Dec 5, 2008

World - Moment of truth for Pakistan’s transition

Haris Gazdar

Not falling in love with Mumbai betrays a character flaw in my book. Visiting harm upon the queen of cities cannot bring good to anyone, no matter how just the cause or urgent its remit. She sustains millions, keeps hope alive among tens of millions others, nurtures a freedom of the spirit, and retains an original urban charm through the fastest rat-race in Asia. For all this and more she is to be cherished, not brutalised.

It is fitting that the bruised Mumbai of Jinnah should now ask if the state he helped create is willing to pass its sternest test yet. Politically it matters little if Pakistan, its government, its military, rogue elements within the secret apparatus, or jihadi militant groups based there had a hand in the carnage or not. Whether there were ships or boats, satellite phone calls, Punjabi accents, Deccan Mujahideen, a Lashkar-e-Taiba trademark, Al-Qaeda links, or home-grown Indian insurgents are also details. The deed is already done. What matters now is what happens next. Crises are pregnant with opportunities for survivors, and this one is no exception.

Pakistan’s tentative transition to democracy has been under fire from all sides. The focus is on the elected government — not merely for its ability but also on its intent. This is as it ought to be in a democracy, except that the whole point of a transition is that democracy cannot be taken for granted. For the transition to work, two other partners have to be fully and responsibly on board. First, the transition is premised on the willingness of the Pakistani military to hand over office and to share power with elected civilians on a durable basis. For democrats this risky compromise becomes defensible only because revolution is not an option.

Second, the prospects of the transition seem promising only because of the current configuration in regional politics. Foreign powers including the U.S., but not only the U.S., are expected to play a helpful role because they at long last share common ground with Pakistani democrats. This shared goal is that the state in Pakistan must become a genuine factor for ensuring regional stability rather than promoting instability. Elements in the Pakistani state that openly — sometimes under U.S. sponsorship — exported terrorist violence abroad are the same ones that for decades conspired successfully against democracy at home.

But now Mumbai must have urgent answers to her questions. Will the Pakistani military actually share power with the civilians? Will the Pakistani state demonstrably draw a line under jihadi militancy? Will foreign governments share some of the political cost of the transition with Pakistan’s fledgling democrats? The queen will not be denied her answers, but her questions offer rare opportunities for the protagonists to credibly reveal their intent, courage and wisdom.

Pakistan’s elected government has been embattled from the start. It enjoys de jure power, but is cautious about testing its actual authority over the military. An economic crisis inherited from the previous regime has left elected parties with no space to satisfy their constituents. Inflation and currency depreciation threatened to spiral out of control until stabilisation measures and signing up with an International Monetary Fund programme last week eased the crisis somewhat. Better news is expected in the next quarter as pressures subside.

There is mixed news on the war in the north against jihadi militants, too. The civilian leadership publicly praises the military for doing its bit, but party cadres remain privately sceptical. The Awami National Party (ANP) leads the coalition government in the North West Frontier Province, and its leaders and supporters, along with members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), are under constant threat of assassination by jihadi militants. Local ANP and PPP supporters in the north suspect that the military is still in cahoots with the jihadis. The concerted military action in Bajaur suggests that the corner might have been turned, but the distrust on the ground makes it difficult to be sure.

Meanwhile, unmanned U.S. drones routinely violate Pakistani air space to target militants, but inevitably also kill civilians. There is a rising chorus led by the right that the elected government should stop the war against jihadi militants, confront the U.S. frontally over the drone attacks, or simply slink away to make room for more robust Pakistani and Islamic nationalists to take over.

Asif Ali Zardari’s government presents an easy target to an educated elite that substitutes conspiracy theories for analysis. His conciliatory approaches to Afghanistan and India have become anathema to opinion-makers who see jihadi militants as legitimate resistance in Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere. These jihad sympathisers are joined by those on the left who, amazingly, believe that the Taliban-Al-Qaeda will become a normal political party once the American troops go home. A web of right and left conspiracy theories — involving various combinations of the U.S., Israel, and India — creates a comfort zone that hard facts cannot penetrate. Talk-show hosts on private television channels “prove” how India itself was responsible for the attack on Mumbai, and former generals rally people for war with India which jihadi brothers will join.

The rightist campaign is encouraged by the speculation that the military has no intention to go through with the transition, and that “patriotism” will prevail over Mr. Zardari’s diplomatic overtures. Whether the military leadership itself is involved in the propaganda effort to undermine its potential power-sharer is unknown. But sooner or later the question of the military’s willingness to share power was going to be put to the test. The skill with which the elected politicians handled Pervez Musharraf’s departure in August should have alerted the top brass that a stable civilian government will be no walk-over. Senate elections in March will have contributed to consolidation, as would have the administration changeover in the U.S. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are famously committed to bifurcating military cooperation and assistance to the democratic process.

But the test has come sooner rather than later. Who knows if the timing of Mumbai had anything to do with the struggle within the Pakistani state, but it is worth remembering that Mr. Musharraf’s coup followed Kargil, which followed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus yatra to Lahore. Mumbai is relevant to Pakistan’s transition because regardless of any evidence of Pakistani complicity, the policy of reconciliation with India requires that assistance requested should be rendered. The civilian leadership was right to respond positively to India’s request for high-level representation of Pakistan’s secret agencies, and it was wrong to wriggle out of its commitment. The rethink may have been forced by the military’s displeasure.

Nevertheless, the ball is now in the court of the military. By falling in line with the civilian government’s diplomatic effort they will reveal their intention to be on board in the transition. Moreover, they will send out a credible signal that jihad is no longer an option they will support, even against India. If the opportunity is not grasped now, the transition is as good as over even if the civilian government is allowed to limp along for a while. Signals that the military receives from the outgoing Bush administration over the next few days will be critical in shaping its attitude to the current crisis and the transition.

For its part, India might do well to resist the temptation to behave like the U.S. after 9/11. Beating the war drums may or may not distract attention from India’s own security lapses and political failures, but it will certainly corner the civilian government in Pakistan into irrelevance pending execution. A politicised response will allow the culprits off the hook, while a diplomatic, legal and institutional approach can help to pin them down, besides moving the transition along in Pakistan. Why should an angry India care either way? Because it may want to show the world how a responsible and confident power in Asia carries itself even when in pain.

(Haris Gazdar works as a Senior Researcher with the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research. A longer version of this article will be published in the Economic and Political Weekly of December 6, 2008.)

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