x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pakistan's political scandal deals fatal setback to US allies

Washington only weakens its allies in Islamabad by taking a hard line against Pakistan.

Every time that Pakistan comes to terms with one mishap, another takes centre stage. Last month we watched with disbelief as Islamabad's ambassador to Washington passed on messages to the US government that could arguably be considered treasonous. And then came the Nato strikes against Pakistan's border posts that killed 24 servicemen and led to Pakistan's boycott of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan this week.

In addition to the boycott, Islamabad has given notice that US forces must vacate Shamsi airbase in the middle of the country, which the UAE operates on lease and sublets to the Americans.

The low point in US-Pakistani relations, seen in the ambassador's scandal and the air strike, casts serious doubt on whether the region will see peace in the near future. In particular, it is important to consider how the diplomatic rupture involving Ambassador Husain Haqqani reflects on Pakistan's politics and international relations.

For now, Pakistan's army has had its way and President Asif Ali Zardari has had to transfer his handpicked envoy. The handwritten letter delivered to the Pentagon, which sought to buy protection for Mr Zardari by reining in the nation's all-important military, shook Pakistan's politics to the core.

Recalled to Islamabad to explain the note, Mr Haqqani faced a 10-hour, 32-question grilling from the army's top generals in the presence of Mr Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. In the backdrop of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry's refusal to resign under pressure in 2007, a development that left then-army chief Pervez Musharraf with no option but to depart, the army must have been sure it was on firm ground before it risked such a confrontation.

It should be said that such events have taken place before. Pakistan has a history of its rulers routinely seeking support from the US, Saudi Arabia and China, sometimes even in matters purely domestic. Pakistan's first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, admits in his book Friends Not Masters that he was talking to the Americans in the early 1950s behind the back of the political leadership. In 1999, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif sent his brother Shahbaz to seek Washington's intervention to stave off a military takeover, which of course occurred in Gen Musharraf's coup a few months later. There are many other examples, some of which have been revealed in the WikiLeaks disclosures.

The affair also shed light on the primacy of the military in Pakistan's relations with the US. Mr Haqqani, in his 2005 book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, asserted that "support for the Pakistani military by the United States makes it difficult for Pakistan's weak, secular, civil society to assert itself". That statement made him suspect in the eyes of many within the army.

Mr Haqqani has a track record of conflict with the military. He was accused of acting against the national interest by manipulating US legislation (the Kerry-Lugar Act) in October 2009 to insert conditions about the military's relationship with the civilian government. It was an open secret that the army wanted him sacked, nevertheless he survived for two more years.

Starting in 2009, Islamabad began to notice unusual numbers of US visa requests and tightened controls. Mr Haqqani was found to have authorised several hundred visas for US security contractors without seeking authorisation. The case of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis this year, stemmed from that practice.

There was a personal dimension to the affair as well. Mr Haqqani is a product of right-wing student politics in Pakistan. A former supporter of Gen Musharraf, he became known for his anti-military stance after he landed in Washington. Appointed ambassador by Mr Zardari, he had a reputation of being more the US ambassador to Pakistan than Pakistan's ambassador to the United States. Contrary to diplomatic norms, senior American politicians commented on his resignation, including Senator John Kerry, who said "his insights will be missed in Washington".

Finally, we can see how the opposition is using the wedge between the government and the army to its advantage. Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) party has a history of tense ties with the army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. But now the PML-N has launched a "Go Zardari Go" movement calling for the president's resignation to save the army from being dishonoured. The rising political star Imran Khan also claims that the government has lost its legitimacy.

The army chief General Ashraf Kayani is a reticent man who avoids precipitous actions. At the same time, he commands a tightly knit team of corps commanders whose views he cannot disregard. But for all of this tension, international dynamics and the changing domestic equations make it extremely unlikely that the army will impose direct military rule. The political parties, notwithstanding their petty differences, are united against this and, more importantly, Pakistan's vigorous media and independent judiciary are guardians of civilian rule.

This latest incident is further evidence about Pakistan's dysfunctional government and its failure to pursue national interests through skilful diplomacy. Mr Haqqani may have thought he was shoring up democracy in Pakistan by inviting the US to intervene, but the reverse may be the consequence. The power of the army in Pakistan's politics is on the rise.

 

Sajjad Ashraf is a former Pakistani ambassador and an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore