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.

 

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories