Last Sunday I turned 65. I looked back on the last quarter century that I have been writing articles in Pakistan. “Has it made any difference,” I wondered? “Or has it been an exercise in futility?”
The answer was a resounding ‘No’. People have changed. When I first advocated the presidential system in 1991 I was roundly attacked. Today more and more people are saying that this is precisely what we need. I suggested that the problem lies not in politicians but in the system that throws up such politicians. Many people accept this now, not because of my saying so but through bitter experience and contemplation. I suggested that the system is a product of the constitution that needs to be changed. That too is being increasingly understood today. I have always said that the army intervenes only when civilian governments create a vacuum in power and governance and people are seeing that happening before their eyes today. No, it certainly has not been an exercise in futility. If I thought that it had been I would have stopped writing, except to analyze for myself and clear my own thoughts.
I too have learned a lot in this time, taking inspiration from four precepts that an elderly Buddhist monk of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery told a good friend of mine: “1) Respect your elders; 2) Be compassionate to your subordinates; 3) Be harmonious to you fellow man; 4) Be truthful in your work, whatever it may be.” I have learned a fifth precept: “Don’t bother about what others are saying. Bother about what you are saying and ensure that you speak the truth as you see it at the time, which means be flexible and dynamic, not static by carving your notions in stone: adjust and change as you evolve and learn from evolving situations.”
Now to the present: whenever Nawaz Sharif comes to power, déjà vu follows. In his first term he got on bad terms with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and army chief General Waheed Kakar and lost power, despite the Supreme Court having restored his government. We all know about the second time: after unceremoniously throwing out one army chief and leaving the army smarting, he then illegally sacked his successor while he was on a flight back home from Sri Lanka, hijacked his commercial airliner with some 280 passengers on board because it arrived an hour late due to a storm giving the army enough time to react and, worse, asked the pilot to take it to India. How detached from reality can you get? Now in his third stint in power, he is belittling the army again, his ministers on a verbal rampage, including the defence minister, would you believe? How stupid can you get? How self-destructive?
The army let known its anger. The army chief had no option but to say that the army would protect its honour and prestige at all costs. His statement was repeated in a corps commanders meeting that followed. But more important was the fact that the army chief said this in response to a question asked by SSG commandos in their headquarters. It shows the growing unrest and unease in the army. The chief and other commanders can only ignore it at peril. After the corps commanders meeting the army chief flew in a helicopter for an unscheduled meeting with Nawaz Sharif. Also present were Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz, the interior minister and the head of the ISI for a time. What happened there can only be imagined, for immediately thereafter the prime minister called a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC). Talk of fast movement.
Nawaz Sharif’s people go on repeating the mantra, “the government and army are on the same page.” What could be better? Problem is, unless the army says so too, why should anyone believe a one-sided assertion? One side repeating it to the point of distraction betrays hysteria. In a parliamentary system the cabinet is collegiate, thus what ministers say comes with the approval of the entire cabinet including the prime minister, unless they are contradicted. Things are getting ominous by the day. A great deal seems to be happening and nothing seems to be happening. Tahir ul Qadri has announced once and for all protest marches throughout the country starting May 11 for a ‘People’s Takeover’. If his last performance is anything to go by, Nawaz Sharif should be worried, especially if other parties, like the MQM and PTI, join him. Large parts of the media will soon follow. It just might prove to be the catalyst that enables the agent of change to intervene, as has recently happened in Egypt twice.
To top it all, but as expected, the Taliban terrorists with whom the government has been bootlessly negotiating peace against saner advice to launch a military operation to wipe them out all over the country have announced that they will not extend the ceasefire. The interior minister’s feeble statement notwithstanding, that though talks without ceasefire are futile, the government will continue pursuing them unless the Taliban commit a terrorist act when the government will be forced to act, we are in for even more turbulent times. So fasten your seatbelts tighter, folks
The prime minister summoned the DCC meeting the day after the TTP announcement not to extend the ceasefire. The DCC compromises, amongst others, the Chairman JCSC, the three service chiefs and the same verbally rampant defence minister who has been running the army down. Can you imagine the tension in the room? A military operation against terrorists of all hues now seems inevitable. Better late than never.
Brian Cloughley, the admirable South Asia analyst and defence expert recently wrote an article, ‘Giving in to the Enemy’ that is worth quoting in some detail.
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“PM Nawaz Sharif says he wants ‘permanent peace’ in Pakistan, which is what most sane people wish for. But the only way to permanent peace is to wage – and win – an all-out war on the terrorists who want to destroy the country. Two recent international news items about terrorism might strike a chord in Pakistan. They concern an amnesty granted to 187 Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists by a submissive British government in 1998 and the slaughter…of 30 civilians by knife-wielding terrorists in the Chinese city of Kunming.
“The British amnesty for extremists was revealed quite by accident when one of them arrived in the UK last month and was arrested on a long-standing charge of killing several people but had to be released because in 1998 someone in high authority in Britain authorized a letter, which he happily brandished, declaring he was not liable to prosecution. In the 1990s the British government was desperate to stop the vicious violence of the IRA whose members murdered people around the world in the name of ‘freedom’ for their cause of a united Ireland… The IRA would also kill totally innocent people…The British government was running scared and imagined that the people of Britain were also frightened of a bunch of terrorists who were – if only the government had realized – on the verge of defeat by a brilliantly-run (if decidedly ruthless) intelligence operation that was having a shattering effect on the militants.
“Are you getting a picture, here? Are similarities with Pakistan’s circumstances becoming apparent? Britain’s cave-in to the terrorists…ended (well, almost ended) the insurrection, but involved some amazing concessions by the British government, including, as has only just been revealed, quite by chance, an agreement to pardon 187 identified killers who had not yet been brought to justice. The other side obtained enormous concessions. In order to meet the terrorists’ demands the British government went overboard. The British government released 428 IRA militants from prison in order to get the political supporters of these convicted criminals to agree to stop their associates waging a terrorist campaign …
“Is there a parallel emerging between these awful times and Pakistan’s present circumstances? These IRA murderers were the worst of the worst…Fanatics never compromise. And if you try to reach a political solution with them, you will always lose the moral battle. Certainly, in Northern Ireland the IRA is not exactly in government. They have a political party of puppets who make sure the province is run with IRA approval. It’s the only place in the world apart from fascist Israel in which there are 20 foot-high barriers separating communities…This is civilization?
“…the slaughter in China’s Kunming city by another bunch of extremists [was] just as ruthless because their victims were totally innocent travellers at a railway station. It is thought the militants were connected with the Uighur minority in the Xingjian province who want autonomy from Chinese rule, and if this is so, then heaven help the Uighurs, because the Chinese state will be utterly ruthless in pursuit and eradication of these separatist terrorists. There won’t be any concessions made to evil thugs.
“In Pakistan there are lessons to be learned from Ireland and Kunming; and the first is that elected governments should not treat terrorists as equals because terrorists have no right to such favour. They are murderous criminals and cannot be forgiven. The second is that, as in China, there should be pursuit and eradication of those who destroy the lives of ordinary innocent citizens in furtherance of their extremist ambitions. If Pakistan’s government does not destroy the militants who want to take over the country – well, the country will be taken over. And do you want to live under law as interpreted by a bunch of extremists? The only way to obtain Nawaz Sharif’s ‘permanent peace’ is to wage total war on those who threaten the very existence of the country. It’s time to take the gloves off and destroy those who want to destroy Pakistan.”