Something Is Happening....but What?
By Ayaz Amir
Islamabad, Pakistan

This government - more a family limited company with each passing day - now looks like a patient in a hospital ward, paralyzed from the waist downwards. The few doctors around are wearing gloomy and mournful expressions.
The last time Nawaz Sharif was prime minister it took him two and a half years to blow his mandate, picking a fight with the then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, that any fool could have told him he could not win. This time he has arrived at the same position – locking horns with the army – in less than a year…at a time when the country is virtually in a state of war. The latest reminder of this war comes with the attack on the Karachi airport.
Where’s the government in all this? It lives now only in advertisements. If it weren’t for the ads – about metro-buses and bullet trains speeding into the Muzaffarabad mountains – it would be hard to judge of its existence. The army is not taking its orders from Islamabad. It is on its own in Fata, doing what it thinks best. The ISI looks to GHQ not the prime minister. In the media conflict the army and the ISI are dictating the score, the government still trying to act clever, but looking foolish in the process, and of course not getting its way.
When Pemra announced the 15-day ban on Geo the government responded with crocodile tears, saying in a statement it could ask for a stiffer penalty: “We reserve the right to take it up (sic) the matter at the next appellate level…We are ready and anxiously waiting to reply the suit (sic) filed by Geo …” Crisis management can wait. If this is the height of its drafting skills, the PM’s office is in more trouble than it thinks.
Our situation is strange and would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. The nation is in a state of war but has its head stuck firmly in the sand. The military are fighting this war and taking heavy casualties but, bizarrely, the government far from leading this war is locked in a cold war with its own army and leading intelligence agency.
Whether disenchantment with the PM is growing or not – and Professor Ijaz Shafi Gilani’s Gallup Pakistan can always be trusted to come up with findings that Nawaz Sharif remains wildly popular – the political opposition to him is becoming more assertive and vociferous. With Zardari openly siding with Nawaz Sharif, two months ago it looked as if there was no opposition in the country. But if a week is a long time in politics, so much can change suddenly.
Imran Khan is drawing huge crowds – which honestly I thought he wouldn’t be able to do – and Dr Tahirul Qadri is spitting fire and is all set to return from Canada to stoke up further the fires of discontent. Nawaz Sharif’s team, apart from a few ministers whose primary qualification rests on the strength of their vocal chords, is not functioning and he himself looks glum, as if not just at a loss for words but with little idea of what to do.
Happy the times when gimmicks were enough, lulling the Punjabi populace into slumber: laptops, flyovers, a road through the hills, etc. Much has been made of the youth loan scheme, which really is more PR than anything else. The latest fad is some kind of a health insurance scheme. Where the country needs leadership of some caliber, it is being made to watch these childish games. Nor is this all. The PM must also go and pick a quarrel, not with terrorists – perish the thought – but with the army and the ISI.
The result is that the army is operating on its own, the PM and his office marginalized in the larger scheme of things. Watching on TV the aftermath of the attack on Karachi airport, even a casual observer could hardly have failed to notice that all the counter-measures were being taken by the army, Rangers, Airport Security Force… and it was the army chief promptly offering condolences for the dead. Missing completely from the picture was the federal government.
This is not the time to go into the history of military dominance. But let’s not kid ourselves. The fact remains that the army is the country’s most powerful institution. So someone must ask an increasingly clueless prime minister: where’s the sense in jousting with this very institution? And if you do end up in such a contest, what is left of your governing ability?
It is the army, air force, Rangers, Frontier Corps, the intelligence agencies engaged in this internal war against a hidden and not-so-hidden enemy, an enemy supported and sustained by a network of support across the country. And the government, far from taking responsibility for this war and giving the defense establishment a lead, has thought fit to put itself on the wrong side of this establishment. Is this what Nawaz Sharif has learned in 30 years of politics? Army and ISI built him up as an alternative to Benazir Bhutto and the PPP. Now he can’t get along with those very hands which propped him up.
This is an untenable situation and simply can’t go on. Something will break, something has to give way. Army and agencies are chafing at the bit. You don’t need a Nasa telescope to sense this. This anger is now part of the national scene. To be sure, the army is mounting no frontal assault on the shaking ramparts of the confused civilian authority. But its oblique assault – the indirect approach, from the sides, rolling up the flanks – is proving, as we have seen in the media affair, far more effective and deadly.
Other pieces are being moved on the chessboard, proxies launched from the shadows. In times past the army’s favorite weapon in domestic conflicts was the sledgehammer. This is the first time such subtlety is being deployed.
As a result of these moves the government is beginning to look isolated, although it has all the support and more that it needs in parliament. But this parliamentary force is beginning to look listless, as if the fight has been drained from it. In truth, a more apathetic parliamentary majority would be hard to discover. Should anything untoward happen, the flight of the bumblebees will be faster than anything we have seen before.
The civil-military breach is encouraging Imran Khan and Dr Qadri to become more aggressive and take to the offensive. Imran Khan is saying nothing new, election rigging in the last elections not a terribly exciting subject for political agitation. But people are still flocking to his rallies. Why? Is this a newfound enthusiasm for Imran or are the people of Punjab finally waking up from their dream and opening their eyes to the fact that the old coinage of the Sharifs, their laptop and yellow taxi approach to government, is of little use amidst the challenges Pakistan faces today?
Consider our luck. When Pakistan needs unity of command more than ever, a dispensation which can inspire and galvanise the nation, what it has been gifted by the stars is a plutocracy: government by the rich and for the rich and, to crown everything, a family limited company on top of this plutocracy.
Let’s be careful what we wish for. But, as noted above, this can’t go on indefinitely: something will have to give. So sooner than we think it likely, we may have to brace ourselves for that. The media affair was a trial run, an occasion to sharpen the knives and test the paces. If Nawaz Sharif continues to bumble, and there is nothing to suggest that he won’t, there is no discounting the bigger drama which may yet unfold. - The News



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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