The government’s growing entanglement with the courts and the sudden and mysterious emergence of Imran Khan are part of an old game that has been played in this country for many decades now. But would it not make sense to simply let this government finish its term, since the end is in sight already? Why risk a messy transition when a clean one is coming your way in any event? A look at history provides some clues. I’m reminded these days of the game that unfolded as the Soviet Union began its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. The decision had left the Pakistan Army facing a number of crucial questions.
First question: what to do with the government left behind by the Soviets? What fate to mete out to the then president Mohammad Najibullah? The answer was obvious. Najibullah must go and be replaced by a dispensation consisting of the mujahideen factions and their khaki overlords in Pindi. The second major question was: how to deal with India, the neighbour perceived by them to be indelibly hostile to Pakistan. The superpower alliance had served as a protective umbrella of sorts. But with the alliance withering away, Pakistan would be left to its own devices against a far larger army to its east. The answer here was to take the machinery of covert war that the American’s had helped build to fight the Soviets and turn it towards India. Pin their army down in the mountains of Kashmir, and possibly expand the theatre to Indian Punjab as well.
Remember the brief flowering of the Khalistan movement in Indian Punjab? Remember the hoopla in Pakistan when it was said that Benazir had handed over to the Indians a list of all Pakistani assets in Indian Punjab said to be part of the Khalistan movement?
If you questioned military officials in those days regarding their perception of India as an indelibly hostile neighbour, they would talk to you about Brass Tacks and Siachen. And clearly, they found it inconvenient to redirect their machine for covert war towards India while having to look over their shoulder at the civilian government, a paranoia especially stoked by the Khalistan list incident. A very similar realignment is underway in Pakistan today, as another superpower army prepares to withdraw from a decade of war in Afghanistan. And a very similar set of questions arises in the wake of this withdrawal.
Question one: what to do with Hamid Karzai once the Americans are gone? Answer: he can join Najibullah, Kabul must be ruled by a dispensation chosen in Pindi. Today, if you ask any military official about India, they will talk to you about Cold Start. The need to be wary of the army in the East remains. The instruments of preparedness now include a beefed-up nuclear deterrent, the protection of which itself has become a new strategic objective.
The present moment has the benefit of offering an alternative to the Americans, something that was not available in the late 80s. Hence, the frequent trips to China, from the DG ISI to Imran Khan’s night flight to Beijing the day after the Lahore rally, to the COAS’s five-day sojourn there only recently. Which brings us to the big question: why now? Why try and bring the government to grief at this point, so close to the finish line, when all you have to do is wait a year? My best guess is that the timing has everything to do with the talks going on with the Taliban.
We know that Kabul and Pindi are both engaged in their own talks with the Taliban to negotiate an end to the hostilities. We also have reason to suspect that they are both trying to disrupt each other’s efforts. We know the talks are treacherous and delicate, as the events of Jamrud, Orakzai, Khyber etc., are making clear day by day. It must be monumentally inconvenient to undertake such a delicate task while having to constantly look over your shoulder at the civilian government, particularly its ambassador in DC. Enter Imran Khan, with his strong stance to end the hostilities through talks, along with Shah Mahmood Qureshi by his side, talking about Cold Start and protection of nuclear weapons.
The court entanglements of the present government bring to mind the no-confidence motion of 1989, an episode BB narrowly survived but which left her government mortally wounded. The rise of Imran Khan brings to mind the rise of Nawaz Sharif. Just like the hidden hand in those days was preparing the ground for the new reality that would emerge following the Soviet withdrawal, so today, it is girding itself for a post-American Afghanistan and it needs its own people in a civilian set-up to see its efforts through.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2012.
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