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Arbiters of public importance

January 07, 2012

WHEN the robe starts to wield the pen like a scalpel and the gavel like a sledgehammer, why bother debating the minutiae of jurisdiction, fundamental rights and what constitutes public importance?

Let’s dispense with the pretences. At the heart of memogate is a lie that the triangular nexus hinting darkly about the memo’s origins and purpose will never admit, at least to you and me.

The lie is this: the obsession with the memo isn’t so much about its contents as it is about who is believed to have authorised it and to whom it is addressed.

But let’s start with the contents. The memo was a stupid idea first and foremost because it was so utterly fantastical. Disband the ISI’s funny-business cell? Sack and/or prosecute elements in the security apparatus that are found shielding Al Qaeda types or the architects of the Mumbai attacks? Snatch oversight of the nuclear programme from the generals?

Who exactly was going to do this? Zardari and his ribald bunch of misfits who wouldn’t know a nuclear trigger from a jack-in-the-box or the letter of the law from the doodles on the back of a cereal box?

Or was Mansoor Ijaz, courier par excellence, going to be parachuted in with a bagful of monkeys who would dance a little jig that would so mesmerise the self-appointed custodians of the national interest that they wouldn’t notice they were being strapped onto gurneys and wheeled out as a cackling Ijaz assumed control of all that is holy and sacred in this blighted land of ours?

Lost, and very deliberately so, in the faux hysteria over memogate is the basic and original question that any hardnosed realist, i.e. anyone in a position of power here or in the US, would have asked when presented with the memo: was there a flying pig (or halal goat) of a chance that anything mooted in the memo could even remotely be pulled off by a civilian government as wretchedly weak and staggeringly unpopular as Zardari’s in a country where ‘civil-military imbalance’ is a euphemism to make the eyes water?

You’d think it would take some doing to whip up a frenzy over the impossible-to-enact, but in a land where reality is what you want it to be — regardless of what reality may have to say about that — the mild inconvenience of utter implausibility has been easily brushed aside.

Onwards to the realm of treason. It doesn’t matter what treason is or ought to be because we have the memo and the memo is the very incarnation of treason, a section of the media has told us.

Or, if you’re not quite frothing at the mouth as some in the firmament of punditry and the commentariat have been, then you’re supposed to at least believe that the memo is deeply, profoundly and utterly problematic.

Is it? The phraseology of the memo is definitely cringe-worthy. It’s got this we’re-on-our-backs, do-as-you-please smell to it that makes you recoil. But treason or misconduct aren’t built on dressing up a memo like a streetwalker.

The memo essentially has four parts to it. One, there’s Al Qaeda-related stuff, about handing over folks and allowing leading lights to be captured or killed on Pakistani soil. Two, there’s stuff about civilian control of the armed forces. Three, there’s stuff about the safety and security of the nuclear programme and assets. Four, there’s a bit about reining in non-state actors that threaten India and the US.

All meaty issues, big-boy stuff that isn’t meant to be dabbled in by the faint-hearted. But treason? Or matters worthy of a national political crisis?

For that, you need to introduce two additional elements: Zardari and the US.

You see, if Zardari is allegedly talking to the US about civilian control of the armed forces, then it translates in certain quarters as: US control of the Pakistani armed forces.

If Zardari is talking about nuclear safety and security with the Americans, then it translates into American control of the Pakistani nuclear deterrent.

If Zardari is talking to the Americans about reining in the non-state actors, then it’s all about eliminating the essential second line of defence cultivated and nurtured by the boys.

If Zardari is talking to the Americans about the capture or elimination of Al Qaeda figures on Pakistani soil, then it’s all about violating the sovereignty and honour of Pakistan.

Not convinced? Swap Zardari out of the equation and replace him with our self-appointed custodians of the national interest.

Now, if Kidwai and his boys talk to the Americans and the international community about nuclear safety and security and take a fistful of dollars to implement secret projects — as The New York Times has detailed — then there’s no question of compromising anything, national security, fundamental rights, public importance or whatever.

Or if the ISPR boasts of the army’s cooperation with the CIA in taking out yet-another AQ No. 3, as happened in the case of a certain Younis al-Mauritani a few short months ago, and drones buzz over Fata for years, we don’t have to worry about secret pacts because, y’know, we can always be sure those secret pacts will protect the national interest.

Or if Musharraf muzzled the jihadis after 9/11 under global pressure and called a timeout on the Kashmir jihad in 2004 after breakthrough talks with India, then all of that was fine, for the creators know best what to do with their creations.

That’s the lie. Memogate isn’t about treason or national security or misconduct or impeachable offences because it broaches issues that ought never to be broached with outsiders.

It’s about treason and national security and misconduct and impeachable offences because of who is believed to be doing the talking on the Pakistani side.

Transparent as that lie is, don’t expect the persecutors and prosecutors to acknowledge it. After all, it’s all about the national interest.

The writer is a member of staff