Sunday, April 27, 2014

Paying the price of democracy

Published in The Nation, November 24, 2012

We are the chosen ones. We are the voice of people, the guardians of their interests and we are here to remedy their misery. We know what hurts them and what is good for them. We are their saviours. The people have chosen us and that is the ultimate accountability. We are now accountable to no one. Our word is the law and we are above it. We are the godfathers of this nation.” Weigh this against the reality on ground and you shall recognise the mafia that rules behind this facade. This is our political reality. Will your vote change anything?

The other side of the coin is equally corroded. A military government is worse than a political setup, since in a democratic environment at least there is that lingering daydream that ‘eventually’ something positive will emerge. But the only fruit we reap from either is disgust. Dejected and disheartened, we fall from the lap of one to the other. Every few years we seek change, any change. When the pain of living crosses all thresholds, even death is preferable. And the pain is now crossing thresholds rapidly.

No one with money or power really wants anything to change; they thrive on the current status quo. The powerful elite have a unique set of values, and consider corruption and such other issues as ‘middle class blubber’. As Chairman NAB, I was usually affectionately counselled to grow up and step into the real world with such wisdom as, “which Governor or Minister in the world is not a rich man? This is the way of the world, learn to live in it.” And another favourite was, “corruption and development go hand in hand, you stop one and the other will come to a standstill.” And at another time, “what is wrong if the Chief Minister has given a road making contract to his brother? You have the road, don’t you? If he cannot even do this, what is his incentive for making the road?” This is the ethos at the highest echelons of authority. Unbridled power certainly alters the parameters of wisdom.

A good measure of this insatiability is the new anti-corruption law that is being pushed for adoption; a law that in fact encourages corruption, instead of fighting it. Our political system perpetuates corruption and deceit, since it can only be sustained in this environment. You can either remain clean or succeed as a politician. Clean politics is a misnomer. I once dined with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the ex-Prime Minister of Singapore, who praised our nation, saying: “I had so much difficulty in finding a Minister, no one wanted the job; but in your country, it is amazing that so many are willing for public service.”

For us, public service means liberty to plunder. Not a shred of justice is visible anywhere. All injustice stems from corruption, and all wretchedness emanates from injustice. Look deeply and you will discover that today this is at the core of every problem facing our country; be it failure of governance, the mayhem in Karachi, Balochistan imbroglio or being part of US carnage in Afghanistan and the resulting terrorism across the country. All have roots in self-perpetuation for illicit gains. This is the entire focus of our leadership.

Since every social disorder starts from the top and seeps down, the entire nation is rapidly being engulfed by corruption. When the powerful have the liberty to live above the law, then the people will emulate. The greed for material benefit has overtaken all else. The principles of commerce, devoid of any moral or ethical considerations, have brought us to a point where every step is measured in terms of profit and loss, and nothing else matters; means are irrelevant, only the end counts. We are being transformed into a nation of tricksters and swindlers. They are becoming our new heroes, our role models. The rest are losers!

Our political legacy is strewn with leaders serving self-interest at the cost of the nation. Each one of them thrives on this corrupt political organism. Today, we have reached a point where we are being made to believe that these are our political compulsions and we need to learn to live with them. It is the price of democracy; and since continuance of this system has been directly equated with survival of the country, we have no choice but to pay the price. Sadly, the middle class has now been conditioned to accept this as a political reality and as our destiny. But take heed, greater wisdom flows in the streets.

There is systemic deformity in our political order. The fault lies in our system, which does not cater to our environment of total disregard for law. We dream and pray for a ‘good leader’. But even if such a man were to miraculously reach the top, he will be isolated in this contaminated environment and bound by its mandatory political compromises, the system will drag him down. The difference he can make will only be nominal and ephemeral. Elections are, therefore, inconsequential.

For a meaningful change, the entire dynamics of our political system have to be redefined, creating a new order that does not only bring forth competent leaders, but also ensures that they can and do perform effectively. This is the promise on which a military government steps in, only later to become part of the same system; making merely peripheral changes, to claim success through cosmetic gimmickry. We have repeatedly had the opportunity for transformation and missed it. Change has to be brought from the top and has to be across the entire spectrum of governance; the whole has rotted. A good system is not leader dependent; the leader draws strength from it. Good leaders don’t last, good systems do.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Remembering Mike

Published in The Nation, November 17, 2012

Brigadier Mike was an ‘old timer’. But he did not want to stay anymore, so he left. Along with him passed away all that the army stood for - the pride in uniform, the self-respect, the grace and chivalry, the measure of an officer - his ethical and moral standards and, of course, the small courtesies. Mike left us to continue to fumble in the dark, for standards! 

His are times long forgotten. Commissioned in the British Indian Army, when he set foot on this sacred soil, he declared, “my claim was Pakistan, and I got it”, refusing to make any further claims. He has now departed, leaving behind a pocket watch, reading glasses, and a walking stick as his sole worldly possessions; and, of course, a copy of the Holy Quran. Along with all this, he also left behind memories of some soldierly values now considered outmoded. May Allah bless his soul.

