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Arrows in the army's quiver

 

By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, March 08, 2013

 

In a country where the military establishment has called the shots for most of its existence, an unusual focus on the army, particularly during times of crisis, makes sense. Whether it is the general elections, the fight against terrorism, or Pakistan's role in Afghanistan, the focus falls on the occupants of the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.

That prompted Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Kayani to speak to three dozen journalists, columnists and talk show hosts on February 28 about the recent multi-party conferences on talking to the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan, and the coming general elections. 

And if the bits and pieces of the interaction that appeared in the press were any guide, he explained his position on major issues from a strictly constitutional point of view, often quoting the Article 245. This article stipulates that the army, when called upon, will come in aid of civil power. "The army comes in to help only if requested but cannot and should not assume civilian power. That is where the problem starts," Kayani told the journalists.

Subsequent background discussions with critical stakeholders also corroborated some of the points Gen Kayani raised in his interaction with journalists.

On the domestic front the GHQ feels that Article 245 clearly defines its role and unless asked by the government, the army will not assume any responsibility for and during the elections.

Mere deployment of 200,000 soldiers across the country hardly means anything for an electoral process that the army as an institution does not control, Kayani reportedly told the journalists. 

Gen Kayani has occupied extremely critical offices in the last one decade or so - from director general Military Operations to ISI chief, to his current position for almost six years now. Since taking over from General Musharraf in November 2007, Kayani has often embedded his discussion in the Article 245, insisting he won't do anything beyond it. That is probably why he opted to express his disappointments and dislikes for some of the narratives on the army's role in present circumstances.

The All Parties Conferences (APCs) convened by Awami National Party and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam was one such issue that he was compelled to take a position on. For him and his colleagues, these two conferences have virtually reduced Pakistan's current security crisis to two stakeholders - the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Pakistan Army. Whether inadvertently or otherwise, or by a concerted design, both conferences entailed the unmistakable impression that while there is need for dialogue with Taliban (the term used very ambiguously by almost all politicians), such an undertaking almost entirely hinged on the army's readiness to step forward and create space for such a process.

Ostensibly it is a dangerous and erroneous conflation of poor political vision, wishful thinking by certain political forces, and a possible desire to push the military to the wall.

Kayani and his colleagues wonder about the role of the parliament if an informal gathering of political parties insists its decisions should be binding on the present and future government. What is then the utility of the parliament and the political system, they ask. And rightly so. Even otherwise, demands placed on the government or the army through an APC or a sit-in, or a long march, raise serious questions about the viability of the system that is currently in place. 

One of the major issues that most of the security apparatus is currently seized with is the discomforting unfolding scenario in Afghanistan. For the army, it looks, the security calculus is pretty straightforward - the military option in Afghanistan is dead. Taliban are neither weakened nor defeated. With the departure of the US-led foreign troops, Taliban will shift to Afghanistan for territorial control. Foreigners hiding out in the border regions will also move into Afghanistan, and since foreigners depend on the TTP for shelter and cross-border movement the TTP will lose importance. And Pakistan will be able to easily break the nexus between the Afghan Taliban, foreign militants and the TTP.

Regardless of whether Afghanistan continues to be governed and led by the current political structures or sinks into warlordism in the post-withdrawal conditions, either way Pakistan's worries will shrink, enabling it to focus more on internal terrorism.

This somewhat naive expectation or belief carries its own implications, though. It appears that the "Good Taliban-Bad Taliban" distinction continues to occupy considerable space in the establishment's view of the Islamist militancy. It remains oblivious to the networking that currently exists among the five Deobandi/Salafi militant outfits banned in January 2002, and Al Qaeda-inspired groups in border regions as well as Afghanistan. This nexus poses no real challenge to Pakistan, they believe, and the threat comes only from "splinter" groups. This simplistic view of jihadist groups is really alarming for the simple reason that this networking meanwhile rests on ideological bonding - a common narrative that General Dave Richards, the British army chief, had realized three years ago. We cannot defeat ideology (Al Qaeda) but at least can try to shrink the space on it.

The pragmatism that Gen Richards expressed - based on his brief stint as ISAF commander in Afghanistan in 2007-2008, is hardly discernible from discussions with the army leadership.

The army high command also reckons that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve more than 15 percent of the objectives that the US-led NATO has set for itself ahead of the December 2014 pullout. This would amount to the best case scenario. And the descent into chaos and warlordism would be the worst case scenario. This is a depressing projection of how events might unfold in the coming months.

"If there will be reconciliation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, then President Karzai will be uncomfortable, and everything will be done through the peace council," said a senior official. He said the Afghan president had become unpredictable with every passing day.

One of the challenges for the US and its allies would to handle an increasingly unpredictable Karzai, who is positioning himself ahead of the April 2014 presidential elections in a way that he can push a candidate of his choice for the office he has occupied since January 2002.

"We want a safe stable Afghanistan because that is in Pakistan's interests too. We cannot jeopardize our own interests by siding with anyone, say the Haqqanis," the official said. "For that bloody 10 to 20 percent of influence of the Haqqanis inside Afghanistan, we can't put the security of Pakistan at risk."

The expectation in the GHQ, however, is that once the Afghan Taliban are co-opted into the political system, it would create a huge window for Pakistan to deal with its own security problems.

Yet, there is a caveat in this somewhat simplistic expectation, coupled with all sorts of dismal reporting out of, and on Kabul on the fate of Afghanistan beyond December 2014. The biggest impediment to the Afghan reconciliation process is the Karzai-led forces of status quo. Success in reconciliation would keep discomforting these forces and preventing them from disrupting the peace process would remain the biggest challenge for the entire international community, officials believe.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk