Generals in Their Labyrinth
What’s interesting about the present political problem in Pakistan is the role of the army. Old hat, you may say. The army trying to destabilize a civlian government is a hoary story in Pakistan. But what is different is the difficulty the miltary is having in getting their way.
One, they are in conflict with a president. Remember that the presidency was created by the military to give them a constitutionally backed means to toss out troublesome prime ministers whenever they wanted. Benazir Bhutto was a repeat victim of that.
The Supreme Court has also been a generally pliant body, quietly following the whispered recommendations of the other members of the non-elected establishment –the combination of generals and the president. Pakistanis were quite surprised, for example, that it was lawyers’ who were able to bring down the presidency of Pervez Musharraf.
And finally there is the United States, the most powerful overseas player in Pakistani politics. I remember one retired US diplomat describing how, whenever regime change was in the air in Islamabad, Pakistani politicos would make a beeline to Washington and offer their services to the US government. Even when, by the late 1990s, America was trying to get out of that line of meddling, Pakistani leaders were disbelieving when told so. “Oh, you have someone else in mind,” they would tell people like this diplomat.
Today, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani must be wondering how the lay of the land has changed in the past decade.
President Asif Ali Zardari is in covert revolt against the army — it is pretty obvious that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is just the public foil of the president. The army is being forced to hope that the Supreme Court will take down the president. Not because the Supreme Court is doing the army’s bidding. It is because the chief justice has his own grouse against Zardari. But the generals can only hope. It is not clear the court will do as they want. And the possibility that their action might be seen as doing Kayani’s dirty work is actually inhibiting the court.
And then there is the US. The relationsihp between the generals and the Americans is diluted cyanide. After Abbottabad, no one in the US believes that the generals did not know Osama Bin Laden was hiding there. No one. The Pakistani generals themselves are in shock at the humiliation they fared at US hands. But everyone knows that the military has no standing with the US any more and, if anything, is quite pleased with Zardari.
The military is thus remarkably alone among the various centres of power in the Pakistani system. In the past they would have counted the presidency, the courts and the US on their side. Today, only the courts, and that too by chance, is on their side of the fence.
Which is why it is still so uncertain as to who will win in the present struggle. There is a decent change they will not come out on tops. Or that an initial victory would be balanced out by an electoral sweep by Zardari and Gilani. Either way, the military will clearly show itself to no longer be primus inter pares in a country that ate out of their palms. A remarkable reduction in authority and influence. One thinks of recent developments in Turkey where the once mighty generals have been neutered.
Musharraf overthrown by lawyers. Americans raiding deep into Pakistan. And finally the likes of Gilani, a man the military had wooed for so long, besting them in the political and popular arena.
It isn’t the twilight of the generals. They control the militants. They have Imran Khan. And large swathes of the economy. Guns. But their sun is past the noon mark now.