose would be to play to — or create — a gallery of affronted Pakistanis. And the media's hysteria has already demonstrated how easily and quickly this issue can be exploited for ratings. If competing for cheap publicity remains their goal, these groups will come no closer to the position of leadership that elected representatives and the Pakistani people should occupy.