The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by the U.S Navy’s special operations force has created an obvious rift between the people of Pakistan and their Army. Tough questions are being asked about the security establishment’s role in the entire affair: did it know that the world’s most wanted man was living at walking distance from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul in Abbottabad? Was it involved in turning him in? If not, why not? Did it know about the U.S. operation in advance? If so, why did it allow the unilateral operation on its territory? If it did not know, what is the point of a military?
The last time public ire against the military was apparent was in 2007 when Pervez Musharraf was running the show as “President General” — he was Army chief as well as head of government. Eight years had passed since his coup against Nawaz Sharif, and if Pakistan had once welcomed the takeover, it was quite sick of him by this time. Not surprisingly, his decision to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary backfired not just on him but by his association with it, on the entire Pakistan Army. The judge was hailed as someone who had finally shown the guts to stand up to the “khakis” by his refusal to resign, and became an unlikely hero.
Throughout that summer, there were cries of “Go Fauj (military) go,” alongside the slogans of “Go Musharraf Go.” Questions were asked about the military budget; a vehicle mounted with a cut-out of a military boot stomping over the common man was a permanent feature of countless rallies that year asking Musharraf to quit office. But if there was a civilian opportunity here, it disappeared quickly.
After Musharraf finally tearfully stepped down as the Army chief in November 2007 before taking oath as President for a second five-year term as part of a grand political bargain with Benazir Bhutto, the new Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani wasted no time in setting about rebuilding and restoring the image of the institution.
It did not take him too long. Aside from its immediate goal of having the Chief Justice restored to his position, the lawyers’ movement may have at times seemed as if it was about reducing the Pakistan Army’s oversized role in national affairs; in reality, it was about getting rid of one unpopular soldier, General Musharraf, not only because he had tried to sack the Chief Justice, but also for a sackful of different reasons: for his pro-U.S. policies, for handing over alleged terrorist suspects to the U.S, for cracking down on militant groups, for what people saw as virtual “surrender” to India on Kashmir.
Rid of Musharraf, the Army distanced itself from him immediately. Though military co-operation with the U.S remained intact, Gen. Kayani took measures that restored its popularity and made him look good in comparison to Musharraf, such as pulling military officers from civilian positions in government, prohibiting the officer corps from hobnobbing with politicians, and reining in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the February 2008 election, so it played no role in the selection of candidates, during the voting itself, in government formation or in the allocation of portfolios.
The unpopularity of Asif Ali Zardari, especially after he became President, helped improve the Army’s stock. The November 2008 Mumbai attacks tilted the delicate civilian-military balance completely to the side of the military. By cranking up fears of a strike by India and scrambling its fighter jets to meet the purported Indian threat, the Pakistan Army deflected the entire debate about the Mumbai attacks to the imminence of an India-Pakistan war. The nation rallied behind its Army, and India was no longer victim, but the aggressor. President Zardari’s vision of building not just peace but “synergies” with India, which he articulated several times in 2008, was given an unceremonious burial.
After that, the Pakistan Army was on a roll. The anti-Taliban operations in Swat saw it aggressively market itself as the saviour of the nation. Much of the Pakistani media was eating out of its hands. By the time the Kerry-Lugar Bill authorising non-military aid to Pakistan came to fruition in late 2009, the Army was in a position to rally the entire country to protest against conditions in the legislation that sought to rein in its role in national affairs, and to blame the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government for having those conditions inserted. For a country that had taken pride in its democracy movement just two years earlier, this was a swift turnaround.
Much to the glee of the people, the Supreme Court aggressively questioned hapless government officials for letting President Zardari off the hook in corruption cases. But neither the judges nor the media ever asked any questions of General Kayani — as the head of the ISI in 2007, he was part of the regime’s “A” team that worked out the details of the amnesty granted to Benazir and Zardari in order to facilitate Musharraf’s election as President, flying between Islamabad, Dubai and London for meetings with the PPP leader on behalf of his boss.
Instead, there were stories about how General Kayani was the only one of the assembled top brass who did not say a word at the March 2007 meeting at Army House in Rawalpindi where Musharraf asked the Chief Justice to resign, while the heads of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Military Intelligence (MI) went as far as to submit affidavits to support Musharraf’s move against him.
The bin Laden episode has brought back questions about the Army. As in 2007, this time too there is more than one thread to the people’s anger. There are those who are taking the Army to task for allowing the U.S. to violate national sovereignty, thus putting at stake national honour and pride; they are asking how this self-appointed guardian of the “national ideology” can guard its frontiers from other wolves at the door, mainly India,
Separately, there are those asking questions about what Osama bin Laden was doing in the country, right in the middle of the military’s stamping ground, why the Pakistan Army and the ISI had failed to find him when he was in their midst all these years, if they knew he was there, if so, why did they not give him up.
Once again, there is a civilian opportunity, but it lies in the second line of questioning about the Pakistan Army’s national security vision, its strategic priorities and its links to extremism and militancy.
Predictably though, it is the first line of questioning that the security establishment is using to reassert itself because it is this that helps shift the debate back towards the perceived threat from India, the oxygen on which the military has built its pre-eminence in national life.
Statements from the Indian defence establishment, and others boasting about the Indian Army’s capacity to carry out Operation Geronimo style raids to seize India’s “most wanted” such as Dawood Ibrahim, aside from being highly dubious, have only given a lifeline to the Pakistan Army as it flails about trying to explain away its OBL failure.
It has sent out a thinly veiled warning to India of the consequences of “any misadventures of this kind”. And it has sought to reassure the “national honour” school of critics that Pakistan’s nuclear jewels are safe, reasoning that unlike an unguarded civilian compound that could be attacked by an airspace violating helicopter, these are under stricter care. This has helped to deflect some of the attention from its dubious role in l’affaire OBL and divert it across the border. Predictably also, efforts have begun to implicate the country’s civilian leadership for what was essentially a military fiasco from Pakistan’s point of view.
For India, peace with Pakistan is dependent to a large extent on the strengthening of that country’s civilian moments. Undoubtedly such moments suffer from the absence of good leadership; the country’s politicians are hate figures distrusted by the people; the people too are easily swayed by their security establishment, as they were after the Mumbai attacks. But Indian chest-thumping at Pakistan’s multiple embarrassments last week does nothing to help tilt the balance toward the civilian side either; it only ends up strengthening the military and pushes back the two countries chances for normalising relations.