Pakistan’s memogate and the undermining of civilian rule

How the country's all-powerful military succeeded in bringing down the Pakistani ambassador to Washi

Former Pakistani ambassador (left) Husain Haqqani, with US senator John Kerry and President Asif Zardari in August 2010
Source: Getty Images

On October 11 the FT published an article by Mansoor Ijaz, whom they describe as an American of Pakistani origin who helped negotiate between the Sudan government and the Clinton administration in 1997. What Ijaz said in his piece was that fearing a military coup in Pakistan after the US has seized the Osama Bin Laden compound, President Zardari had asked Washington to intervene and that, in consort with Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani civilian ambassador to the US, he, Ijaz, had been assigned with delivering the memo to Admiral Mike Mullen.

Quite apart from the fact that it doesn't stack up at all - both Husain Haqqani and Ali Asif Zardari had direct and confidential contact right through to the top of the US administration and any call or document from the civilian government in Pakistan or its ambassador in the aftermath of the OBL killing would have been taken instantly - its most obvious flaw is why a relative unknown, Ijaz, described by the Pakistani press as having an "inter-galactic ego", should be trusted with such a sensitive mission. The memo was also apparently unsigned.

The ISI and the army in Islamabad, in defiance of the civilian government, have been trying to get Haqqani removed for some time. Unlike many of the nation's diplomatic staff, who are appointed by the military, Haqqani (described here as Washington's hardest working ambassador) is a former civil rights journalist is used to getting into hot water with the military, and member of the late Benazir Bhutto's PPP party. He was known to favour action against the Taliban and the continuity of civilian rule, both of which get up the army's nose. The military would quite like to ditch the Americans once and for all and get Chinese military power behind them instead.

It is now widely thought that the article placed in the FT was a slow burning attempt to frame Haqqani and the Zardari government. But if its original place of conception was the military and ISI, they may have made a mistake. Ijaz's article "quotes" the so-called memo to Mullen: "The new national security team will eliminate Section S of the ISI charged with maintaining relations to the Taliban, Haqqani [this is a reference to the jihadist network on the Af-Pak border, not the Karachi-born ambassador] network etc. This will dramatically improve relations with Afghanistan".

The civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both tried, in accordance with Pakistan's constitution, to take mastery of the ISI in the 1990s without success. The chances of eliminating Section S of the ISI through a "national security team" are close to nil and Zardari would have been unlikely to suggest such a naive course of action to Mullen. Civilian governments do not have the means to do so.

Haqqani has now resigned - his replacement is Sherry Rehman - and with the government on the back foot, the one known known is that the military has succeeded in turning the tables through Ijaz's article in the FT. Instead of the army conspiring against the elected government, it is the government that is charged with conspiring against its own military to remove them.

A vain hope. Four years after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the indignity of having the US back civilian rule in Pakistan, the military is gearing up to take control of any civilian government that might come its way. Democracy in Pakistan looks to be weakening, not strengthening.

 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage