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For whom the bell tolls

December 23, 2011

AS the gloves come off and pretences are dropped, it’s become terribly obvious: the army wants Zardari out.

Why, why now? Nobody is sure. The notoriously tight-lipped duo of Kayani and Pasha isn’t leaking anything and the politicians are groping for answers.

Reasons may not even matter anymore. From here, it seems inevitable that someone will have to go. But who? Zardari and/or Gilani and his cabinet? Kayani and/or Pasha?

History suggests that when this game is played, only one side emerges the winner. Sharif wrestled a draw in ’93 but that seems unlikely in the present circumstances. Still, amidst the growing uncertainty and alarm, the odds of survival of the main players are hard to gauge at the moment.

Zardari, the man with the big circle on his back, is constitutionally impregnable. But the onslaught against him and his government threatens to paralyse the system until Zardari has no option but to go.

A public battle will not help. The Gilani salvos and the MoD statement only reinforce the perception that the government is weak. It looks more desperate than defiant.

Zardari will have to negotiate but it isn’t clear if he has anything left to offer. The latest sacrifice — Husain Haqqani — didn’t appease the gods in Pindi and if the target is Zardari himself it’s difficult to see how he will bargain himself out of the corner he’s been pushed into.

There’s some hope in the possibility that while there is a confluence of interest between the army, the court and the PML-N, they still don’t appear to be acting in concert. If they turn on each other, Zardari could yet survive. But turning on each other is more likely to happen later, after Zardari is already out.

The smartest gamble: declare a fiscal and economic emergency and have Hafiz Sheikh announce a raft of policies that will help stabilise the economy. Not over the course of the next year or six months, but in a matter of days and weeks.

The reason: the army brain trust appears to have concluded that catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and public finances has put the country on the verge of catastrophe. And as relations with the US plummet, aid and dollar inflows could vanish, necessitating emergency triage of the economy and the public sector.

It may be the only thing that can save Zardari. Relying on constitutional niceties in a bare-knuckle fight isn’t a very smart idea.

For much the same reason, Gilani, the cabinet and the government itself are also vulnerable. If the problem is economic, then getting rid of Zardari alone will not fix the problem.

Those who have taken a hard look at the government have figured out that Zardari’s indifference to matters of governance and policy is only part of the problem: even were he to evince interest in policy matters, he doesn’t really have a team that can salvage the situation at this stage.

Sensing his vulnerability, Gilani is trying to use his megaphone to save himself and his government. First, he tried to pooh-pooh the possibility of a clash between the army and the government. When the army quickly shot down that effort, Gilani turned the dial to defiant mode and has been busy raising the alarm.

But Gilani’s fate is tied to Zardari’s. If the president has to go, it looks like his prime minister will have to follow him out.

On the army side, the more vulnerable principal is Pasha. His second extension runs out in March and government circles have been whispering darkly about how his boss, Kayani, may want him to stick around another year.

But with Pasha leading the charge on the memo issue, it’s hard to see how the government — assuming it’s around until March to decide the matter — will agree to another extension.

If the bitterness had not spilled into the open, the government could have tried to appease the growling beast and offered yet another lifeline to a favourite son. Now, after the ferociousness of Pasha on all things memo related, a third extension would amount to the government signing its own death warrant.

If Pasha were to go before March, his boss, Kayani, would have to go too. It is possible: chiefs who have overreached have been forced out in the past.

But this feels less like a Sharif-Karamat moment and more a Sharif-Musharraf moment. Having surrendered so much to the military and allowed disdain for him to grow and grow, Zardari doesn’t have the political capital to sack his army chief.

The mere mention of Zardari as the constitutional supreme commander of the armed forces attracts howls of derision and outright contempt. And all the things that have hurt Kayani’s standing in the army — a second term, May 2, the PNS Mehran attack, being perceived as soft on the Americans, etc — don’t really redound to Zardari’s advantage.

After all, it was Zardari who gave Kayani a second term and it was Zardari who made no effort to take advantage of Kayani’s vulnerability immediately after May 2. Besides, the memo saga has now switched the narrative and it’s Zardari who’s on the defensive.

Could this all be a Mexican stand-off, where everyone in the circle has a gun to the next person’s head, too afraid to pull the trigger but too scared to lower their weapon? If that’s the case, a negotiated settlement could be reached and the country could limp towards the Senate elections.

But as the threats and shouts intensify, as fear and anxiety grow and panic begins to take hold, someone could prematurely pull the trigger. Who survives that bloodbath will only be known after the dust settles.

Suffice to say, it’s not looking good for the civilians.

The writer is a member of staff.