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    South Asia
     Jun 15, 2012


SPEAKING FREELY
The real tragedy of Memogate
By David J Karl

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The key lesson of the Memogate controversy is the readiness of the Pakistani political class to exploit the civil-military imbalance for a tactical advantage.

The bizarre Memogate conspiracy drama that has flared anew in Pakistan is yet another example of the endemic dysfunctions between the powerful security establishment and their nominal civilian masters that have lead the country throughout its history to the brink of ruin.

But the affair also demonstrates the long-running failure of the

 

political class to understand that, even in the throes of competitive politics, it has a common interest - indeed a fiduciary obligation - in upholding the principle of civilian supremacy over the military. For evidence of this proposition look no farther than Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's main opposition party.

The unfolding saga centers on an unsigned back channel note delivered to US military authorities following the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. The document, whose authenticity is disputed, requests US help in preempting a feared military coup against Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. In exchange, a host of enticing, albeit incredible, concessions is offered, including installing a new national security team in Islamabad filled with pro-American officials as well as giving US forces "carte blanche" to conduct operations on Pakistani territory.

Suspicions over the note's provenance have come to rest with Zardari, who is seen by many in Pakistan as an American stooge, and with Husain Haqqani, who Zardari selected as his envoy in Washington even though he is thoroughly distrusted by the military. Both men deny involvement. But the ensuing controversy cost Haqqani his job late last year. And now a Supreme Court inquiry has concluded that he was indeed behind the note, a finding that opens him up to formal charges of high treason.

Throughout all of this, Sharif has cynically stoked the controversy in order to diminish his political rival. It was he who petitioned the judicial investigation in the first place. And he has now been handed new ammunition to use against Zardari in the run-up to general elections that may take place as early as this fall.

At a time when unilateral US drone attacks in the tribal areas are viewed by many Pakistanis as an outrage against the nation's honor, Nawaz and his younger brother Shahbaz have charged Zardari with selling out the country's sovereignty. Nawaz also has not been above pandering to the generals in Rawalpindi, announcing that his antagonisms with them were a thing of the past and that they would find in him a most suitable partner in the event they grow tired of Zardari.

But the brothers Sharif are trafficking in rank hypocrisy given how they not so long ago committed the very same acts for which they are now bludgeoning Zardari. In 1999, during Nawaz's second stint as prime minister, he was the target of considerable criticism, including accusations of undermining the army's honor and betraying the Kashmiri cause, for cutting a desperate deal with president Bill Clinton to end the Kargil War with India. Fearing that the Pakistani army, under the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf, was about to take its revenge by overthrowing him, Nawaz urgently dispatched Shahbaz to Washington to seek the Clinton administration's intercession.

As British journalist Owen Bennett-Jones relates in his acclaimed book, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, Shahbaz pleaded that Washington had a moral obligation to protect his brother given the political risks he ran on Kargil. But Shahbaz also padded his case by passing along Nawaz's offer to take a harder line with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and help hunt down Bin Laden. The trip had the desired effect, at least in the short term, when US officials signaled their opposition to "extra-constitutional actions" being taken against Nawaz.

In the end, however, the warning shot failed to avert a military take-over and Nawaz was arrested, convicted on trumped-up charges of hijacking, kidnapping and corruption, and subsequently forced into eight years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Given his vexatious history with the army chieftains, one might expect him to have a greater sense of solidarity regarding Zardari's own travails with the military.

To be sure, Nawaz is only following a well-worn script. Pakistani history is replete with examples of opportunistic politicians who view the imbalance in civil-military relations as something to be exploited for tactical gain rather than rectified for the nation's good. In an irony that ultimately cost him his life, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Zardari's political party, built up the security establishment in order to suppress his political opponents. As the military constantly rotated them in and out of the prime minister's office in 1990s, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz took turns celebrating the other's demise rather than condemning the debasement of the Constitution. And instead of uniting following last year's Abbottabad raid to claw back decision-making authority from a chastened military, many civilian leaders instead equated patriotism with fealty to the army.

The men in khaki deserve a good measure of the blame for the deep morass that Pakistan has fallen into. But as the Memogate controversy illustrates, the political class is all too willing to come along for the ride.

David J Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm located in Los Angeles. He previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He blogs on South Asia at Chanakya's Notebook and can be followed on Twitter @davidjkarl.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

(Copyright 2012 David J Karl)





New ISI chief needs to step lightly
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