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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The thicker red lines

How Pakistan lost a chance to right the civil-military imbalance

Written by Ejaz Haider |
May 12, 2011 3:20:19 am

The American incursion into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden has created a terrible dilemma for Islamabad. Should it react to the incursion in relation to bin Laden’s death,congratulating the US for taking him out,or also agitate the grave violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by an ally that chose to act deliberately unilaterally?

It took Pakistan more than a week to come up with a response that cannot be walked. The first Foreign Office statement welcomed bin Laden’s death and called the incursion a stated policy of the US to take out the al-Qaeda chief whenever and wherever he was found. There was no word about Pakistan’s stated policy.

The second FO statement focused more on the American intrusion than the killing of bin Laden. But it came only after President Asif Zardari had written an op-ed in The Washington Post praising the American operation without a word about its illegality. In focusing on the American intrusion,the second FO statement followed by the presser by Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and the military’s statement after the corps commanders’ meeting were in deep contrast to Zardari’s May 3 article.

While the op-ed,fast-tracked since it appeared right on the heels of the May 2 incursion,was embarrassing,appearing as it did under the byline of the supreme commander of the armed forces,Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stood up in Parliament eight days after the incursion and,speaking in English,warned external actors against undertaking any such action in the future.

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The speech was in keeping with the FO/ military line but gave no specifics in terms of what military and non-military responses were being formulated. The leader of the opposition,the PMLN’s Chaudhry Nisar Khan,tore Gilani asunder. The PMLN is now in the process of formulating its own response to the incursion and what it thinks the government should do. At the minimum it has rejected the military’s inquiry committee and called for a judicial commission.

The MQM has come up with 17 questions and wants a national referendum to get the answers. The questionnaire implicitly and explicitly hits out at the government and the military,and yet the party has also rejoined the government. The day Gilani spoke in Parliament,the mood was far from sombre and it did not appear like a House facing a major national crisis.

Nor does it seem like the civilian government has much to go on beyond the speech prepared for the PM. In fact,instead of calling for a commission of inquiry to look into the intelligence lapse as also the incursion,the PM tried to put the blame on the media for creating an artificial divide between the civil and military sides of the power configuration.

Well,that divide is real and it is the primary reason for Pakistan’s inability to make its responses not just known but credible. The inability to do so is a most dangerous abdication of responsibility,one that could cost the state dearly.

This crisis was a good opportunity for the civilian enclave to right the civil-military imbalance but the opportunity has already been lost. It was,and remains,important for Pakistan to agitate the incursion. The civilian government,by not doing that,has allowed the military to get into the driver’s seat again. There is still time to do that because the military itself has failed to do anything beyond issuing rhetorical warnings against any future incursion.

There is always space between the two extremes of quitting and maximum response. Pakistan’s sovereignty has been twice violated: once by bin Laden,a foreigner hiding in Pakistan and with his affiliates waging war against the Pakistani state,and then by the US,supposedly an ally. But while Pakistan is fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates to re-establish its sovereignty,it has failed to do that vis-a-vis the US. There is an urgent need to ensure that the issue of bin Laden’s presence does not get conflated with the incursion in a way as to deflect the attention completely from the illegality of the US action.

It is important for Pakistan’s civilian principals to take the issue to the United Nations and place this incursion on the agenda. Far from an increase,diplomatic and other cooperation with the US needs to be reduced. There are a number of non-military responses that can,and must,be generated. The operation,if conducted jointly,would have been more acceptable as has happened in many other cases involving al-Qaeda members. But the US chose to cross many red lines and the onus of re-establishing the lines lies squarely on Pakistan. If this is not done,and Zardari’s op-ed in the Post has already reduced space for generating the correct response,Pakistan could find itself at the short end of the American stick again. At the same time it is crucial to find out if there was any secret agreement between Washington and Islamabad that allowed the former unilateral action inside Pakistan in case it located bin Laden.

But a well thought-out response would only come if the government can (a) establish its control over the military and (b) generate national consensus on the issue. Neither has happened,nor is likely to.

The writer is a contributing editor with ‘The Friday Times’,Lahore. The views are his own

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