Credibility, integrity, reliability — all leaking

This piece appeared in Daily Times on March 22, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

Just when one thought it is over and things have started getting easier, a new torrent is ready to unleash a new set of embarrassments. The bombshell of leaked electronic records of communication to and from the US Embassy in Islamabad has hit multiple targets including the righteous face of some political parties and that of the army. It looked bad that the army chief who was lecturing on sovereignty and screaming against drone strikes not long ago was exposed to have actually demanded surveillance drones. The matter, however, demands a bit deeper look beneath what is visible.

We can go on endlessly denouncing this needless lying by the top military brass and political leaders, and rightly so. What worries one most at the moment is not just the lies told to the people; governments and states are not expected to always follow the moral values defined for individuals. They might have to either hide facts altogether or make them public selectively at a specific time, as their policy permits. They say, governments and diplomats can disguise or camouflage the truth for effective pursuit of their perceived gains for their country but their words should remain credible. No one should doubt the words when they come from an official source in a government. Pakistan has probably placed itself at the lowest denominator in that, willingly so.

The Pakistan Papers released by WikiLeaks, do not reveal something that dozens of fellow columnists did not already know or have not been writing on for quite some time. But the Papers have definitely made certain things public with greater dependability and detail. The questions that arise now are of a diverse nature. There can be questions on political ethics, national integrity, diplomatic credibility and public reliability, as well as on the consistency of policy agreement among different levels of decision-making within the civil and military leaderships and establishments.

One could clearly see disagreements and divisions of opinion not only intra-party and between the political and military leadership, but also within the armed forces and its various institutions as well. When the army chief was rightly feeling the need for intelligence cover to our ground forces in the battlefield and asking for cooperation from the US for the same, some in his own institution did not probably agree entirely. General Kayani, it seems, had to succumb to the institutional pressure and say things publicly that he should not have if he meant business when he was asking for more unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes. Moreover, issuing public statements is not the privilege of an army chief and General Kayani knows it. The fact that he had to do it points to a bigger challenge. How would he be able to deal with the ideological divisions within if he keeps on yielding to the pressure of inner hawks?

That he had to face the pressure from within could be seen in what his prime intelligence agency was doing by using sections of the media despite the fact that men leading these institutions were in complete agreement in fighting terror. That the elements within the army and intelligence agencies were able to prevail upon not only the media but also the usual suspects from the political parties to create a general public opinion against the UAVs and predators, commonly called ‘drones’, is quite telling in the backdrop of the private stance of our army leadership asking for more UAV strikes.

Remote intelligence, later confirmed and evaluated by human intelligence (whose role in North and South Waziristan is huge, as described by Zahid Husain in his book Scorpion’s Tail and by Bob Woodward in Obama’s War) has proved hugely beneficial for the troops on ground. The Papers also refer to a comment by President Zardari about a drone strike killing 60 in 2009 wherein he informs the US ambassador that it would have taken the lives of at least 60 troops had the strike been left without the use of an UAV. In-depth discussions with parliamentarians from FATA revealed in 2010 that the opposition to drones within the FATA residents was negligible compared to that seen in the urban centres of Punjab. In fact, when I personally interviewed IDPs from Bajaur and some from Waziristan, I was astonished to hear people talking against those who oppose drone strikes.

But the public anger against UAVs created by excessive and effective use of the media and adopted by leaders of certain political parties had probably brought the civilian and military leadership to the point that no one would dare to speak the truth or else you would be branded as anti-state and pro-imperialist, or even a seller of the national interest. Seeing this strange turn of events in the last few years, one is obliged to step back, take a deep breath and start wondering what has happened to earlier divides in Pakistan’s society and establishment. Where are the right/left, pro/anti-establishment, nationalist/realist, and now even this most popular, pro/anti-military divide? The confusion that looms large in Pakistan’s society has its manifestation in the thinking pattern of our intelligentsia too.

The agenda that has been traditionally borne by the establishment is being displayed in broad daylight, bequeathing it to sections within the establishment, political parties, intellectuals and the media. Some powerful figures within the establishment and political leadership seem in agreement to abandon the strategic depth paradigm of policy towards Afghanistan. Reference to this could be sought in the recent strategic dialogue in Washington, where Pakistan’s army chief is said to have emphasised a ‘stable and peaceful Afghanistan’, with a conspicuous omission of ‘friendly’ from the three adjectives used for Afghanistan for a long time. “We have more opposition from civilian leaders in and outside parliament than the military leadership, in furthering Pakistan’s national interest through fighting terrorism and in making the US-Pakistan partnership workable and beneficial for both,” were the words of a high-level government official in a meeting last week in the Presidency. Tells much.

Be it Pakistan’s decision to be the US’s partner in the war on terror, or the use of UAVs in Waziristan, or intermittent issues between the ISI and CIA/JSOC ranging from the presence of US contractors like Raymond Davis to dealing with militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), it is difficult to ignore how civilian leaders in cahoots with the media have been kowtowing to the line traditionally given to them and upheld since long by the ISI and the military. The military leadership needs to decide once and for all to get rid of hawkish elements from its own rank and file if we are a fraction of percentage serious in complete eradication of the terrorists from the soil of Pakistan. Similarly, civilian leaders need to lift themselves up from short-term considerations to a longer-term interest of Pakistan, which lies in finishing off terror, not supporting it.

The events that unfolded after Raymond Davis became the battleground between hawks within the military establishment of Pakistan and those in the CIA. They uncover a rare disagreement and intra-military and intra-political divides. No wonder these divides are gradually gelling together old enemies and alienating trusted friends. What an interesting theatre it is!