Post-Abbottabad, a failure to see the fault-lines

The disarray within the political class in Pakistan has allowed the military to control the narrative after the initial loss of words.

May 16, 2011 11:12 pm | Updated 11:12 pm IST

The disarray within the political class in Pakistan has allowed the military to control the narrative after the initial loss of words. File Photo

The disarray within the political class in Pakistan has allowed the military to control the narrative after the initial loss of words. File Photo

Much has been made of the marathon in-camera briefing that the military and intelligence leadership gave Pakistan's Parliament on May 13 regarding the unilateral U.S. action in Abbottabad on May 2 in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in the heart of the country.

But, apart from the headline-making offer by Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Shuja Pasha to submit himself to Parliament and face the consequences if there was any “negligence or intentional failure,” there was none of the soul-searching that many an analyst had hoped for.

All that is in public domain of what transpired inside is by way of un-attributable quotes. Besides the ISI DG's offer, there were four salient points in the limited account provided by the Government: Lt. Gen. Pasha said provincial government, local police and related agencies should share responsibility in intelligence failure; criticism of the Army and ISI at this juncture is not in national interest as it strengthens the enemy; the ISI had paralysed al-Qaeda by shattering its network; and the U.S. had fighter aircraft waiting in Afghanistan to react to any Pakistani bid to counter the helicopters.

Similarly, the resolution that was thrashed out in the wee hours on May 14 focuses almost entirely on the violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the U.S. — not just in this operation but also the drone attacks — and raises no questions about bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad in the vicinity of the Pakistan Military Academy. At best the call for setting up an independent commission on the Abbottabad operation to fix responsibility and recommend necessary measures to ensure against such a recurrence can be said to include the issue of how bin Laden managed to get into Pakistan and apparently live go undetected for five years.

Newspaper editorial

“The joint resolution suggests no reform in the military's India-centric outlook and suggests no change or review of the overall national security doctrine/strategy either. In fact, the status quo seems to have been endorsed…it can only lead to international isolation and a reinforcement of a mindset, common among many of us, which blames the rest of the world for our ills and refuses to even see inward, let alone take corrective action,” said The Express Tribune in its editorial titled “Our failure to see our own faults.”

The newspaper, in short, articulated the disappointment and exasperation many felt with the evident futility of the joint session. Instead of acknowledging that the national security doctrine had boomeranged on Pakistan and pushing for a course correction, the legislators ended up subscribing to the military establishment's narrative and tilting at the windmills.

A 1971-like moment

Here was an opportunity to right the civil-military balance that despite a democratically elected government is hugely tilted in favour of the armed forces. Never in recent memory had the military in general and the ISI in particular come in for such criticism at home as both institutions did in the wake of the Abbottabad operation. Complicity, duplicity and incompetence were just some of the charges that have been levelled against the military and the ISI. So much so that a week after the U.S. raid, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was visiting garrisons to address officers in what was described as “town hall style” meetings to salvage the dented image of the seldom-questioned institution.

To some, the military establishment was facing a 1971-like moment when its morale had reached an all-time low following the loss of East Pakistan. But instead of being held to account for evident failure to detect the U.S. incursion — never mind core issues like complicity or even incompetence of the relatively well-funded security establishment in tracking bin Laden — what the military top brass managed in Parliament was to get a resolution passed that expressed full confidence in the defence forces.

Though the security establishment was visibly caught “red-handed” or “napping” — depending on which narrative one subscribes to — the disarray within the political class, led by the more-than-once-bitten-and-several-times-shy Pakistan People's Party, allowed the military to control the narrative after the initial loss of words.

That the democratically elected dispensation has little say on security matters and foreign policy — particularly vis-à-vis the U.S., India and Afghanistan — is no secret but it was the civilian set-up which was made to state Pakistan's case and face the brunt of searing questions over and over again. The first admission of “shortcomings” from the Army came on May 5 and the military establishment also made it known that the suggestion of a joint session was made by the COAS.

According to the Inter Services Public Relations, the COAS also requested that the “strength of democracy must be put into effect to develop a consensus on important security issues including war on terror.” And, as the joint session approached, demonstrations began to be staged in Islamabad and elsewhere in support of the Army; setting the tone of the proceedings inside Parliament.

There were limits

So, even before the session, it became amply clear that there was only so much the political class would push. And, with good reason, insist analysts. Over the past 25 years, two elected governments were removed after the political set-up ordered an enquiry into major disasters involving the Army: The Ojhri camp blast in Rawalpindi in 1988 led to the ouster of the Junejo Government four weeks after it ordered an enquiry into the incident, and then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed in an Army takeover after he decided to enquire into the Kargil war. Scared of a similar fate, the PPP allowed the investigation into the Abbottabad operation to be conducted by the Adjutant General of the Army and it was only after considerable arm-twisting by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) that the Government agreed to an independent commission of enquiry.

Going by the source-based reporting of the in-camera session, the focus remained on the wrong done by the U.S. in not taking Pakistan into confidence on an operation conducted on the basis of initial leads provided by the ISI and little attention was paid to what bin Laden — the world's most wanted terrorist and someone who by the federal government's own admission had declared war on the country — was doing in Pakistan.

‘Stop meddling in politics'

And, where reference was made to bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, the ISI DG sought to apportion blame by saying the local police and provincial government must share responsibility. But, the Awami National Party leader Haji Adil was quoted a week earlier as stating that some parts of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa province were beyond the control of the provincial police and the area in Abbottabad where bin Laden was killed was one such area.

This may well be true given that the ANP is practically the only other political party in Pakistan that does not owe its genesis to the establishment. All other parties have at some point or the other served as hand-maidens of the establishment and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif minced no words when he said intelligence agencies should stop meddling in politics which the ISI — technically the intelligence wing of the Army — has been doing since the days of Pakistan's first dictator Ayub Khan.

But, Mr. Sharif's call for introspection and similar hopes for using this milestone in Pakistan's history as an opportunity to move away from its chosen path to apparent self-destruction in the quest for strategic depth have come to naught as the weekend saw the powers that be return to ‘business as usual.' And, the ones to recognise this first as always were the Americans. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry went to meet Gen. Kayani first during his mend-fences-with-Pakistan visit. Gone was even the normal pretence of meeting with the civilian government first and then dropping in at GHQ.

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