Thick muck

Published December 23, 2011

"The truth is, even if this is the most incompetent civilian set-up, it was elected and has the right to stand in another election and ask the electorate to judge them."– File Photo

The parameters and paranoia of the bygone Cold War just refuses to evaporate from the psyche of Pakistan’s military-establishment. That war might have folded with the folding up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it seems Pakistan’s military-establishment is still largely stuck (albeit willingly) in the thick muck that this war threw up in this region in the 1980s.

One can understand why. This establishment and its ‘natural allies,’ such as the religious parties, the more militant expressions of political Islam and some upwardly mobile conservative outfits have for years ignored a number factors that facilitated the anti-Soviet forces to defeat the former communist empire on the battlefields of Afghanistan, sticking instead to a narrative that puts the Pakistani establishment and its allies at the center of the universe that undid the power of the Soviets.

Of course, all the major reasons behind the Soviets’ defeat - such as massive American financial and military aid to Pakistan and to the anti-Soviet Islamist groups, as well as the Soviet Union’s own rapidly disintegrating economic system - are conveniently bypassed and thus, one can still hear former military men, ex-ISI chiefs and members of various Islamic parties claiming how it was ‘jihad’ alone that decimated a superpower.

With almost all the wars that it fought with India going in the favour of the enemy, one can understand the need within the military-establishment to hold onto the many myths of the ‘Afghan jihad.’

A ‘jihad’ in which this establishment and its religious allies get goose bumps from a projected memory: i.e. of them being the brave figurative heroes on horsebacks vanquishing the forces of ‘kufar’ (infidelity) instead of merely being the well-paid intermediaries and suppliers between Ronald Regan’s anti-Soviet neo-conservatives, the American CIA and Afghan Islamist guerrillas.

It is these ‘memories’, constructed from some genuine exhibition of gallantry of the Afghan guerrillas, but filtering out the cynical fattening and baseness that the Pakistani military-establishment enjoyed from US handouts and support during the ‘jihad,’ that the military wants to jealously guard.

Haunted by its defeats at the hands of the Indians and the humiliation that followed, it found itself bestowed by a new-found prestige and political and economic enrichment during the ‘Afghan jihad’ and the Ziaul Haq dictatorship; a fact and piece of luck the military-establishment was now willing to protect at any cost.

In this it feared civilian set-ups the most. It still does. Announcing itself as the most competent and natural guardians of ‘national interest’, it continued to place its artillery on the Indo-Pak borders, but after the ‘Afghan jihad,’ it became more-than-interested in what takes place in Afghanistan as well.

But, of course, the economic and political perks and privileges that it now enjoyed within the country, also saw it being equally busy keeping an eye on civilian political set-ups that might threaten these perks.

Topping the establishment’s list in this respect was Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). To the military the PPP was a remnant of ‘civilian authoritarianism’ that could (through the populist vote) begin to undermine the military’s post-Zia upsurge and economic interests. By the 1980s these economic interests had also become strategically and ideologically tied to those of the industrialists and the traders (especially in the Punjab).

So there is no surprise in the fact that the establishment decided to construct a right-wing anti-PPP alliance of conservative parties (led by an industrialist-turned-politician), Nawaz Shaif, and religious parties, many of whom had been the military’s partners in the US-Saudi-funded ‘Afghan jihad.’ These too had benefited handsomely from all the dollars, riyals and weapons that had poured in during the war.

Just before Benazir’s first government was left packing – for ‘corruption,’ but more so for undermining the military’s self-imposed and galvanized role as sole foreign and defense policy experts and guardians of ‘national interest’ – intelligence agencies, industrialists and sections of the press had gotten together to help fund the publishing of a series of press ads in national dailies against the ‘corruption’ of the PPP regime.

But then the establishment committed a mistake that it is yet to learn from, proving that it might fancy itself as being a clever political institution as well, but, really, its understanding of populist politics is as astute as that of a drawing-room ‘strategist’s.’

Buy facilitating Nawaz Sharif’s pro-military and pro-business (thus ‘pro-Islam’) Islami Jamhoori Itehad (IJI) come to power, the military-establishment did not (and still can’t) grasp the fact that once a leader and a party starts engaging with the politics of votes and populist fanfare, he or she is bound to attempt to create constituencies through policies that, in spite of being even slightly ‘pro-peoples’ or ‘awami’, are likely to go against the economic interests of a rich military.

Of course, that’s a very ‘corrupt’ thing to do. Not that civilian regimes have been clean, far from it; but what goes missing in the great debate about corruption in Pakistan is the fact that corruption had been institutionalized not during civilian set-ups, but mostly during military dictatorships.

One glance across economist Mehboobul Haq’s report about the ’22 richest families’ during the Ayub dictatorship (in the 1960s), or Ayesha Siddqua’s ‘Military Inc.’ (2006) or even the racy ‘Waiting for Allah’ by Chistina Lamb (1988), can easily confirm that as military dictatorships championed cleansing social and cultural ills and turn Pakistan into a military powerhouse and ‘bastion of Islam,’ the trade-off in this context has always been the institutionalization of corruption within the armed forces, as well as among those willing to support dictatorships, and eventually across almost all sections of the society.

