by Omar Ali
We have been here before, but it is being said that the unhappy marriage between the Pentagon and GHQ has deteriorated further and once again, those watching this soap opera are wondering if this union can last? Writing in Al-Arabiya, GHQ’s own Brigadier Shaukat Qadir says that the US appears to be “gunning for Pakistan’s top generals”, who are said to be bravely resisting this latest perfidious American plot against General Kiyani. And why is the US trying to undermine the good General? Because at a meeting with President Obama he made clear “ that this soft-spoken, laid-back, easy-going general, far from being overawed by the privilege of meeting President Obama, would still give back better than he got.”
This interesting article (I highly recommend reading it twice to get the full flavor) can be read in a number of ways, all of which are worrisome. One is to assume that Brigadier sahib means exactly what he is saying. That there is some core Pakistani interest that General Kiyani bravely insisted on defending, and for that sin, he is now being systematically undermined. Note that Pakistan’s elected government did not decide what this core interest is supposed to be, nor was it consulted before General Kiyani decided to defend this core interest against US imperialism. In fact, Brigadier sahib hints that the elected regime may include “powerful individuals who have no loyalty to this country and its people”. No, this core interest, for which Kiyani sahib is supposedly willing to risk a clash with the United States (and by extension, NATO, Japan, etc) is defined by GHQ, as it has been for decades.
“Strategic depth”, it seems, is alive and well and we can live with bombings, insurgencies, electricity shortages and all sorts of economic and social crises, but we cannot live without strategic depth. For the sake of this strategic depth, we kept the Taliban alive and made sure the new American-installed regime in Afghanistan would not stabilize. And when the Americans leave (something that everyone in GHQ seems convinced is happening very soon), we will restart a civil war in Afghanistan, with “our side” led by the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar.
This war we expect to win in very short order, after which we will move on to our Central Asian Nirvana. Having antagonized all the hardore jihadis by siding at least partially with the US, we are now to antagonize the US and its allies by sticking by the Taliban. This is known as GHQ's “Sau Gunndey tey Sau CHittar” strategy”. * The problems with this approach are manifold and include:
- “The imperialists” are unlikely to leave as soon as imagined. This alone puts the whole strategy in question because as in Kargil, there seems to be no plan for the possibility that the “enemy” may not do what we expect it to do.
- “Our side” is unlikely to win all of Afghanistan even if the Western imperialists leave according to our timetable. Given the opposing interests of many regional powers, that struggle is likely to be even more prolonged and bloody than the last attempt to fill the Afghan vacuum.
- “Blowback” from this war will be worse than the blowback from the current confused operation. The Taliban refused to cooperate with us against anti-Shia terrorists even in the good old days of the nineties. This time around, they will be much more difficult to control. We cannot even control the current (relatively small) Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. To imagine that we will control the much larger and more fractious Islamic emirate of the future seems to be a pipe dream.
- Any exit of the imperialists and return of the Taliban will inevitably be followed by a house-cleaning of Western “fellow travellers” in Pakistan. That cleansing may not be on the army's immediate agenda, but pressure to Islamize Pakistan will be hard to resist once the Islamists are winning. The establishment may then find it expedient to try and get rid of the ANP, Pakistani liberals and other riff-raff that the army has tolerated in the Sulah e Hudaybia phase. Naturally the Americans will respond with retaliatory measures of their own and a liberal efflux will have some modest but detectable negative impact on the economy and the state; the final outcome, in a weak and fractious state, may not even be up to North Korean standard.
But that is only one interpretation of Brigadier sahib’s views. There is another; it may well be that cooperation with the United States is set to continue, but the haze of lies that surrounds the relationship now needs to be raised to new heights. Pakistan’s deep state is highly “Westernized” in very practical ways and has always been a willing and even eager partner of the CIA and the Pentagon in the region. But both the state and its American minders have been operating with the view that those who matter will calculate profit and loss, and everyone else can be kept suitably entertained with our own peculiar version of Jihadi kool-aid (a uniquely Pakistani mix of Islam, militarism and the “two nation theory”).
