Two Critical Redlines That Could Shatter Pakistan
WASHINGTON – An old friend, a very senior bureaucrat and diplomat who later served as an United Nations Advisor, agreed with me this week that Pakistan had come perilously close to becoming another Libya, Syria or Iraq where regime-changes had been forced in the last few years.
But we agreed that only two thresholds remain to be crossed and if tragically that happens, Pakistan will sink fast into a bottomless pit.
As critical institutions, like the Parliament, Judiciary, Executive, Big Business and the Media, that normally keep a country stable, and moving forward have collapsed in Pakistan one by one, these redlines have become visible and are about to be crossed.
The most important redline is that the people of Pakistan, although under tremendous economic pain, stress and distress, have not yet turned violent en masse and still nurture the hope that someone, somehow will manage the myriad of their heart wrenching problems and bring some stability, sanity and comfort.
But when we heard last week that after the Sri Lanka turmoil even the forlorn people of Libya, a country which I know well, had turned to the streets and set their parliament on fire, I was scared. Libyans were the most docile and subservient people under Colonel Gaddafi. I have seen that in the late 70s they would stand in a line for hours to buy a bag of onions or a cleaning broom from the cooperative market, but would never complain.
Yet last week they set up a parallel government in the eastern part of the country and named their own prime minister while the capital Tripoli in the west was being ruled by another PM.
According to a CNN report several cities, including Tripoli, witnessed demonstrations over deteriorating living conditions and called for the dissolution of political bodies.
“All [political] bodies must leave, including the government, and there is no way to do that except through elections,” the Eastern Libyan PM said referring to the Tripoli government.
Hundreds of people stormed Libya’s eastern parliament building in the port city of Tobruk on July 2, the latest in a string of clashes between groups supporting rivalling leaders.
In Pakistan sporadic and small demos have been taking place over similar issues and people do take the law into their hands but the huge rallies and demonstrations have remained non-violent.
One factor has been the role and restraint shown by popular leader Imran Khan. But for how long, no one knows as the patience of the people is running out and it is just a matter of time when this ticking time bomb shatters the redline.
Once Pakistanis come out of this fear, there would be no stopping them and what may follow would certainly be a catastrophe.
The second redline is much more serious and absolutely crucial to the security and existence of Pakistan.
It is the strict discipline and still-intact chain of command within the Pakistan Army. No Italian style Colonel’s coup has been plotted against the top army leadership. Some anger and disgust – though sporadic – has been seen criss-crossing the rank and file that included even retired generals who were mainly under the assumption that the army was supporting a political charade at the federal and provincial levels. While the fact remains that these ex-generals were publicly criticizing the military leaders for their acts of omission and commission.
The Italian coup, called The Golpe Borghese coup, was planned in December, 1970. It was named after Junio Valerio Borghese, an Italian World War II commander, the “Black Prince”, a convict of war crimes, but still a hero in the eyes of many post-War Italians.
His secret coup was ironically code named ‘Operation Tora Tora’, a name rhyming with Tora Bora in our neighbourhood. The plan of the plotters in its final phase envisaged the involvement of US and NATO warships which were on alert in the Mediterranean.
Italy, however, survived the trauma.
But this redline must not be crossed in Pakistan because that would signal the end of the army as a cohesive and efficient fighting force which protects the country and its essential nuclear assets that keep enemies at an arm’s length.
So what should be done to ensure that both these critical thresholds are never crossed and the country can stabilize itself and move forward?
The army tradition has been remarkable as repeatedly its chief was picked not on pure military merit but mainly because some supposed weaknesses were liked by those making the appointments or other political exigencies. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto picked General Zia ul Haq as he was docile. When his plane crashed Mirza Aslam Beg took over but despite ambitions could not impose Martial Law. Decent officers, General Kakar and Jehangir Karamat, retired honourably and Asif Nawaz died under mysterious circumstances, but General Musharraf was picked because Nawaz Sharif thought he had no roots in Punjab. Many superseded generals who were top rated on merit just retired quietly. When Musharraf became unpopular, though he tried his best to stay in uniform and even contest elections as an army officer, he appointed General Kayani who would later protect him. So was General Bajwa chosen, not on merit but other considerations. Yet all these top changes did not produce a situation that broke the discipline of the institution.
Now we are back at the same crossroads. General Bajwa has officially declared he wants to retire but reports keep circulating that he may be given, or could be seeking another extension. Reports of officially extending the tenure of the chief to four years have also started surfacing. The army, and the country, is back to the point when General Musharraf was not ready to quit.
Then the collective wisdom of the institution prevailed and some colleagues quietly persuaded him to quit the army and doff his uniform in the wake of the rising political opposition. He agreed.
Probably many are hoping and expecting that colleagues of General Bajwa will also follow the tradition and keep the army from breaking its worthy record of unity and bring the required changes, without any uproar or destabilization. This has to be a test of the quality of leadership and its vision. No one can predict what may happen but now the country is in another zone of history. It is 2022, with millions of people, in villages and cities, connected through the telecom and cell phone revolutions. Ex-army officers inside and outside the country are talking openly and some viciously, hoping that sanity will prevail. Masses are on the streets, but so far peaceful.
On the political front Imran Khan is still a stabilizing force with millions of followers. The collusion of the present army brass with politicians who were facing numerous corruption cases has hurt the army image. Yet there still is hope that the political process will be allowed transparently to get over this phase of uncertainty.
If all efforts to achieve a balance through non-violent political activity fail and the push comes to shove, Pakistan could get into serious trouble.
The irony is that more chaos may be created to prevent exactly such chaos.
And if in this process the military or political leaders lose nerve, everything may spin out of control. Then we may, God forbid, follow Libya, Syria, Iraq or Tora Bora.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Voice of East.