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The tale of civilian survival

January 29, 2012

SOMETHING astonishing has just occurred in Pakistan, in case you missed it: nothing.

The army was poised to engineer the ouster of yet another civilian government, the plot was in an advanced state of execution and yet, somehow, incredibly, unbelievably, the political government is still with us, crowing about calling elections on its own terms.

In the inscrutable world of politics here, the non-coup — soft, hard, fluffy, whatever — seems to have come down to the choices of two men: Gen K and YRG.

Let’s start with Gen K. From most angles, the chief appears to have suffered another defeat. He upped the ante and came away empty-handed. That is not supposed to be the fate of army chiefs.

Three extraordinary public interventions on memogate — the Supreme Court statement and two ISPR ripostes — meant the chief had staked his reputation on getting a result. In this game, at this level, win and you win big; lose and your defeat hangs heavy, an embarrassment known to one and all.The more difficult question: why did Gen K lose this round? Part of the answer is YRG, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The other part appears to be the general himself.

For those with a pathological hatred of all things uniformed, the general’s reversal is barely comeuppance for an institution that is genetically programmed to refuse to share.

Arguably, no civilian government had given as much to the army as this PPP government has: pay raises, budget demands, foreign and national-security policies, extensions. And when the government had a chance to go for the jugular, after May 2 or PNS Mehran, it stood back and allowed the army to recover.

And yet this government found itself under withering attack. The army just doesn’t like to share, goes this theory. There’s a merciful corollary, though: the generals aren’t very bright. Failing to recognise that Pakistan had changed, that gone are the days a few tanks and a handful of soldiers were enough to take over, the generals used an old playbook.

They thought that if they roared, the civilians would scurry away and the army could rejig the system to suit its needs. Instead, like in a cartoon of yore, the lion roared, the ground shook, the leaves quivered but the mouse standing in front of the lion stared into its maw unruffled. And when the roar ended, the mouse poked the lion in the eye.

Vaulting ambition but not very bright — that’s one explanation for why the army tried and failed to get the government.

Another, less popular theory, is that Gen K is walking a tightrope. His commanders have been furious, demanding that a corrupt and incompetent government be sorted out and that Gen K do whatever it takes. But Gen K knows the unholy mess the army would be wading into: if it were that easy to fix Pakistan, someone would have done it by now. And maybe, just maybe, the general understands that it isn’t the business of the army to fix Pakistan.

The problem, though, according to this theory, is that Gen K’s commanders mock him privately, suggesting his hesitancy has everything to do with being a compromised chief who took an extension and has to return the favour. So when the commanders push hard, as they have in recent months, particularly over memogate, Gen K has to try and placate them.

But, in a tale of many, many twists, Gen K’s options were limited by his attempt to steer clear of the mud pit of politics during his tenure as chief. Folks like the MQM and the PML-Q have been kept at arm’s length, which meant that when it came to unravelling the government, the old dominos didn’t fall like they once would have.

So which is it: is Gen K the general who tried and failed or the general who didn’t really want to succeed? The answer, as with so much else, depends on what you feel about the army.

But there was another player, an unexpected protagonist: the prime minister.

Perhaps the army camp was so focused on AZ and breaking him, they didn’t anticipate a counter-attack from YRG. Here, after all, was a man derided for much of his tenure as a second-fiddle weakling content to pad the family nest and protect his base in Multan.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Whatever acts of defiance Gilani was known for before, nothing comes close to staring down an army high command looking to strike. The potential costs were obvious — see how Husain Haqqani has suffered — and the benefits nebulous at best — who has fought and won against the army before? And since YRG wasn’t known for being especially close to AZ, it made little sense to put himself in the line of fire when everyone knew the real target was AZ.

But Gilani’s stunning defiance opened an unexpected front with the army, one they didn’t appear prepared for. The PM did make one mistake, which allowed the army to push back a bit: the claim that the army and ISI chiefs had acted ‘unconstitutionally and illegally’ appears to have been prompted by Gilani’s limited understanding of proper procedure. Other than that, when the army roared, Gilani roared back louder, causing consternation and confusion in the opposing camp.

So, between the general who didn’t do what was expected of him and the prime minister who did what wasn’t expected of him, appears to lie the tale of civilian survival against army machinations.

There may yet be another round and the old order could find itself restored still. But savour for now the unexpected, if not near-miraculous. Pakistan doesn’t often produce pleasant surprises.

The writer is a member of staff.