Better Inside The Tent – Zafar Hilaly

By the time General Kayani became the army chief in November 2007 he had been so long in the public eye as DG ISI; VCOAS, etc, that most felt they knew him. His intelligence, hard work, sangfroid and flexibility earned him a lot of deserved praise. Just about everybody agreed he was a quintessentially army man. As it happened he was the son of a jawan.

Lest some believe that Kayani too would grab the opportunity ‘to make history’, a la Musharaf, his supporters pointed out that Kayani’s hero was General Waheed who was about as apolitical and bland (and boring) an army chief as you could hope to find. They were right. Waheed had turned down an offer of an extension in his term of office from BB, an unprecedented gesture of self-denial for which, and only which, Waheed would ever be remembered.

“Does Kayani have any demerits?”, I asked my three-star interlocutors after his elevation in November, 2007. After a lot of thought, one of them replied, “Yes. Khaki is the only colour he seems to recognise.”

He was right. Six years later few chiefs, I am told, have done more for the welfare of the jawan than Kayani. He also restored the morale of the army from the depths to which it had plunged under Musharraf and restored its respect in the eyes of the public. The army’s response to the catastrophes (earthquake and floods) that occurred during his stints (as VCOAS and then COAS) was truly impressive. And more so the courage with which the army went to war under his leadership in Swat and Fata. For all of that too Kayani deserves kudos.

That said, Kayani’s concern for his men and their safety seemed dearer to him than that of the populace. He balked at moving against the TTP in Swat despite their primitive paganism, ignorant fanaticism and depraved acts of murder. In fact, the army in Swat was striking deals with the TTP. On my enquiring why, it transpired Kayani did not feel the country was sufficiently worked up to support an anti-TTP operation. Meanwhile, the slaughter of innocent Swatis by the TTP went on unchallenged.

Kayani’s indifference to the goings on in Swat was sad; and nobody accepted the excuse that he was waiting for orders from Islamabad. Zardari would not have refused to give the go-ahead had Kayani said he was ready to act. Actually the army’s familiarity with the TTP had earned the army the distrust of the locals who felt trapped between, on the one hand, the army’s seeming indifference to their fate and, on the other hand, terrorism.

I discovered this in my conversation with the owner of a house in which I stayed during an army sponsored visit to Swat in 2011. True, once the operations began the army’s bravery more than made up for the delay and their eventual victory was a cause for much celebration but for the relations of those killed by the TTP in the meantime, no words of comfort can suffice.

The other thing that will dog Kayani’s reputation is the song and dance he made about his great respect for democracy and his desire to steer the army clear of politics. I think there’s a need for some plain speaking on this issue.

The army has been the central actor in Pakistan’s political life as far as I can remember and the central power in decision-making and oversight of public policy since 1956. That remains the position today and that phenomenon will continue as long as people see the military as the only institution standing in the way of civil strife and certainly until the current low level of trust of the political parties continues. In other words, the military will remain involved in politics notwithstanding what the chief may say and any law or provision in the constitution, as long as the people want the military and put their trust in it.

The army chief must sense this, which is why despite all the syrupy sentiments Kayani expressed about democracy he himself never hesitated to put his foot down emphatically regardless of whether or not the government agreed. He did so blatantly in the matter of the CJ’s restoration in 2009; and when he countermanded the government’s directive in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks to send the DG ISI to India in 2006. Noticeably Kayani had no compunctions in taking charge of the Pakistan delegation proceeding to the US in early 2010 to discuss the future of our bilateral relationship with the US even though Zardari was the nominal leader.

In an unheard of step he summoned a meeting of a few federal secretaries at the GHQ to go over their respective briefs for the visit. And, noticeably, it was Kayani who raised a furore over the ‘conditions’ attached to the Kerry-Lugar legislation; and, it was Kayani again, who enunciated Pakistan’s response to the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in May 2011. There are other examples, like Salala and the sacking of Husain Haqqani, where the military’s response, willy nilly, also became the stance of the government.

And, lest there be any doubt over who called the shots with regard to defence and foreign policy during Kayani’s term, I suspect Zardari never even read the dossier containing our views on Af-Pak which Kayani personally handed over to Obama during their meeting in Washington in 2010.

Why is it then that Kayani tried so hard to appear non-political when, in fact, as the ISI chief, he had been tasked by Musharraf with negotiating the highly politicised NRO deal with BB? Besides, is not the ISI chief the army’s political ear entrusted with reflecting the army’s views on political developments to all and sundry? And finally was it not General Waheed who settled the biggest political problem we faced in 1992 by thumping the desk with his swagger stick, as legend has it and persuading Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan to resign? Why then the entire pretence about the army not interfering?

And what’s so wrong if the army chief – who is a key player of Team Pakistan – chooses to give the PM, the captain of the team, so to speak, the benefit of his views – confidentially of course?

I recall asking Kayani why the prime minister should not benefit from the advice of the army chief especially as the army chief has access to unrivalled sources of information and has a feel for the public pulse thanks to the field intelligence units the army operates. I said General Waheed did so and that BB had greatly appreciated the advice.

“I am not Waheed”, was Kayani’s curt response.

Well, here’s a word of caution from an old hand who has through unwanted experience seen at close quarters how ignorance, misunderstandings and differences among otherwise sensible men and women make for political turmoil.

Anyone who believes history won’t repeat itself in Pakistan because somehow the people, parliament and the judges won’t permit that and that the army now is also aware of its rightful place in the scheme of things, should also know that about the only thing history does in Pakistan is repeat itself. Here, neither an institution nor a constitution functions as it should. All function defectively, as all have at one time or another and sooner or later.

It would therefore be best, having chosen the new army chief, that Nawaz Sharif keeps him in the loop over important government decisions and shares with him his thoughts on key issues relating to the defence and foreign policies of the realm. Democracy promoting strategies that focus on keeping the army out of politics will not work and certainly not if all democracy does is produce chaos, corruption and weak growth.

And if our politicians continue to view the army as a political adversary even then, in the never to be forgotten words of Lyndon Johnson, ‘it’s better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in’.