Pakistan could do with greater coherence
The Americans are sure to pile on more pressure on us because of their predicament in Afghanistan. They are stuck there, unable to make war or broker a peace of any kind. They are doing the next best thing: finding a scapegoat for their troubles. None fits this position better than Pakistan.
We are familiar with the mantra coming out of Washington: Pakistan is duplicitous, playing a double game, running with the hare, hunting with the hounds, and more on the same lines. The United States couldn’t win this longest war in American history but they want Pakistan to win the war for them.
Even if we tried we couldn’t do this. We have enough on our plate fighting our own war against terrorism and subversion. Even if we had the strongest army in the world, which we don’t, we are in no position to fight America’s war in Afghanistan. It’s not doable and why should we do it anyway?
Of course we should have a smooth working relationship with our American friends but we can’t be their sharpshooters and bag-carriers all the time. We’ve done enough of that, enough stretching of our necks for their sake. And we have received little thanks for that.
But to repeat the obvious, the Americans are in a bind: they can’t walk away from Afghanistan, for that would be unacceptable loss of face; and staying indefinitely there with no end in sight to that endless war is also not much of an option. So it is not surprising if our American friends are angry and frustrated. What you do in such situations is find a punching bag, and who fits that bill better than Pakistan?
So when President Donald Trump makes his speech on Afghanistan later today we should expect little solace or comfort in it for us. The Americans can’t defeat the Taliban. It’s not in their power to do so. But it’s easy to blame Pakistan. Americans who can’t locate Fata on the map have all become Afghan experts and there’s one phrase everyone in Washington is familiar with: the Haqqani network. Pakistan is supposed to be the biggest patron and protector of that warrior formation.
Pakistan needs to remain calm and not lose its nerve. For this we need reasonably sensible and calm leaders at the top, people who won’t easily panic if the Americans resort to threats and bluster. But our political house is not in order.
Nawaz Sharif was not much of a leader when he was prime minister. He couldn’t say a few sentences on his own without a sheaf of papers in his fumbling fingers when he met President Obama in the Oval Office. This memorable event was televised, so we saw what was happening. Shahid Khaqan is a stopgap arrangement, a skylab prime minister, there by the grace of God and an accident of history. What kind of an effective leader can he be?
He is trying to find his bearings but he will always be an ineffective and weak pilot on deck because he can’t be master of the party from which he derives his position. That status belongs to someone else…Nawaz Sharif of the fumbling fingers who today is a cutup figure, hurt by his removal and still not able to digest the fact that he’s been so easily pushed out of power. A comeback of any sort seems very remote at this stage.
Furthermore, there is a rift growing within the PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif nursing the feeling that he’s been bypassed by his elder brother. First they said that he would be prime minister. Then a whispering campaign started that if he were elevated to the centre it would be difficult to manage things in Punjab, the power base of the party. So someone else was made prime minister. He was supposed to become party president, replacing his elder brother. Then someone else, Yaqub Nasir from Balochistan, was made acting head of the party. Shahbaz seems not to be a very happy man in these circumstances and you can see this on his face.
In the midst of all this he has issued a direction asking members of the party in Punjab not to target any institution. In the prevailing context this means the judiciary and the army. This line runs directly counter to the approach Nawaz Sharif has been taking since his ouster—-openly targeting the judiciary and making snide remarks about conspiracies, this being the code word used for the army’s supposed role in his ouster.
Nawaz would have wanted everything to go down with him. That hasn’t happened and the GT road show wasn’t quite the success his inner circle was hoping for—-achieving nothing beyond playing up differences within the ruling party. Few senior party leaders were much enthused by that exercise.
Nawaz and family face accountability cases and the road before them is likely to prove long and hard. But that is their headache. The important thing is what happens to the country? Pakistan needs an effective government like never before—a government that can stand up to American pressure and deal with anything that the Americans throw at Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the civil side is a blank and elections are, at best, ten months away, a lifetime in the circumstances the country is facing. What happens in this period? The army is managing internal security and taking the big decisions on foreign policy. Khawaja Asif was not much of a defence minister. He won’t prove much of a foreign minister. He has no special expertise in this field and given the fact that he doesn’t have much of a relationship with the military brass, what weight will anyone give to his words? Again the generals will be filling the space left vacant by the civilians.
The civilians in any event are a diminished lot and they have been cut down to size. But what are we heading for? Does anyone have a game plan? Come election time the politicians will be running mini-races, with no single party with much of a chance to sweep the board and emerge with enough strength to deliver a strong government. But elections are still far away. So the question remains, what happens in the meantime?
Anyway, let’s see what Trump has to say. This should be clear by Tuesday our time. US Defence Secretary Gen Jim Mattis says he’s satisfied with how the administration has gone about formulating its new Afghanistan war strategy. The review process, he says, has been rigorous. We should be able to judge that from the results. But, as already stated, in this muddle there is likely to be not much good news for Pakistan. So we have to brace ourselves for whatever is coming.
This is a time for steady nerves and clear heads. Who’ll provide this? The Khaqan Abbasis, the squabbling politicians, parliament with its slide towards irrelevance? Not a very happy state of affairs.