In one of the more spectacular “own goals” in history, this convenient and previously useful propaganda has now created a large constituency within the rank and file of the armed forces and the semi-educated middle class. How now to tell them the truth, smack dab in the middle of a crisis? Better to just update the kool-aid, pray to Allah, and keep going while hoping for a miracle. In this version, no breach with America is intended or desired, but the natives are restless and the Jihadi/Paknationalist credentials of the supreme commander must be burnished to prevent any unpleantness, hence the article and others like it. The problem with this version is that it means the state will continue its policy of trying to appease both the Islamists and the Americans and this only postpones the day we fall between two stools, it does not alleviate that risk.
Yet another version holds that this is simply more of the “controlled burn” strategy, the aim being to get the Americans to cough up more money by raising the threat of a “rogue” nuclear state (a strategy with which we have long years of practice by now). The problem with this version is the one pointed out by Mr. Lincoln a long time ago; you cannot fool all the people all the time. What happens if someone decides to call our bluff?
It is hard to say which of these theories is correct. If I had to pick, I would pick the last one because I am a cynical person, but there is little objective evidence based on which an outside observer can decide between these theories. It is even possible that all three (and others I have failed to imagine) are ALL simultaneously true. Pakistan’s biggest curse and the army’s most treacherous gift to the nation is its culture of secrecy and double-dealing. Domestically, the army (and particularly its intelligence agencies) have thoroughly undermined the credibility and effectiveness of politicians, civil bureaucrats and the media by decades of behind the scenes manipulation. They have done the same thing abroad by keeping foreign policy under their opaque control. This is fertile ground for conspiracy theories of every stripe (including the three I have managed to outline above) and the truth is impossible to know for sure (“loose change” aficionados will no doubt feel it’s the same in the United States, but the murkiness in Pakistan is an order of magnitude above anything an American can imagine). And the same opacity and confusion may now extend to the supreme command; it is possible that not only are we unable to discern what is going on, the corps commanders who meet every month are equally clueless and confused. Not being the best and the brightest, and acutely conscious of their intellectual shortcomings but determined to stay in charge no matter what, they may be flying blind too….this final irony raises the disturbing possibility that the past may not be an adequate guide to the future and very nasty black swans may be swimming just beyond the next bend in the river. Perhaps India should prepare for an influx of Pakistanis seeking refuge from chaos that even the worst enemies of Pakistan may not have imagined. Being our cousins, and with a bureaucracy not known for its boldness and vision, one doubts that India will have a policy adequate to the needs of this mother of all black swans. The rest of the world may be equally unprepared. The Chinese, supposedly used to thinking one hundred years ahead, may be our only hope.
* “Sau Gunndey tey Sau CHittar strategy”: Literally, one hundred onions and one hundred lashes. A man was to be punished and was given the choice of eating a hundred onions or getting a hundred lashes. He opted for the onions but after 3-4 onions, he thought this is too hard and switched to lashes. But after 5 of those the pain was too much, so he switched again to onions..he ended up with a hundred of both. GHQ runs the risk of being punished by both sides to the full extent of the law. Picking one poison might have been a more rational choice.
Post Script: Sufi masters in upstate New York have sent a sufi teaching story that they claim has some relevance to why the hapless civilian regime is having so little success in Pakistan; It is not known if these are true sufis or impostors, so the story may or may not apply. Halva strategy: The Mongols were coming and the capital was in a state of panic. A holy man showed up and his followers claimed he had magical powers and could stop the Mongols. He was invited to take over and do his thing. He took over command and ordered the ministers to prepare the finest halva. They did so, he ate and let others eat as well. Next day, they said the Mongols are only 100 miles away, what now? He asked for more halva. It was done. This went on for days, every day the Mongols got closer and he asked for more of the best halva. Finally the Mongols arrived at the gate. He packed up his sleeping bag and said “I am off, do what you can to save yourself”. Everyone screamed “But what about the your magic”? He said “dudes, I came for the halva and I had lots of it and it was indeed good. The Mongols are your problem. Good bye.”