Understanding our government’s dangerous play-acting

 Not only are President Asif Zardari’s statements technically debatable, they are logically inconsistent with the purported joint mission of the PPP in Pakistan, and its supporters in Washington DC. This mission, to weaken the undemocratic strains of the Pakistani establishment, and strengthening its democratic credentials, is a noble one. However, good intentions alone don’t cut it in ‘the world’s most dangerous country’.

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UNDERSTANDING OUR GOVERNMENT’S DANGEROUS PLAY-ACTING

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“The truth is that neither was Gen P. Musharraf nor is President A. Zardari incentivised to tell the truth. But why would they tell unpleasant truths when they know that they can tell pleasant lies and get some money out of the bargain? They can milk the US taxpayer for the injection of American assistance into the Pakistani economy (albeit in a manner most inefficient) by continuing to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of members of the Unholy Trinity of Dicks — Dick Armitage, Dick Boucher and Dick Holbrooke*. When they are in town, Pakistani presidents don’t need to tell the truth.”

 *After whose demise a new man has been appointed as Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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by Mosharraf Zaidi 

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President Asif Ali Zardari is the product of a legitimate election, by a legitimate parliament. He could do a lot worse than he already has, and he will always remain a better president than his predecessor. And yet, somehow, the more that Zardari is supposed to be less like his predecessor, the more he seems more and more like his predecessor.

As he approaches his full three years in office, it is to the enduring shame and ridicule of the PPP that it presides over one of the most farcical constitutional eras in Pakistani history: a people’s government that refuses to live up to the most basic of its promises to the people — to give back the country to parliament of the people.

The keen appetite that President Zardari shares with Gen Musharraf for retaining absolute power through the mutilation of the constitution is only the tip of the iceberg. The more striking and much more insidious resemblance between this president (legitimate, standing tall and all) and the last one (hardly legitimate enough to walk away in shame) is in their foreign policy doctrine. Both presidents have used the art of charm as the single and only instrument of foreign policy available. While Gen Musharraf had truckloads to dispense with of his own, built up over a career filled with tiny exploits made to look bigger with rhetorical bluster, President Zardari uses the substantial stock of charm gleaned from years of sacrifice by the PPP, and the gold mine of charm that the PPP came across when Husain Haqqani stumbled into, and onto the feet of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

Being a charming president to a country of 172 million is no crime at all. Except of course if all the charm is reserved for everybody outside the country, and none at all is reserved for anybody in it. And let’s be frank, being charming only for foreigners isn’t such a bad thing for a country widely seen to be the most dangerous in the world. Unless of course what you consider charming is in fact just disingenuous pseudo-intellectual drivel. And it is this, most depressing of realities, that makes this current, most legitimate of presidents, seem like a rerun of his predecessor, a most illegitimate one.

Gen Musharraf ran out of party tricks with the Bush administration when it became widely accepted conventional wisdom in Washington DC that though he was telling the Americans everything they wanted to hear, the general wasn’t the kind of kitten they had thought, but rather a different kind of cat deep down inside. By the time he left office, Musharraf’s invisible alter ego, to the Americans at least, was a dude with a turban, a long beard, with a chair deep in the heart of the ISI headquarters, ready to take it to the next level in Kabul, Delhi and anywhere else he had to, to deepen Pakistan’s ’strategic depth’.

So now, Uncle Sam and Nephew Pak have a democratic government, led by President Zardari, to deal with. And what’s different about Zardari, clearly, is that he isn’t part of the ‘establishment’, that he’s from the ‘progressive and secular PPP’, that he’s the head of the ‘most popular political party in the country’ and that he’s not ‘Punjabi’. Asif Ali Zardari, unlike the Punjabi-ised General Musharraf of Old Delhi and New Londontown, is none of the things that Washington DC has come to loathe in this Islamic Republic.

President Zardari has lived up to the hype thus far, mostly thanks to his man in Washington DC. Ambassador Haqqani makes sure his master in Islamabad speaks to the nervous ticks and muscular spasms that get any kind of airtime at all in DC. Every speech, op-ed and press conference must inspire a new memo, a new telegram, and a new talking point.

For serious followers of politics and policy in Pakistan, President Zardari’s quotes are nothing more than an entertaining sideshow, not the core of Pakistani foreign policy. In true Pakistani tradition, however, the only tempering mechanism for President Zardari’s pronouncements is American gullibility. So while Pakistan’s dysfunction is entirely Pakistan’s fault, American naivete cannot get a pass because Pakistan is a basket case.

In the Age of Obama, America has to do better. Anyone that was really interested in debilitating the Punjabi-dominated, Hindu-hating, right-leaning, military-dominated Pakistani establishment would have to be recklessly foolish if it went and helped rebrand the Pakistan army in the wake of eight years of Musharraf and a devastating and humiliating defeat at the hands of the country’s lawyers. Yet that’s exactly what President Zardari did when the May 8 offensive was launched into Swat. The Swat offensive helped rehabilitate the image of the military.

Pakistanis should be ecstatic. No country should have to demonise its own military to enjoy democratic freedoms. But the rehabilitation of the military’s image in Pakistan comes with inherent costs. One of them is the credibility of the Haqqani framework for counter-establishment rhetoric that President Zardari uses with such abandon, such as “the existential threat to Pakistan is from within”, and the classic, “India is not the enemy, the Taliban are”.

Not only are these statements technically debatable, they are logically inconsistent with the purported joint mission of the PPP in Pakistan, and its supporters in Washington DC. This mission, to weaken the undemocratic strains of the Pakistani establishment, and strengthening its democratic credentials, is a noble one. However, good intentions alone don’t cut it in ‘the world’s most dangerous country’.

On existential threats, honest brokers know that countries are not insects, or cigarettes. They don’t disappear. All the post-partition rage, confused liberal mumbo-jumbo, and irrational right-wing bluster can’t change the reality of Pakistan’s existence, and its vitality — no matter how many terrorists attack its innocent people. In South Asia’s real politick, there is no such thing as an existential threat to Pakistan.

On the differentiation between internal threats and external ones, Pakistan’s worldview is best demonstrated by what it does, not what it says. It uses the army, rather than the police (even though the enemy keeps trying to engage the police!) to fight internal threats. More tellingly, if Pakistan really believed that the threat (deep and serious as it is) is internal, would every government minister, army general and armchair pundit be blaming India, Afghanistan, and the US as the sources of the terrorists’ funding, weapons and training? Pakistan can keep towing the American line on who its enemies really are in the Washington Post — but it clearly does not believe it can afford to do so at ministry of interior press conferences in Islamabad, much less on Pakistan’s eastern border.

The truth is that neither Gen Musharraf nor President Zardari is incentivised to tell the truth. Why would they tell unpleasant truths when they know that they can tell pleasant lies and get some money out of the bargain? They can milk the US taxpayer for the injection of American assistance into the Pakistani economy (albeit in a manner most inefficient) by continuing to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of members of the Unholy Trinity of Dicks — Dick Armitage, Dick Boucher and Dick Holbrooke. When they are in town, Pakistani presidents don’t need to tell the truth.

The truth is that Pakistan — even under heavy moral and tactical compulsion — cannot, and will not, accept Indian dominance in Afghanistan. More urgently, the truth is that in negotiations between India and Pakistan henceforth, the conversation needs to begin with Afghanistan, if Pakistan were to be honest, rather than Kashmir, which is now, a secondary foreign policy issue for Pakistan. Finally, perhaps most urgently, the truth is that Pakistan does not want, and cannot help sustain, an American troop presence in Afghanistan.

None of this is to say that the terrorists are not recognised as a threat to Pakistan. They are. Nor is it to suggest that anybody has a better alternative to a US troop surge in Afghanistan to quell the increasing fortitude of the terrorists there in the present scenario. They do not. Nor is it to suggest that the brave Pakistani soldiers that are taking on the Taliban are not fighting the right war for the right reasons. They are.

But the realities and implications of Pakistan’s lesser-told truths are important. To understand Pakistan’s foreign policy dysfunction, the starting point cannot be a barrel of a gun, or the shining tip of a pen about to sign a $1.5 billion cheque. Pakistan will continue to take the money, its generals will continue to think the way Pakistan is ‘existentially’ wired to think, and Pakistan will continue to confound analysts because the set-piece frameworks in vogue in Washington DC, in London and beyond, simply don’t work. They are spurious, to say the least.

One-liners can’t change the course of the behemoth called Pakistan, nor can money, even $1.5 billion of it. This beast has momentum. To paraphrase the great American poet, Walt Whitman, does Pakistan contradict itself? Very well then, Pakistan contradicts itself. It is large. It contains multitudes.

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