Pointing guns and stroking backs

The implications of Pakistan’s power triangle

Those who follow Pakistan are familiar with the metaphor that describes that country as “negotiating with a gun to its own head.” Here’s an update: it’s now run by three power centres—the military establishment, the higher judiciary and the civilian government—, where one holds a gun to the another’s head, while not so subtly stroking the back of the third. That makes the drama complex and absorbing, but the upshots for the rest of us are simple.

First, you can’t deal with Pakistan any more. You need to deal with bits, pieces, factions and quarters of Pakistan. Since none of them has the power to see through whatever they might agree, any commitment or deal they make involves, shall we say, immense counter-party risks. In other words, it means they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Whether it’s the IMF dealing with the Pakistani treasury apparatus, or the Indian commerce ministry discussing trade with its Pakistani counterpart or the United States government working on a deal over Afghanistan, there’s no guarantee that the Pakistani side is in a position to see through its end of the bargain. The only reason to persist is perhaps because, well, “the show has to go on.”

Second, the civilian government has neither any control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies nor has any real means to bring terrorists to justice. The military establishment controls the former and the higher judiciary controls the latter. There is a degree of tacit but not-so-subtle complicity between the two. In other words the military-jihadi complex not only remain in charge but now has a lot more latitude because there are fewer pretenses to keep and fig leaves to hold up. The complex has also regained narrative dominance. To the extent that the presence of US and international forces in Afghanistan keeps the Pakistani army strategically focused on that front, General Kayani and his colleagues are unlikely to want to escalate tensions with India through renewed terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Third, while the general view is that the US-Pakistani alliance is over, it is difficult to shake-off the perception that Washington has decided to work with the Pakistani military establishment rather than strengthen the hands of the civilian government. Therefore, at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, Washington has again let go of an opportunity to put the military monster back in the pen. There are good excuses for this, but as much as they are good, they are still excuses.

This does not mean that President Asif Zardari will lose and General Kayani will win decisively. On the contrary, Mr Zardari might be considered to have won if he and his government just survive in office for their term. General Kayani, on the other hand, needs to meet the standards set by his successful coup-making predecessors. That is not a victory for democracy. It is at best an establishment of a new, tenuous distribution of power which, as described above, involves gun-pointing and back-stroking.

What should we make of Memogate?

A bold move to weaken the Pakistani military-jihadi complex backfires

It was a risky enterprise, but the opportunity was unprecedented. Whether or not there was actually a risk of an overt military coup in the early days of May 2011, after the US military raid killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, it nevertheless opened up a window of opportunity to kick the Pakistani military establishment when it was down. The public image of the army as an institution was down. This was different from the previous low of 2007, when the army’s unpopularity was linked to General Musharraf’s person and regime. Getting rid of General Musharraf allowed the army to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the Pakistani public, and creating war hysteria following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 restored its position at the apex of power.

However in the first week of May this year, merely getting rid one or two top generals was unlikely to save the army’s reputation. In fact, it would perhaps have led to calls for more, with the Pakistani elite—in their typical bandwagoning fashion—calling for more heads to roll. The military establishment got out of this hole by floating the ‘ghairat’ balloon, creating a confrontation with the United States and letting Imran Khan become a lightning rod for popular sentiment. But we digress. The point is that in May 2011, it was possible for bold political entrepreneurs to make an attempt to go one-up on the military establishment. There are two broad explanations of what happened next.

Here’s the first one. We do not know who those bold political entrepreneurs were. They could well have been President Asif Zardari, his confidant Ambassador Husain Haqqani (who have both denied this), or some other people whose identity we do not know. It has been asked why they should choose someone like Mansoor Ijaz? Their choice of a mercurial personality with a history of attempting diplomatic bravado and making taller claims about his role is quite understandable. Given the risks of such a manoeuvre—which have since materialised—they needed dollops of plausible deniability. Mansoor Ijaz was actually a good candidate to be the “go-between”, for he had both dubiousness and access to high-level back channels within the US government.

Once the memo was drafted and delivered, Kayani & Co got wind of it—the ISI would be incompetent if it didn’t have people in Washington who would find out about these things—and ‘persuaded’ Mr Ijaz to blow the story in a way that would create maximum damage to the Zardari government. All Mr Ijaz had to do was find some pretext to for his going public with the story (“he was angered by attacks on his reputation”, “he was protecting Admiral Mullen’s reputation” and suchlike).

And here’s the second. The ISI might have set all this up as a sting operation to ensnare Mr Haqqani, destabilise the Zardari government and become the darling of the Pakistani nation. In which case, it would have been Mr Ijaz instigated the move, roped in Mr Haqqani and others, and after the ball was sufficiently into play, gave the game away by writing an op-ed in the Financial Times.

Both these explanations would explain why no less a person than the ISI chief personally went to London to meet Mr Ijaz, and ‘verify’ the evidence. From that point onwards, the broad conclusion—GHQ 1, Zardari 0—was foregone, even if the details—who’d be sacrificed and how—were not. The two explanations are not entirely mutually exclusive. It is quite possible that both games were in play, or one game got mixed up with the other. It might matter to the individuals concerned, but as far as the implications of the affair are concerned, it doesn’t.

What are the implications? While the Zardari government never really wielded any power it has lost a great deal of the legitimacy it had in the eyes of the public. Whatever comes next will stick far more closely to the political and ideological narrative of the military-jihadi complex. General Kayani or a successor would have to be a grand fool to seize power directly—not because Washington won’t condone a dictator, but because he will be forced to take the blame for failing to run a country that is deeply in trouble. So the veneer of civilian government will continue, even as Rawalpindi assumes full control of foreign relations. Mr Haqqani’s embassy was one small island that resisted the military establishment’s line. Now that he’s gone, that bastion too has fallen.

If that’s bad news, here’s something worse. A majority of the Pakistani elite are behind the military establishment on this one. They see civilian politicians seeking US support for putting the army back in the barracks as a treasonous violation of sovereignty. Not so when civilians run to Washington pleading to save the army’s skin after one of its numerous adventures. Not so when military leaders invite Saudi Arabia to arbitrate in domestic politics. Not so when military leaders allow terrorists and militants to seize control of territory and impose their own writ on the people.

The political entrepreneurs who sought US help to acquire power in Islamabad might not have really meant to deliver all the promises they made. Even so, to the extent that there are players in Pakistan who claim to want to dismantle the military-jihadi complex, their interests are aligned with India’s. They lost this round. That is a negative for India, in terms of opportunities lost.

Update: By appointing Sherry Rehman as Mr Haqqani’s replacement, Mr Zardari might have used political judo to equalise the score. Ms Rehman is among the more liberal of Pakistan’s politicians and, as head of the Jinnah Institute, has been in the loop on US-Pakistan relations. She is close to the Bhutto-Zardari family, but before quitting the Zardari-Gilani cabinet in 2009, might have rubbed the president a little too much on the wrong side. Even so, appointing her, rather than someone close to the military establishment, suggests that Mr Zardari did not allow himself to be completely squeezed by General Kayani.

Then again, there more rounds in this game.