View from Pakistan: Sifting through

Karachi: Before the month-long snooze mode is switched on and collective hibernation begins, some thoughts on events in recent months, aka what the hell just happened?
There we were, coasting along, the veneer of an economic recovery to go with the veneer of relative security and stability to go with the veneer of everything is okay.

And then, all hell breaks loose. Everything changes. But no one actually changes. Down is up and up is down and yet everyone is still standing. Who said what? Why? Say what? Never mind.
Here, in no particular order, some random thoughts about seemingly random events.

Pop goes the weasel: The nature of TV and the easily divertible national attention span means Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani politician, isn’t done yet. So strap yourself in for the rollercoaster that Pakistan can be.

But here’s the thing with rollercoasters: they all come to a gentle stop, everyone gets off and life goes on. And so it will be with Qadri.
Because while anything is possible in Pakistan, some things are less possible than others. And Qadri — obscure, foreign, eccentric, niche — will always be a sideshow, never the showstopper.

The same two questions apply to Qadri as they have to the anti-democrat puppets before him and as they will to the anti-democrats after him: how far will the boys take it and even with full-on support of the boys, how the heck do you do take it down, i.e. the post-18th Amendment, constitutionally protected government?

To neither question is there an answer that’s plausible or works in Qadri’s favour. Which brings us to the next issue.
The long view: The boys are up to something. No doubt about it. It’s not even credible anymore to ask whether they are or aren’t. The more interesting question: what, exactly, are they up to?

As ever, there are only strands and signals and a lot of reading tea leaves and separating signal from noise. Here’s a good starting point though: Pervez Musharraf. Not because there’s any great love for Musharraf or that he matters personally. But it’s what putting Musharraf on trial means. It means a lot. Exactly what everyone clamouring to put Musharraf on trial is claiming it would mean.

And that’s precisely the problem for the boys: Musharraf today, tomorrow who? Here’s the thing though, the tomorrow isn’t really about tomorrow or the day after or next year or the year after that.
It’s about the long view. What makes the boys the boys is that they’re the only ones who actually have a long view.

Of course, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. A good thing if the long view is visionary, about transcending the institution and thinking about the national good. A bad thing if the long view is self-referential, self-serving and inward-looking.

No points for guessing which version of the long view trumps the other one here. And that’s why Musharraf, dialogue with the bad Taliban and civilian friendliness towards India is so problematic. Because in the long-run all of those impact the internal, domestic predominance of the boys.

So, how to square the long view with present events? The same way it was eventually squared with Asif Ali Zardari: harry and harass the civilians, now the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), every little while so that they’re pushed into a defensive crouch and survival is all that’s on their minds.

If the civilians accept that equation, long may democracy prosper. If they don’t, a calibrated increase in pressure — with the implicit threat that there are no red lines.
Which brings us to the civilians.

Confusion central: The politics of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has come down to this: Imran Khan is unwilling to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t Prime Minister.
He thought it was his, he still thinks it’s his destiny and he just won’t let electoral reality sink in. From that flows everything we’re seeing about the PTI.

And in that also lies the limit to the efficacy of Khan’s politics of agitation. He won’t team up with others, he won’t fall in line behind anyone else, and he can’t do it — bring down the government — on his own.

Settling in: Having ridden out a storm that it’s still not clear he was aware he was in the midst of, Nawaz Sharif is ready for more.
Two big decisions await him: a Cabinet reshuffle and the next director-general Inter-Services Intelligence. If he wanted to, in making those decisions Nawaz could hit the reset button. But he’s more likely to be Nawaz.

Which means, internally, in party decisions, he’ll likely favour the old loyalist and keep the young go-getter at arm’s length. So a new Cabinet may be much like the old: a governance liability, a loyalty win and of little use in crisis.

DG ISI? It is, in some ways, trickier than Chief of Army Staff. The DGI is both operational and policy. And it is, as an organisation, a maze that perhaps even an experienced Chief of Army Staff does not fully understand.

Will Nawaz choose; will he defer to Gen. Raheel Sharif’s choice; is there a candidate out there who can take the organisation by the scruff of its neck and effect real change?
A gamechanger — that word again! — could be a civilian outsider, but recent events make boldness unlikely. Expect a conservative, institutional choice.

Musharraf is the wild card. Nawaz is still not willing to let him go. Not letting him go would mean suffering more attacks and keeping civ-mil toxic. The sensible compromise: drag it out, let the pre-trial legal manoeuvring wind along endlessly. Mumbai ATC (anti-terrorism court) trials, anyone?

For now, enjoy the hibernation, but with one eye open — Ramzan is a good time for terror.

By arrangement with Dawn

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