The one thing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, instinctively, gets right every time is what next to do with Pakistan. The execution of Osama bin Laden, the iconic al-Qaeda leader, has put General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and his Corps Commanders strung out between charges of incompetence and non-involvement cruelly hurled at them by Leon Panetta, Director, Central Intelligence Agency and the US Secretary of Defence-designate. In the circumstances, the Indian government’s policy of saying and doing nothing that a hyper-sensitive Islamabad finds hurtful, will surely help calm the situation.
Kayani is treading water because, politically, incompetence is a far less onerous charge for the Pakistan Army to bear than non-involvement, which a former head of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General (ret) Asad Durrani dismissed as “inconceivable”. Politically, this sets up the Pakistan Army as an American collaborator, as much responsible for the killing of Osama as the ‘Seal Team Six’ and, hence, the enemy, ironically, of the extremist Islamic outfits the ISI has carefully husbanded as a valuable resource ever since 1979 when, prompted by the US Central Intelligence Agency, these groups were germinated primarily to discomfit the Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan.
That the Pakistan Army was in deep in this operation is not in doubt. An most intriguing aspect of its complicity revolves around Kayani’s seemingly great interest in Abbottabad and his senior appointments in this area. He headed ISI when Osama was settling down in the vicinity. After becoming Chief of the Army Staff Kayani posted Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj as his successor at ISI and, a short time later, moved him as General Officer commanding 11 Corps with responsibility for the Pakistan Military Academy situated less than a mile from Osama’s residence. And then, not too long before the SEAL raid, Kayani was at the passing-out parade, his first visit to the Academy in some four years, perhaps, to ensure that all was in readiness for the strike operation. The early reports correctly reported the SEAL flight, and especially the massive and noisy Chinook heavy-lift helicopter despatched as backup for the modified stealth Black Hawk helicopter that crashed, taking off from the Tarbela-Ghazni satellite air field, not distant Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Besides, neither the Black Hawn nor the Chinook has the range to fly from and to Jalalabad un-refueled.
But the US as much as the Pakistan Army has a stake in maintaining the fiction that the Special Forces action was prosecuted entirely unbeknownst to Kayani and his cohort. Because to confirm Pakistan Army’s complicity would be to grievously undermine its stature and standing in the Pakistani society and expose it to public anger and ridicule it last experienced after the 1971 Bangladesh War, except now as an American stooge. A weakened Pakistan Army will make it difficult to sustain the US policy of pounding the Afghan Taliban into joining a coalition government with Hamid Karzai in Kabul – the only way for President Barack Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan claiming victory, incidentally, just around the time the next Presidential elections come around in 2012. Making a scapegoat of the current ISI boss, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, would be tantamount to admitting either a screw-up or involvement in the Osama mission, depending on how Pakistanis see the situation. It will not, however, prevent the erosion of the legitimacy of the premier role the Generals have arrogated to themselves in national affairs.
This last may not be such a good thing from India’s national interest point of view. While it is all very well to talk fancifully of encouraging democracy and changing the civil-military equation, civilian governments in Pakistan have been as notably as hostile, if not more, towards India as military regimes. Except, when the Generals are directly running the show in Islamabad, there is less artifice and greater possibility of Delhi’s cutting a deal that will stick (like the one almost realized on Kashmir with General Pervez Musharraf in 2006). With civilian governments there’s uncertainty, of not knowing when GHQ, Rawalpindi, will pull the rug from under them. It is not in Pakistan Army’s interest to allow civilians to set policy direction, make peace with India, burnish their reputation, and buttress their hold on power.
In this regard, it is interesting to note the moves by the Pakistan Army politically to build up Imran Khan, the erstwhile cricketer and leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (TIP), as an alternative to the Pakistan Peoples Party with bad record of governance and the equally tainted Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the opposition. Kayani may have decided to forego a coup, choosing instead to back Imran as a new, hopefully more pliable, figure whose political ambitions can be made to serve the army’s purposes. TIP’s biggest success to date was the recent bandh called by Imran in the Bagh-e-Naran Square area of Hayatabad on the outskirts of Peshawar to protest the continuing American drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Over thirty thousand people joined in the agitation, courtesy no doubt of his meeting prior to the bandh with Pasha. The large turn-out will be used as proof of the popular resistance to the US Af-Pak policy and to bolster Kayani’s demand that the Ámerican presence in Pakistan be thinned out.
The opportunity for India is afforded by Imran, a moderate nationalist and now the Generals’ poster boy, being hoisted to power. He can facilitate a rapprochement. It is an outcome Kayani may not be averse to, considering Pakistan needs some space for manoeuvre. The United States will persist with the drone-targeting of the al Qaeda-inspired Afghan Taliban and pressure Kayani into wiping out the Pakistani Taliban and their Lashkar offshoots. Exterminating the extremists is a hard choice, because the Lashkars do provide Pakistan with asymmetric war assets, and fighting them will impose huge costs. It will seed domestic turmoil but will fetch the country the rewards of peace. One hopes Kayani will take the latter, more difficult, path. It’s not much but, for India, it is still a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
[Published as “Khan of Pakistan” in ‘The Asian Age’& ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, May 12,] 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/khan-pakistan-395