After his disqualification from politics by Pakistan’s Supreme Court over corruption allegations, without trial and ostensibly ‘for life,’ former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now under attack for speaking out over Pakistan’s failure to act against the terrorists responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
In his interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Sharif had revealed no secret and had said nothing that was not known to most of the world. He had only acknowledged that the Mumbai attackers and their backers were Pakistanis and that Pakistan had dragged its feet in putting the attack’s masterminds on trial.
Sharif’s main point was a valid one. He had said, “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one.” But it was his remarks about terrorism, an issue over which Pakistan’s civilians have often locked horns with the military, which prompted reaction.
“Militant organisations are active,” Sharif said, stating the obvious – something that the media outside Pakistan repeats frequently. “Call them non-state actors,” he continued, “should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” — a reference to the Mumbai attacks-related trials which are stuck in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Sharif remarked. “This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it.”
The statement was immediately highlighted by Indian media as a high-level ‘admission’ of Pakistani guilt. The hyper-nationalist Pakistani media then went into overdrive in attacking Sharif. The military’s current favourite, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan demanded that Sharif be tried for ‘treason,’ ignoring his own past statements about extremists posing a threat to Pakistan.
A Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader prominent in track-two diplomacy with India accused Sharif of ‘advancing the Indian narrative,’ notwithstanding the fact that as ruling party in 2008, it recognised Lashkar-e-Taiba’s role and initiated the trial of the Mumbai attacks’ masterminds that is now stalled.
The national security machinery was not content with letting its media machine attack Sharif. It demanded a meeting of the National Security Council, which met over a newspaper interview as if intelligence had been received about an imminent attack across the border. For the rest of the world, the episode betrayed a disproportionate sense of insecurity. Media controversies seldom rise to the level of a security threat, especially in nuclear-armed countries.
Sharif’s hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, deftly defused the ‘crisis’ by suggesting that Sharif had been misquoted. Sharif, however, stuck to his guns and wondered aloud what he had said that was worthy of full-fledged media battle.
As if to prove how Pakistan differs from the rest of the world in terms of what its elite deems worthy of debate, there was no similar fuss over former Chief of Army Staff General Mirza Aslam Beg telling a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) team that ‘political engineering’ had been a normal practice for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) since 1975 – a reference to behind-the-scenes military meddling in politics in periods of ostensible civilian democratic rule.
Beg had been hauled in front of the police officers because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision seeking a proper probe into the alleged distribution of approximately 1.4 billion Pakistani rupees to various politicians, including Sharif, in 1990 ahead of general elections. Then, the military had sought to block the return to power of Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) just as Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) are deemed a security threat now.
In his recorded statement, Beg tried to make a distinction between the army he headed in 1990 and the ISI, which was headed by his subordinate Lt. General Asad Durrani. Beg claimed that the raising of funds for political purposes and distributing them to politicians was entirely Durrani’s domain. He went into some detail of how an ISI operation commander, a Brigadier Hamid Saeed, operated the political slush fund, money for which was obtained partly from businessmen and even banks in addition to Pakistan’s security budget.
For his part, Durrani listed the names of politicians who were aided by the ISI financially and acknowledged that the unspent amount was handed over to the agency’s Director External Intelligence. Ordinary mortals might not understand how political engineering and external intelligence are connected but in the Pakistan military’s unique mindset (explained in detail in my books), they are.
According to this mindset, the army must save Pakistan from popular politicians and thrust others into prominence in their place, before it can fight the country’s enemies who might invade its borders. Such is the fear of foreign subversion through independent thinkers and politicians that the military must subvert the media and the political process itself to thwart others’ subversion.
In any other country, the statements of Beg and Durrani, though not new, would have attracted at least as much if not more attention than Sharif’s remarks about Mumbai. But this is Pakistan. Although neither Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks nor the army’s political engineering are secrets revealed for the first time, it is only the civilians’ conduct that is ever up for judgment or adverse commentary.
The brouhaha over Sharif’s statement regarding Mumbai further exposes the soulless fragility of Pakistan’s system of governance.
In a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. But Pakistan’s military-led vice-regal system is not about electing legislators. Its purpose is only to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment. In the currently dominant national narrative in Pakistan, it is not such a big deal if the military attempts to engineer whom it prefers as intermediary.
There is no dearth of civilians vying to become the military’s chosen politicians. Sharif was the willing candidate for the ISI’s anointed one in 1988 and 1990 and, according to evidence presented by Beg and Durrani, was a major beneficiary of the ISI’s election largesse at the time. Now, while Sharif is finally questioning the national security establishment, others (notably Imran Khan) have stepped up to take over the mantle of being political frontmen for the generals.
For now there seems no escape from Pakistan’s chequered history. The country’s military-judicial-bureaucratic elite persists with its fear of democracy, which was inherited from Colonial administrators who trained their institutions. After four military coups, several constitutional changes, and military-sponsored reconfigurations of political parties, one would have thought that professional soldiers would realize the inadequacy of their re-engineering efforts.
They still want to change the country’s political landscape by removing undesirable politicians and advancing the careers of civilians considered more pliable by military generals and intelligence colonels.
Pakistan’s political class is undoubtedly short-sighted, often incompetent, and unable to rise above petty interests. But unconstitutional political engineering by the Pakistani establishment is hardly the solution to Pakistan’s problems as events of the last several decades demonstrate.
Nor will orchestrated noise at home about ‘treason’ over every fact-based statement relating to Pakistan’s Jihadis change the world’s views about Pakistan’s unwillingness to act against all terrorists living in and operating from its soil.