x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistan's leaders divided by mistrust

The danger posed by militants to the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity continues to play second fiddle to power politics.

ISLAMABAD // Every so often, the quest to make sense of Pakistan's bewildering political environment is made a little easier by a rare moment of clarity. That moment came on October 10. Militant raiders had stunned Pakistan by penetrating the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi, seizing the buildings of the military intelligence directorate, the key information provider to field commanders in the insurgent-overrun north-west.

Surely this was the time for the country's political power vendors to close ranks. Indeed, the president, prime minister and army chief did gather in Islamabad - but it was not for a strategic review of the national security situation warranted by the militants' invasion of army headquarters or even the cascade of suicide attacks that have mowed down security personnel and innocents by the dozen over the past two weeks.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that they spent much time on the issue at all. The subject of the meeting was not even remotely related: it dealt with the distrust between Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, with Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, urging both to kiss and make up. As was painfully evident from that October 10 meeting, the clear and present danger posed by militants to Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity continues to play second fiddle to power politics.

The impetus for the increasingly public spat between Pakistan's civilian and military bosses was a new US law approving $7.5 billion (Dh27.5bn) in civilian economic assistance over the next five years. The army, through one channel or another, has accused Mr Zardari of manipulating the US Congress into inserting clauses that made the security apparatus subservient to Washington, even though the bill clearly states the army answers to the civilian government, and is thereby less able to challenge his political authority.

The army's assertion might have been credible had it not been for a glaringly inconvenient fact: of the 17 senior generals who recently issued a public call for parliament to oppose the aid package, all but four had been part of the junta led by Pervez Musharraf that in 2007 happily accepted military assistance under an act of Congress with similar strings attached. Not that Mr Zardari has anybody else but himself to blame for the political humiliation that he has subsequently suffered.

The army's claims of being "double-crossed", true or not, have struck a chord with the public because of Mr Zardari's decision last year to backtrack on written accords with Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, to restore judges dismissed in 2007 by Mr Musharraf. It was Mr Zardari's stubborn refusal to reinstate the judges that, just a year after democratic government was reinstated after a decade of military dictatorship, unlocked the gates for the army's intervention, however brief, low-key and constructive.

Back in March, with Mr Sharif leading tens of thousands of supporters along the motorway from Lahore to Islamabad, it was Gen Kayani who made the phone call informing Mr Sharif that the government had relented. Had the call not been made, there is little doubt that the capital would have been turned into a battleground fit for a coup. Aides to the president privately argue, and with much justification, that the army chief and his generals had never intended to restrict themselves to the business of soldiering.

Nonetheless, in the honeymoon period following the February 2008 elections, Mr Zardari had held all the aces: his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had won on the back of a wave of sympathy after the December 2007 assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister; Mr Sharif, genuinely sympathetic, had closed ranks with his rival; and the army, tarred by its association with the much hated Mr Musharraf, was maintaining a very low profile.

Had the president decided then to honour his agreement to reinstate the judges and purged the constitution of amendments inserted by Mr Musharraf that gave the presidency unchecked powers, he would have stamped his moral authority on Pakistani politics and become the head of a hugely popular grand democratic coalition. Instead, he opted for administrative power over political stature, becoming preoccupied with the "what if" consequences of ceding power to parliament and the prime minister.

The coming months are thus sadly predictable: a sequence of mini-crises starting with a parliamentary vote on the National Reconciliation Ordinance of 2007, a law enacted by Mr Musharraf that granted him and a slew of politicians, including Mr Zardari, immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes. The ordinance, referred to parliament on the orders of the reinstated judges of the Supreme Court, will undoubtedly be approved by parliament chock-a-block with its beneficiaries, who do not include Mr Sharif and members of his party.

That will set the stage for another confrontation between Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari, with the army fuelling the fire via the media, as it has during its spat with the president over the US aid programme. thussain@thenational.ae