A sceptic’s guide to memogate

November 17, 2011

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WHEN reality is so distorted, how does the record get set straight?

Memogate — the alleged plea by Husain Haqqani/Asif Zardari to save the civilian government from an army coup after May 2 in return for sacking military principals and disbanding a shadowy cell of the ISI that manages links to militant groups — was less startling than preposterous.

While this is Pakistan and anything is possible, some things are still more possible than others.

Ijaz, described by anyone who has interacted with him as a smarmy self-promoter, explained in The Financial Times the reason for the memo he had delivered to Mike Mullen through an intermediary as thus: “The embarrassment of Bin Laden being found on Pakistani soil had humiliated Mr Zardari's weak civilian government to such an extent that the president feared a military takeover was imminent. He needed an American fist on his army chief's desk to end any misguided notions of a coup — and fast.”

Rewind to the days between May 2 and May 10. There was anger in Pakistan, hard questions were being asked, backs were to the wall, people were in danger of losing their jobs, resignations were being demanded publicly and privately — but unless I was living in a different country those eight days, it was the army high command that was in danger then, not the bumbling civilians.

The month of May was the army's mensis horribilis — a truly horrible month in which May 2, the PNS Mehran attack and the disappearance and murder of Saleem Shahzad had put the generals on the rack, public opinion-wise. The idea that the wily Zardari and scheming Haqqani had not figured out which side was in danger and which wasn't after May 2 seems, well, implausible.

In fact, so profound was the anger and shock here over May 2 — partly over why Osama bin Laden was tucked away in a compound in the army's shadow but mostly over how the Americans were able to operate in Pakistan proper for an hour and a half or two unimpeded — that by the end of the month, everyone interested in righting the civil-military imbalance was lambasting the civilians for declining a once-in-a-generation, maybe once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to do something about that imbalance.

Memogate, then, if true, necessarily implies that Haqqani and Zardari were afflicted by a paranoia bordering on delusion: the other side, the boys in uniform, was in the deepest doodoo of their lives, and it's the civilians who were worrying about their jobs?

Could Haqqani/Zardari be that staggeringly out of touch with reality? My hunch, and it's only a hunch, is: no.

Zardari can and does say inane things and at times exhibits a peculiar complacency bordering on irrationality. Evidence of this came recently from a congressman, Michael McCaul, who went public with Zardari's misreading of the mood in US policy circles.

From this newspaper earlier this month: “According to Mr McCaul, the president also appeared to brush off threats that US aid to Pakistan could be significantly cut if Islamabad did not do more to squeeze militants like the Haqqanis.

“'I think he thinks it's a given that we are going to continue the aid, but I tried to tell him that it's in jeopardy,' Mr McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, said of President Zardari. 'He said, 'I appreciate your assistance, but it's trade more than aid that I need'.'”

So yeah, Zardari can be out of touch. But offering to sack army principals he gave extensions to last year and disband a shadowy cell that believes it is specifically protecting Pakistan's raison d'être in an institution that generally believes it is protecting Pakistan's raison d'être?

If true, someone needs to check what's in Zardari's meds.

The more likely, though far from certain, scenario? The boys are up to their tricks again. What they could want is any of several things, or perhaps none of them. Finally get the scalp of the intensely disliked Husain Haqqani? Install favourites in key policy and diplomatic slots? More extensions? Just as likely, it could be murky stuff that you and I know nothing about right now and will probably never ever know.

The trap may be more elaborate this time, but to anyone who has seen this cloak-and-dagger stuff over the years, the first suspect, the first port of call, is always the same.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of memogate is Mike Mullen's denial and then clarification of his denial and an outright admission.

We're talking here about an administration that doesn't officially acknowledge drone strikes or the 14-page memo Kayani handed Obama. That a recently retired top-ranking officer will through a spokesperson speak on the record to a reporter about such stuff is, quite frankly, astonishing.

Sure, Mullen denied he acted on the memo or that he took it seriously, but this two-term chairman of the joints chiefs of staff knows the media worldwide, even the Pakistani media, enough to be aware of his statement's implications for Haqqani and the media pressure it would pile on Zardari in an already lopsided civil-military relationship that the Americans presumably have some interest in rectifying.

So yes, memogate is finally genuinely intriguing. Not because it implies games are afoot inside Pakistan, which they always are, but because Mullen has seen it fit to throw Haqqani, and possibly Zardari, under the bus.

It's a tantalising question, based admittedly on flimsy evidence, but have the Americans soured on Zardari?

The writer is a member of staff

cyril.a@gmail.com