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The creeping coup

December 23, 2012

BY most accounts, Gen K is a lame duck.

Battered by events, undermined by indecision, compromised by the extension — few chiefs who haven’t run the country directly have appeared so weak before. Beware the premature political obituary.

Quietly and deliberately, the chief has tightened his control over the mother of all institutions in Pakistan.

From the ISPR to the ISI, Gen K exercises full and direct operational control in a manner few other chiefs have managed.

Every chief appoints loyalists to key positions but it’s the extent to which some offices have become invisible under Gen K that is striking.

After Pasha, the ISI needed a lower-profile DG, but to the extent Islam has been? The myth of a state within a state, of rogue sub-institutions and the like has always been just that — a myth.

The chief directed policy and the ISI — sometimes reluctantly; mostly marching in lockstep — followed orders. But there was still some air between the two before; space that Gen K appears to have swallowed up.

The former DG ISI is the de facto current DG ISI.

Elsewhere, five years of controlling appointments and careers has meant a council of elders, i.e. the corps commanders, that reflects a very personal taste.

There may be widening snark and emasculatory nicknames being bandied around at lower levels, but at the top, the ranks have closed around the chief.

It helps that the cost of dissent is unacceptably high, given that with a stroke of the pen the special ones can be cast into oblivion.

But all of this power, to what end?

In 2010, when the extension was wanted and so granted, the guess was, to be chief-for-life.

Quickly enough, events intervened and that goal seemed to slip out of reach.

Then, events intervened again, this time towards a more fortuitous bend.

Perhaps the most dispiriting of all developments in recent months has been the Americans, and to some extent, the British, rediscovering their love for our boys in uniform.

That the US has seen Pakistan through the prism of Afghanistan over the past decade is well known enough.

But as 2014 approaches and political deadlines exert ever-more-urgent pressure, the prism itself, never clear or coherent to begin with, is becoming murkier and murkier.

There is much talk about fundamentals and bare minimums and red lines in the Afghan project but when push comes to shove, it will ultimately come down to this:

The US wants a dignified exit from Afghanistan after 2014 — essentially, to wind down combat operations without the whiff of defeat — and for Afghanistan to hold together long enough to put some distance between the war and collapse, if collapse is in fact inevitable.

For that minimal project in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s help is needed.

And when the Americans look at Pakistan and who can deliver what here, their eyes inevitably drift towards the boys.

Call it naivety, call it desperation, or perhaps a bit of both, but all the chatter of a changing Pakistani approach to Afghanistan — a last-minute change of heart that neatly fits into American drawdown timelines — flows from the hope that Pakistan will not play the role of spoiler.

As ever, sensing an opportunity to mask its own fears with the aura of indispensability — and also having absorbed the lesson of overplaying its hands after the Salala attack — the Pakistan Army has dangled the carrot of cooperation just so.

Prisoner releases, action against some cross-border militant activity, healthy conversations, convergences — it’s as if after a decade of being on opposite sides of a war, the US and Pakistan have suddenly woken up to the realisation that they have common interests after all.

If you don’t quite buy the theory of converging interests, there is another, more realistic explanation:

Sensing a new chapter about to begin in Afghanistan and unsure how it will play out, Gen K is hedging his bets. Better to keep the lines of communication with the US open and be privy to their evolving approach than to be shut out and unable to head off harmful choices by the US or see them coming and adjust for them.

In many ways, it reflects the Musharraf approach in 2001, when he embraced the war on terror and seemingly also the foreign mission in Afghanistan, only to slowly roll out the ‘double game’ once the rules of the new game and its direction had been absorbed.

Ten years on, the Americans ought to know better — but in the world of policy, trying to do something ahead of a significant shift in policy is better than not doing anything.

The generals here may well not cooperate in the end, the Americans will know, but who’s in charge of Afghan policy in Pakistan and who can deliver, if the incentives to deliver are created?

The answer, dispiritingly for those invested in the democratic project in Pakistan, is the same as ever: the boys, now guided by the chief-for-life, Gen K himself.

Combine the vice-like control of the army and its intelligence apparatus with a powerful external player once again courting a ‘pragmatist’ and a general they can ‘do business with’, and we’re back in the realm of indispensability.

Indispensability is not immune to events, of course, as 2011 proved. But a mind focused on survival, and continuity, can adjust when the unexpected hits.

And few have proved better at survival and continuity than Gen K.

Put it this way. 2013 brings with it the expiry of the terms of parliament, the president, the chief justice and the chief — and alone among those four, the chief seems to hold his destiny in his own hands.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm