President Obama to General Kayani: Can You Hear Me Now?

The following article appeared in Huffington Post on 21 October 2010. The author Aparna Pande is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The third round of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is being held this week in Washington, D.C., in the backdrop of domestic political crises, economic woes, terrorist attacks and rumors about an ever-impending coup in Pakistan. In this context President Obama’s unannounced meeting with the Pakistani delegation emphasizing American support for the present civilian government and democracy might be a game-changer.

Rumors have been rife in Islamabad that the present government is so weak, chaotic and ineffective that the military will take over. Such stories have been around for the last two years. Pakistan’s establishment clearly does not like President Asif Ali Zardari, and the elected government is particularly gaffe prone, which feeds the rumor mill, already churning thanks to an essentially anti-Zardari media. The frequency of coup scares is matched only by explanations of why a coup is unlikely. It seems that the Pakistani military and its civilian supporters allow the rumors to flourish in order to put pressure on an iron-willed and stubborn Zardari, while the objective conditions prevent a coup — for now.

Given Pakistan’s history, a military coup is the constant fear of every civilian regime. Ever since Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) took office two years ago, fears of military takeover have surfaced each time the country has faced a crisis situation — especially one that involves civil-military disagreement. This happened in 2008 when the still-new civilian administration tried to wrest control of the Inter-Services Intelligence from the army. The tussle with the judiciary over the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry in March 2009 led to reports of potential government collapse. The buzz of a potential coup was also there during the intense and fractious debates and uproar in the National Assembly over the Kerry-Lugar bill of 2009, but little materialized.

There’s no doubt that the civilian government is weak — every civilian government in Pakistan over the last 63 years has been, not least because the military-technocratic establishment has rarely allowed these governments to build themselves or to push the envelope on key policies. But it is also true that the PPP-led government has not been able to get its act together. The administration shows its inexperience in governance.

The present civilian government resembles some of the weak coalition governments in India during the 1990s, which were led by politicians with limited governance experience. The Zardari government also lacks a serious communication strategy. While it is constantly being spun against, it is rarely able to put forth its own views. The Pakistani media often buys into the military’s whisper campaigns while the political parties hostile to the PPP have much stronger media management. Add to that Zardari’s personal battles with some leading media figures, and his ability to get away with anything without a media flare up is next to none.

We do, however, need to bear a few things in mind. President Zardari derives strength from the fact that he has the support of his party (as co-chairman of the PPP), and the more he is threatened — by the media or by rivals — the stronger he becomes within the party, which views itself as a party of martyrs. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is a Zardari loyalist. Even though he is de facto ruler (after implementation of the 18th Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution took away executive authority from the office of president), there is little chance that he will drop his support for Zardari, as Mr. Gilani has very little support independent of the president.

Circumstances are such that there is little likelihood of a direct military takeover — a “hard” coup — for the time being. And General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, is not the kind of general who would instigate a coup. The army is still smarting from the impact of the Musharraf era, and all rungs of the army are keenly aware of the growing resentment among the people about the army’s privileges. As of now the army would prefer to have a weak and ineffective civilian government in power that takes all the blame with the army as puppet-master holding all the strings.

Even former army chief and dictator Pervez Musharraf, in a recent interview, spoke out against coups. According to Musharraf, while it is customary in Pakistan during times of “turmoil” to “look to the army,” he believes that “the times of military coups in Pakistan are over. The latest political developments have shown that the Supreme Court has set a bar on itself not to validate a military takeover.” In earlier times, whether under Ayub or Zia, the Supreme Court normally justified coups under the doctrine of necessity.

General Kayani is also interested in rebuilding and professionalizing Pakistan’s army. Over the last three years Kayani has brought about quiet changes within his organization. He has replaced the majority of Corps Commanders who had been appointed by his predecessor, General Musharraf, with his own men. Kayani’s bête noire, Gen. Tariq Majeed, Chief of Joint Staff, was recently retired and replaced with a general more amenable to Kayani.

Cleaning up the intelligence services has also taken place too slowly over the last two years. Kayani now fully controls intelligence operations, and though the army did not allow the civilian government to wrest control of the intelligence services, ISI, Kayani has introduced changes himself. The political wings of both the ISI and the military intelligence, MI, have been closed. General Pasha, head of ISI, also appears to have played a key role in these developments.

The second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is mainly a Punjab-based party with very little support in the other three provinces in the country. While Nawaz Sharif has a higher popularity rating than Zardari, there is a low probability of the army replacing Zardari with Sharif. After all, it was Sharif who had tried to curb the power of the army, which instigated the 1999 coup by Pervez Musharraf. A popular Sharif with a Punjabi power base would threaten the military’s domination of Pakistani decision-making far more than an unpopular Zardari.

Rumors have also focused on the possibility of a “soft” coup through the judiciary. President Zardari and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court do not see eye to eye, and the latter’s attempts to revive the Swiss cases and deprive the president of constitutional immunity are seen as reflecting Justice Chaudhry’s animosity towards Zardari. While there is very little chance of Zardari losing his immunity, he appears to have planned for that possibility. If forced to resign, the constitution provides that he be replaced by the Chairman of the Senate, Farooq Naek. A Zardari loyalist, Naek served as the president’s personal lawyer when Zardari faced criminal charges from 1997 to 2007.

The final possibility often floated is for Chaudhry and Zardari to both step down. However, though this action would likely bring Chaudhry’s career to an end, and it would only boost Zardari’s image and popularity as a martyr both amongst his party and the public.

Terrorism continues to threaten Pakistan, the economy is still weak and the growth rate is currently at 2.5 to 3 percent, barely equal to population growth. The floods that hit Pakistan last month have devastated one-fifth of its landmass, displaced around 20 million and killed more than 1,600 people. Never in Pakistan’s history has the army ever taken over in a situation like this. The military would much rather let the civilian government take the rap for problems that defy solution instead of taking over power and letting the civilians become martyrs.

In addition to internal factors, all political players in Pakistan have looked to see what the American government’s attitude would be towards a soft or hard coup in Pakistan. The main reason for this is that America has been Pakistan’s major benefactor — mainly in economic and military arenas — since 1954. While in earlier times the American administrations have been seen as more interested in stability than democracy, the current administration has made it clear in the last two years that it values democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan. President Obama decision to drop by unannounced to the Roosevelt Room where the Pakistani delegation was in talks with its American counterparts reflects this policy. Addressing a group that included Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi as well as army chief Ashfaq Kayani, President Obama stated his government’s commitment and support to Pakistani democracy. Further, the President also extended an invitation for President Zardari to visit Washington and announced his own trip to Pakistan in 2011.

For now it seems that the domestic situation in Pakistan is going to continue as before — a weak civilian government attempting to deal with serious threats amid widespread disaffection. The government is going to keep limping along, trying to restore its presence in flood-affected areas, rebuild the economy and face the daily challenges in the National Assembly, all the while fighting extremists. As of now, Pakistan has few alternatives.

Raza Rumi: Unpacking the governance debate

The following post was originally published at PakTeaHouse blog.

If the intent of the unregulated media and a recalcitrant establishment is to dismiss the government to achieve better governance then this is at best a delusional goal.

Recent weeks have witnessed a supercilious debate on how the current government’s misgovernance is a potent reason to boot it out. Governance is about decisions, resources and management of public affairs. The sad reality is that Pakistan’s media now controls and spins the public discourse on these issues. The popular media never wanted this government to begin with. Since 2007, it sided with the ‘clean’ and morally correct lawyers’ movement that presented an alternative to the corrupt politicians and shunned the 2008 election. First, it vilified Benazir Bhutto for making a deal with the Generals on initiating a transition towards a power-sharing arrangement. This was a classic worldview of the urban middle class, which has never been a keen participant of the messy electoral politics that brings rural politicians with fake degrees at the helm of affairs.

The second critical moment was the election of the President, which sparked an unprecedented media trial with stories (mostly unsubstantiated) of Zardari’s corruption. There was a strong alliance between the local and the global media churning out a thousand stories highlighting his insanity, fallibility and venality. This happened despite the full confidence expressed by Zardari’s party and its allies. A rare federal consensus over the election of a President was undermined and the media perception intensified how all the crooks stand together to rob the country once again.

Now the third moment in the aftermath of the floods has arrived; and the high-pitched voices against the politicians have reached their peak. The charge-sheet is long but, in a nutshell, states that the feudal politicians were inept in handling the July-August 2010 disaster and harmed the poor to save their lands. This is a simplistic conclusion that has emerged without proper inquiry and mainly through anecdotes from the urban anchors visiting rural victims and interpreting their anguish as a condemnation of the politicos.

Discussions around regime change have strongly articulated the displeasure of the unelected institutions of the state on ‘governance’. The media has faithfully reported that the Army is unhappy about the corrupt ministers still in office and the looming economic crisis. The Judiciary is perturbed, as its judgement on NRO remains partially unimplemented and key appointments reek of illegality. The perennial power-seeker class of politicians has started to reconfigure the political landscape while fringe parties like Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf and the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami want to seize this opportunity for short term gains. The ever-ready crop of technocrats is also getting anxious due to the anonymous contacts being made by the invisible elements of the state.

This display of crass opportunism by Pakistan’s traditional elites is nothing new. Since 1947 (including that fateful year), they have cared little for the ordinary citizens. But the alarming aspect of our present dilemma is the way Pakistan’s much-touted free media has become an instrument in spurring political instability. The endemic problem with Pakistan’s governance is that regardless of the government in power, the state (if we were to include all the dominant classes in the wider definition) remains disconnected and disengaged with the citizens. What is more worrying is that the state no longer is a monolith as it has delegated the state’s monopoly powers to faith-based militant groups which are ready to exploit its increasing inability to ‘govern’.

With 20 million people still struggling to reclaim their livelihoods, entitlements (such as land), shelter and security, Pakistan’s establishment and its politicians are all but willing to do anything about it. It is therefore problematic to see a legitimately elected government preparing a summary on NRO cases for 34 out of 8,000 beneficiaries and the Supreme Court chiding it like an accused party. Or, to read about the panicky meetings of the PPP while the latter should be strategising about re-enacting the NDMA legislation or preparing a resource mobilisation strategy to rehabilitate the flood victims and reconstruct the damaged infrastructure.

Equally disturbing is to witness the saga of Courts in effect suspending new Constitutional provisions while they are expressly not mandated to do that; and placing abstract notions of people’s will above the Constitution. In a similar vein, the Army has a separate fund for flood relief and the elected Public Accounts Committee cannot be given the details of how and why a Rs 5 billion supplementary grant was given to the country’s premier intelligence agency.

The argument on misgovernance by a coalition government is bogus when unelected institutions of the state are unaccountable, non-transparent and unwilling to accept the oversight of public representatives. Until the Army budgets can be audited, and judges are appointed through parliamentary commissions and the bureaucracy is answerable to legislature, we will continue to swirl in a vicious cycle of political instability.

If the intent of the unregulated media and a recalcitrant establishment is to dismiss the government to achieve better governance, then this is at best a delusional goal. Pakistan cannot afford another upheaval and the recent signals by the Army that it wants stability are welcome. But then Pakistan is an unpredictable polity with a growing constituency for suicide missions. Strange times, indeed.

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs at

Reign of Terror

I like Syed Abidi, I really do. I think he’s a smart guy. But even smart guys are wrong sometimes. Abidi’s latest blog post picking up the new talking-point that what Pakistan needs is a French-style Revolution is one of those times. The French Revolution isn’t French Perfume. It was called the “Reign of Terror” for a reason.

Abidi selectively quotes Wikipedia’s article about the French Revolution, which makes it sound rather nice. “Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.” But Abidi should have read beyond the first paragraph and down to the section on the Terror.

The result was a policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On 9 September, the Convention established sans-culottes paramilitary forces, the revolutionary armies, to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On 29 September, the Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other household goods and declared the right to set a limit on wages.

The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions. Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Queen Marie Antoinette, Barnave, Bailly, Brissot and other leading Girondins, Philippe Égalité (despite his vote for the death of the King), Madame Roland and many others were executed by guillotine. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death.

At the peak of the terror, the slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and trials did not always proceed according to contemporary standards of due process. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). In the rebellious provinces, the government representatives had unlimited authority and some engaged in extreme repressions and abuses. For example, Jean-Baptiste Carrier became notorious for the Noyades [“drownings”] – he organized in Nantes; his conduct was judged unacceptable even by the Jacobin government and he was recalled.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just what Pakistan needs!

Of course, Abidi’s got a optimistic view of everything.

It took them 3 years, maybe it will take Pakistan only 3 days.

We’ve suffered through coups and dictatorships that promised to fix all of our problems and now over 60 years later we think somehow this time will be different? In fact, somehow this miracle will take place in only 3 days!?! Come on, bhai, you’re smarter than that.

And then there’s this bit:

It is clear the world does not trust our administration and the Government to help bail out this country from further collapse, and there is no economic way, Pakistanis will be able to recover from it alone. In comparison, the Balakot earthquake of 2005 got US$ 6.4 billion in a short period for foreign countries and billions worth of local aid and donations from citizens.

I think it’s funny that he’s lamenting the fact that nobody trusts our government only two sentences after he says, “our corrupt politicians were following the policy of ‘more damage equals more aid’”. Hey bhai, maybe if you didn’t go around declaring everyone “corrupt”, the world would stop assuming it.

Then he goes on to say

Pakistan Army is the most popular organized management establishment in Pakistan, if we were to choose from the best. Since the army has been the first and foremost to provide relief to the flood victims. The people of this country will welcome a step taken by the judiciary to instruct the armed forces of Pakistan to carry on its orders to its fullest implementation.

Here we go again. This was the same excuse used by Zia and Musharraf and everyone else who is too lazy to do any good for the country and only sits back and wishes for some ‘Angel in Khaki Cloths’ to swoop down and rescue them.

Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Syed bhai, if you think a coup will somehow work out differently this time, might I kindly suggest you have your head examined?

What we need is not more suffering, more terror, more deaths. We need more hope. We need our smart people like Syed Abidi to stop fixating on “quick fix” solutions like “French Revolution” or “Bangladesh Model” and start coming up with common sense solutions to our problems. After all, look what Bangladesh ended up with? Politics is still controlled by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. No change at all.

We need more people participating in the democratic process from start to finish. Fewer party jilayas and more activist citizens. We need to make it patriotic to pay taxes, not to tell conspiracy theories. We need to build pride in our nation so that the best and brightest of our youth will stay here and join the government, not disappear to New York or London, only looking homeward and complain from overseas.

The French Revolution may have unseated a monarchy and paved the way for a democracy, but it took years of violence and terror for France to work out its democracy. We are suffering too much already to add to the madness some misguided “revolution” as a quick-fix solution. We already have a democracy in place. We need to nurture it, not cut it down just as it begins to take root.