Every time a civilian government has had to come in after a long military dictatorship, it has had to confront and address a long legacy of corruption, a severely dented political system and the resultant cynical, amoral social currents left behind the military regimes.

Then there is the media, parts of which have always happily compromised with the benefits that come along by toeing the establishmentarian line that associates the establishment’s narrative of ‘honor’, ‘faith’ and ‘national interest’ (i.e. political influence, empty sloganeering and meddling in the ways of civilian regimes) with ‘stability,’ ‘economic growth’ and ‘middle-class interests.’

The establishment’s gambit to put their own man in the shape of Nawaz Sharif as the leader of an elected parliament had to backfire. The backbone of Sharif’s power (in electoral politics) was bound to become the electorate, the same men and women on the streets that the military does not trust but is willing to instill in them an awe-struck passion and love for the armed forces.

This is a dichotomy the military just can’t seem to break free from. With a baggage and legacy of corruption and the issuance of draconian policies and laws of military dictatorships, the military-establishment sounds rather contradictory when exhibiting concern over a civilian government’s economic and political performance.

But perhaps grudgingly willing to concede the fact that an all-out military take-over is no more an option (perhaps the only post-Cold War reality it is aware of), the establishment has gone on to repeat the Ayub Khan formula of creating the military-establishment’s own civilian expressions by propping up parties.

Muslim League (Convention) during Ayub; Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), an alliance funded by industrialists but many of whose members were co-opted by the Zia dictatorship; Pakistan Muslim League formed by Zia; the IJI, formed by the ISI and remnants of the Zia era; the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), formed by General Parvez Musharraf; and now, most likely the propping up of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Thereek-i-Insaaf and a possible new ‘Islamic’ front in the shape of a revamped MMA.

But the Nawaz Sharif example in this context suggests that if Khan’s party is able to get an impressive electoral response (especially in the Punjab), Imran too is more likely to take the same populist route as did Sharif. Where will that leave those who are clearly propping him up?

Such are the dynamics of electoral politics, especially in a country with a vast ethnic and sectarian diversity. And such are the dynamics detested by the military-establishment that has continued to treat this diversity as something of a threat to national interest (and thus demonizing it with the help of an artificial ideological singularity and concept of nationalism).

Also, or thus, it has simply refused to come to terms with the fact that only a continuation of democracy is the only way to stop this diversity turning into a violent ethnic and sectarian monstrosity – a monstrosity that actually rears its head during military dictatorships and when a civilian regime is constantly harassed by the establishment to toe its monolithic, myopic lines at the expense of letting democracy flourish by handing this diversity by giving it the rights that it deserves.


Now we come to what has been happening between the current PPP regime and the establishment, rather President Zardari and the military-establishment. In a previous piece I had lamented that how just like Z A. Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto, Zardari, as head of state and of his party, is perhaps the most overt addressee of the military-establishment’s dogmatic postures and arrogant whims.

Simply because he finally wanted to put to rest the establishment’s long-held perception of the PPP being a parasitic anti-establishment party always out to destabilise the nice little picture of ‘stability’, ‘strategic balance’ and ideological robustness the establishment has build for us ignorant civilians.

Nevertheless, as can be seen by the fast eroding pragmatic partnership between the military and Zardari’s almost four-year-old government, and the way both the new and old scions of Punjab’s power politics have been buzzing around a rather media-conscious judiciary that seems to be only eating, sleeping and breathing Zardari, one can safely suggest the attempts of yet another Sindhi leader to please the establishment has come to a naught. Reason? Corruption, of course. And ‘undermining the judiciary’ and possibly selling out ‘national interest and honour’ (to the Americans).

I’ve already talked in length about the corruption aspect that gets a tad overtly put on civilian regimes, but, really, the undermining of judiciary accusation is like saying one was trying to shrug off a bluebottle hell bent on sticking to a single leg in a sea of thousands of legs.

And if this regime is selling out national honour to the Americans, then I wonder what were military regimes under Ayub, Zia and Musharraf selling (to the Americans)?

The truth is, even if this is the most incompetent civilian set-up, it was elected and has the right to stand in another election and ask the electorate to judge them.

The day state institutions and the military stop becoming the judge and jury of civilian regimes and consequently of those who voted them in (and can vote them out), is when we will be able to claim that yes, democracy certainly has arrived in Pakistan.

Otherwise, Pakistan will continue being stuck in a vicious cycle and a whirlpool. This is the consequence of a self-righteous and contradictory display of cleanliness among its uniformed and judicial ‘saviors’ who, in spite of the continuous failure of the singular and myopic concept of nationalism and elitist morality, have gone on to impose it over and over again, even if it has triggered military humiliation on battlefields, the crashing of the Two-Nation Theory, ethnic and sectarian bloodshed and terror evoked in the good name of the Lord.

The establishment should be careful. Very careful, for Sindh has the seeds to become another tragedy like Balochistan. Calls for honor and action taken to defend national interest should be doing quite the opposite, instead of leaving province after province to violently shrug off the sense of humiliation they feel in the undemocratic and mischievous ways such calls and action are imposed by the military-establishment and their allies.

The writer is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

*outside image illustration by Abro



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