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The more things stay the same…

...the more they change. Is it time to rethink some of our core assumptions about Pakistan?

Written by SuhasiniHaidar | Published: February 2, 2012 3:50:45 am

…the more they change. Is it time to rethink some of our core assumptions about Pakistan?

Year 2011 was when Pakistan confirmed the world’s worst fears about it — as the safe haven that housed Osama bin Laden,as a country where those who stood up for the rights of women and minorities were gunned down and their killers feted at massive public rallies,where dead journalists floated in the Jhelum with torture marks,and where concerns over infiltration of radical Islamists inside its forces were fuelled after the Mehran naval base attack. In the past few months,had army tanks rolled out of Rawalpindi and gone up the Aiwan-e-Sadr presidential avenue,it would have also been confirmed as a basket-case democracy.

Yet,the fact that the coup never came,and the tough stand Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has taken since,seem to suggest Pakistan may have changed on one front. In fact,in two of the most significant ways that have defined the country for more than half a century,2011 broke the mould for Pakistan. First,that no matter who runs the government,the army always has the upper hand. Second,that India will always be seen as Pakistan’s enemy number one.

On the first count,every day that the Zardari-Gilani government survives,is proof that the army is not getting its way. Many have theorised about why a coup isn’t an option for Pakistan’s military. The truth is,Pakistan’s coups in the past have never been about opportunity,but about popular demand. And despite the fact that the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is unpopular,there is no demand on the streets for stronger military control.

As a result,were it not for the Osama raid,the army may never have tried to assert its authority. But stung by public jibes over its inability to detect US helicopters in its own airspace,and suspecting that President Asif Ali Zardari had some advance knowledge of it he never shared,many in the establishment grew restive. The sense of humiliation seemed complete when General Ashfaq Kayani and General Shuja Pasha became the first army and ISI chiefs to be summoned before parliament to explain the Abbottabad lapse.

Next came Memogate. Regardless of who actually ordered the memo written,the fact was it was read at the highest levels of the US administration,hurt. Not only was the threat of a coup underlined,but it contained assurances no one in the military could stomach — that Pakistan would make its nuclear programme transparent,shut down the ISI’s covert S-wing,and allow US drones a free rein to target terrorists. Even so,restraint was the only option: after all,what could be more ridiculous than launching a coup against a government for sending out a warning that there may be a coup?

If Plan B was to engineer a judicial coup,then that too hasn’t worked. The court-appointed judicial commission failed to summon key witness Mansoor Ijaz,and allowed the other,Husain Haqqani to leave the country — making the case against Zardari flimsy. In the contempt case proceedings in the Supreme Court,it was clear that none of the judges wanted to be seen dismissing Pakistan’s longest serving democratically elected PM. Gilani walked into court as an accused,exited as hero.

The shift in the Pakistani civil-military balance isn’t without a build-up. The first step,ironically,came from General Kayani himself,when,at the beginning of his tenure he withdrew 23 serving army officers from powerful public positions,including the national highway,education,water and power authorities. He then submitted the army to the first-ever parliamentary oversight committee,albeit later resisting the PM’s move to bring the ISI and IB under the interior ministry’s purview.

Broad political consensus against military intervention is another factor. For all their political rivalry and rhetoric,neither Nawaz Sharif nor Imran Khan have made the slightest attempt to pull the government down during the past few weeks,even allowing it to pass the vote of confidence in the assembly.

Finally,it’s a rearrangement at the top that has signaled the biggest change. In the past,when Pakistan’s three pillars: president,army chief,and prime minister have been at odds,“the first two ganged up against the third”,writes political analyst Shuja Nawaz. With Zardari and Gilani protecting each other,that equation has been altered significantly.

Through all of this,both have held the line on peace with India: the other defining shift. That India has faded as Pakistan’s biggest threat was first articulated by none other than the DG-ISI Gen Pasha,who said in an interview to Der Speigel in January 2009,“We may be crazy in Pakistan,but not completely out of our minds. We know full well that terror is our enemy,not India.”

On the ground,the ceasefire at the LoC has completed eight years,and India has chosen to continue talks at all levels despite the instability inside Pakistan. An Indian parliamentary delegation visited Islamabad on the very day the Supreme Court issued summons to the PM and the PPP faced a confidence vote,and even got a warm reception from the PM in the midst of the crisis. In contrast,US envoy Mark Grossman was firmly told not to come at that time.

Perhaps,the proof of whether these two defining changes in Pakistan are permanent will only come with the next general elections,now expected before the end of 2012.

The fact is,no part of Pakistan’s establishment — military or political — can ignore that the real problems lie in other spheres: an economy that’s amongst Asia’s worst with a GDP growth of 2.4 per cent,an energy crisis that leaves Pakistan’s cities without electricity for four to five hours everyday,CNG and fuel distribution only on alternate days and unchecked religious extremism that allows leaders like Hafiz Saeed to address public rallies every week,while fears grow of radicalisation within Pakistan’s forces and of more terror attacks.

Even so,it would be a mistake not to notice the green shoots of change. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,they say; but those who only remember the past maybe condemned for missing out the signs of a new future in Pakistan.

The writer is senior editor,CNN-IBN,and anchors the weekly show ‘WorldView’

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