Irrationality and anti-Americanism have triggered the anti-Bill wave in Pakistan. The armed forces should instead focus on fighting the militants and regaining their own credibility.
As a series of bomb blasts began to occur in Pakistani cities prior to the launch of the army operation in South Waziristan, a demonstration in Karachi by parties that claim religion as their raison d'etre underscored some key conflicts Pakistan faces: the requirements of justice under due process of law versus tribal, extra-judicial punishments; tensions between the elected civilian government and the 'establishment'; and conflict between a long-standing foreign policy versus new domestic compulsions.
The demonstration symbolised the two options ahead: the long road towards becoming a modern, progressive democratic nation - or descent into the retrogressive order envisioned by the Taliban and their supporters.
Ostensibly railing against proposed changes in the controversial 'Blasphemy law', speakers slammed the 'Kary Logar Bill' and its supporters such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Pakistan's ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani. The speakers supported the armed forces' stand against the Bill (which was subsequently signed into law, drafted by American legislators for the American, not the Pakistani government, to approve).
The traditional nexus between the religious right and the military is no secret. Superficial divisions surfaced after the army, under General Musharraf, took a U-turn on its traditional pro-jihadi stand following the cataclysmic events of 9/11, but the bond remains strong. They share notions about defending Pakistan's ideological frontiers and the 'real enemy' (India), and a distaste for democracy (especially the Pakistan People's Party).
These views found echo in the cacophony of knee-jerk protests against the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, 2009. Those who went against the tide were dismissed as 'American lackeys' - although the military (annoyed at being by-passed this time) has for decades taken far huger amounts of aid than are in prospect now, with various undisclosed conditions, leading to repercussions that reverberate today. But conditionalities were unacceptable when the aid went to social sectors under civilian rule - education, health and energy. The Act was in the works for nearly two years, since before this government took over - the result of sustained efforts by various people, not least Benazir Bhutto, to make America realise it must deal with elected representatives. It is a belated response to the long-standing and justified criticism of past policies of supporting military governments in Pakistan, as acknowledged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Washington is obviously - and understandably - keen that American taxpayers' money is not used for illegal and dangerous activities, as any accountable, elected government would be (a good lesson for Pakistanis to learn). The wording of the Act, even after the explanatory note, makes it more difficult to repeat past mistakes. Pakistan must now ensure that the U.S. itself sticks to this commitment and vice versa - concerns based on past betrayals.
The alternative to this 'enhanced partnership' is a continued one-dimensional (security-based) relationship with America at the expense of democratic institutions in Pakistan, and continued mediation by countries like Saudi Arabia with even more dangerous vested interests and agendas. Such agendas have directly contributed to a rise in religious extremism, sectarianism and misogyny in Pakistan, and restrictions on how Pakistan deals with other (Muslim) countries. The Pakistan army's protest proved to be a storm in a teacup as some had predicted, but the tantrum did get it more direct military aid prior to the ground offensive in South Waziristan. It also makes it difficult for the civilian government to take any credit for restarting the economy and for creating a political consensus against the militants.
The demonstration against 'Kary Logar' illustrated the irrationality and anti-Americanism that triggered the anti-Bill wave. Speakers accused America of using the Bill (President Obama had not yet signed it into an Act) to amend the 'Blasphemy law' - though several Islamic scholars and jurists have recommended a review and even repeal for the sake of justice and humanity, the essence of Islam.
Ideally, of course, Pakistan should not require aid. This is hardly realistic after decades of dependence, but still a long-term goal to aspire for. Another goal to aspire for is for the civilian government to control the army, and not the other way around.
Pakistan's armed forces need to focus on the fight against the militants. Public sympathy is swinging in the army's favour but it will take a lot more to weed out elements sympathetic to the Taliban/Al Qaeda from the ranks of those who were until recently handlers for their jihadi partners. The armed forces are also still struggling to regain the credibility they lost during the Musharraf years (hence General Kayani's stance after taking over as the Chief of the Army Staff, that no army person would meet politicians without due clearance). But old habits die hard, as evidenced by the politics played during the Shahbaz Sharif-led 'long march' and by the covert 'midnight meeting' of Shahbaz Sharif with the COAS, which hardly conformed with the due process for such meetings laid out by the Defence Ministry.
The daring attack and siege of the General Head Quarters (GHQ) rallied opinion around the men in uniform. Confusingly, this includes religious right-wing parties linked to the very forces the army is pitted against (not so confusing when one remembers the generals who termed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan as true 'patriots' after they offered to fight India in the post-Mumbai attack fallout).
These 'patriots' are now attacking targets everywhere, 'hard' or 'soft'. Their ideological brethren in other organisations are mounting attacks in neighbouring countries - most recently, Iran and Afghanistan. Rather than be defensive and deny the complicity of Pakistan-based actors in such attacks, the government and the army need to accept this possibility, plan preventive measures, and charge, try and punish those who are arrested. They need to be on the same page and work together for the direction Pakistan needs to move towards. This goes for pro-democracy elements in civil society, too.
Pakistan joined this war at someone else's behest and with someone else's money decades ago. But right now, the entire country is the battleground and the entire population a potential target, as underlined by the despicable attack on the Islamic University in Islamabad. Pakistan cannot win it with a half-hearted anti-'jihadi' stance that sees fit to use 'good Taliban' against 'bad Taliban', and unless the 'establishment' (army-bureaucracy-intelligence agencies) removes its traditional anti-India blinkers.
(Beena Sarwar is a Karachi-based freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker (www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com). An edited version of this article was published in the newspaper Dawn on October 23.)