Such was the confidence placed in him by the Army, that on promotion to the rank of a colonel, he was placed as head of the Welfare Directorate at the GHQ, handling all allotment of lands to army personnel and managing its welfare budget and activities. Once settled in his new office, he initiated a detailed report, revealing how their substantial accounts placed with the Standard Bank were on terms most unsuited to the Army. The same evening he was ‘advised’ by the well informed President of the bank to withdraw the report, which he declined. The next morning brought his unceremonious departure from GHQ. This was 1971 – the country was under military rule!

After the change in government, the Standard Bank scandal came to light, as did the man, who had tried to protect institutional interest, at personal cost. He was promoted brigadier, out of turn, and brought back to GHQ. However, the environment does not change merely with change in command; and eventually, with much heartburn, he decided to ask for premature release from the army. The same year, he was due to be considered for promotion to the rank of a general.

I remember a time in 1960, when he made purchases from a store in Quetta and started to write out a cheque. He was then a major. And I merely a boy, queried with some uncertainty: “Will he accept your cheque?” He looked at me with surprise, “of course, he will; I am an officer.” And the storekeeper thanked him with a smile. Such was the credibility of an officer, once upon a time. Yes, it does seem like a fairytale now.

The storekeeper has not changed. We, the soldiers, have! True, that over the years there has been a national ethical nosedive, which has also left its mark on the army. Nevertheless, a quarter century of filtration through its tight assessment and promotion system should enable the Army to produce generals, who cannot be pointed at. But somehow, every other day, a new tale crops up. This is not the consequence of our social milieu alone; martial laws have, most certainly, taken their toll.

Whatever good or bad military governments bring with them, they leave the army diseased and scarred, with a systemic deterioration in the command environment. The Army Chief has little time for the Army, leaving it to be managed by a Vice Chief, whose wings are so drastically clipped that he ends up basically overseeing the GHQ, and that too partly.

The military ruler, meanwhile, needs to keep the army happy, so an atmosphere of forgive and forget prevails. Misdemeanour at senior levels is brushed under the rug, purportedly to save the good name of the institution. And there, hidden from public view, it thrives and grows, and spreads like cancer, seeping down to the lowest levels.
Another facet of the same sickness is that in a military regime the system becomes irrelevant; personal submission and loyalty counts. The Army gets thoroughly politicised. In this setting, which breeds yes-men and where sycophancy abounds, it is difficult for the ruler to identify fidelity. An easy shortcut is to spot the dishonest. Their submission and loyalty is prepaid and guaranteed, and no questions asked. Thus, corruption thrives. The cleverer one goes as far as advertising his vices.

Despite the handicap of repeated martial laws, the army is still the best institution in the country. If there is 80 percent rot in the government, there is 80 percent good here. It is a disciplined and professional force, not easy to be reckoned with on the battlefield. What little grime comes to light should neither be believed at face value, nor be taken as the norm. One should leave a substantial margin for the undercurrents that are operative in our environment today.

Nonetheless, the Army needs to extract itself from this quagmire and chart a firm and decisive course to halt the moral and ethical decline within its ranks. Strong corrective measures at the highest levels are needed - a gigantic task for a post-military government Army Chief. The Army as a whole has to be sensitised to their predicament. The officers need to take courage and speak up. This has always been the hallmark of professional soldiers, who recognise the clear distinction between good discipline and moral courage.

Blind obedience has never been the norm of the Army. No one will carry the burden of your misdeeds; you are yourself answerable. And when you have joined this profession that seeks the greater shahadat, then why shy off from the smaller shahadah? The strength of an army lies in its young officers having the pluck to call a spade a spade. Speak up, for no one from the outside can save you. And yes, this ability does deteriorate with rank, as does everything else with age. “Surely, We created man in the best mould; then We reverted him to the lowest of the low, except those who have faith and do righteous deeds.......And counsel each other to hold on to truth and counsel each other to be steadfast” (Quran 95:4-6 and 103:3).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

National security, indeed!

Published in The Nation, November 03, 2012
October 12, 1999, was a fateful day. Those involved in the mechanics of the military takeover did not argue about the mission, or even the consequences. They were soldiers trained for the battlefield, taught to obey. They did not ask “why?”, only “when?” There could only be the inhibition of a legal nature - the prohibitions of the constitution. However, when those who had created it and also sworn to uphold it, did not consider it sacred and violated it at will, the soldiers did not think they were making any greater mischief.

Yes, there was the issue of the death penalty for such violation; that was daunting. But soldiers are also taught to take great risks. And, contrary to general belief, they are also trained to think, at least within limited and defined parameters. And they wondered why only the shaking of the throne entitled one to the gallows, while every other violation is overlooked - the abuse of power, plundering of national wealth, oppression of its citizens, killing sprees on streets, desecration of the corridors of justice, and all else that suits the appetites of the rich and powerful. At that level, mercilessly, there are no qualms of morality or ethics. Even divine laws are irrelevant. The only question is: “Can I get away with it?” And the soldier thought he could. And did!

When national security is at stake, the soldiers are alerted. After all, it is our bread and butter. And for the soldiers, their commander defines national security. And aren’t the people the nation? So, with the given promise of our Chief of throwing away the shackles of this rotten political system and replacing it with a better democratic structure, we took it upon ourselves to go for it. The immediate concern proclaimed was saving the army - the prime institution safeguarding national security - from being politicised and thus ruined. Little did we realise how vigorously an insider politician will politicise it. So our Chief became the ‘number one’ politician of the country. And once in those shoes, as opposed to the black boots, he came to relish the liberty with which he could now wield power. The army, in comparison, was limiting. But our political system was designed for unlimited liberty to the ruler, as long as the minions are allowed their pieces of the national cake - you know, the one you get after you bake the nation. But he had more guts, because he still had boots on, and guns, and powerful agencies to terrorise, and later a powerful friend in Bush.

Consequently, he exercised this liberty with greater freedom. And little did we realise that our commander will fall from the high pedestal of a soldier and become a politician. So, the army got politicised and bruised, since the supreme ruler defined “loyalty of ideas” as the highest form of loyalty - standard sovereign mindset. And, eventually, the same rotten system got more deeply entrenched, with greater public support for its continued sustenance. Military rule wrecked what it came to save.

The military is a closed society, with its own parochial interests to safeguard - structurally compartmentalised and layered. And mama knows best. It does not show you its wounds. But alas, does not even lick them. So, they don’t heal. Four dictators and half a country later, when national sovereignty has shrivelled to the person of the sovereign, regretfully, some are again looking towards the army for a solution. Don’t! The army is already out of its barracks, fighting someone else’s war, and has no more patience to indulge once again in this political pandemonium. And no solutions for our malaise.

Someone once said that politics is too serious an affair to be left to the politicians. A soldier, however, should be the last person to comment on it, particularly if he is the one who helped bring in a politician in uniform. But national security is another issue. One wonders, if our constitution provides sufficient safeguards against breach of national security. In every military takeover, the issue hyped was that national security was at stake, be it in the form of political mayhem, economic meltdown, corruption or threat to critical national institutions. (Every time the decision was that of the Army Chief and never an institutional decision, although the brunt is borne by the entire institution - for generations. Today’s young soldier carries the stigma of losing half the country, at the time when he was not even born.)

Likewise, the dismissal of every political government, even where the military had remained in the background, was motivated (so to say) by similar concerns of national security - retention of nuclear capability being one of them. True, that national security has never essentially been the reason for military takeovers, but also equally true is that national security is always at stake. However, we have no institutional method of defining national security or the threats to it. In our environment, power structures being what they are, those in power pick their own definitions that suit the moment and their intent.

Certainly, this is too serious an affair to be left either to the politicians or the soldiers. There has to be a constitutionally created mechanism, which suits our setting, to define national security and means to safeguard it. Short of a total constitutional overhaul, which is inescapable for our national security, it is essential that for the time being such a mechanism be created before it is too late and some bizarre definition of threat to national security derails the entire system.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Has the countdown begun?

Sequel to ‘Is there War on Terror yet?’ published in The Nation 14 Sept 2008

The Nation, September 21, 2008 Lt Gen (Retd) Shahid Aziz

Will US physical entry in to Pakistan actually help in suppressing the resistance to occupation of Afghanistan and bring peace to the region? If yes, let’s do it. However, it will only radicalize the population, leaving no other option with Washington but to declare Pakistan a ‘rogue state’. The premise for US entry is that Pakistan Army is either incapable or unwilling to ‘clean up the mess’. Then, does the US Army plan to do this in conjunction with Pakistan Army or in spite of it? It should now be abundantly clear that joint US-Pakistan ground operations in side our borders are not acceptable to this nation and its armed forces. Any other idea is wishful. Even aerial targeting is now not tolerable. We cannot, any more, continue to pretend that this was not happening. We were slowly and helplessly maneuvered in to such a compromising position that we even owned up some of their strikes killing many innocent citizens, and paid heavily in reprisals. Has this seven years’ strategy made any headway? 

Today, the US Dept of Defense and the Pentagon accept that they are not winning, but given more of the same they could do it. Afghanistan is not controllable, and they insist that if the war were spread into Pakistan, peace would prevail; Vietnam logic? Have the consequences been forgotten? Will this spread be controllable? Will the operations then extend into Peshawar and beyond? How many more men and dollars will be pumped in, and coffins pumped out? Is there an end in sight? Does this make sense? Is anyone listening? Hello!

 There is no way out, but to talk to Mullah Umer, who once controlled Afghanistan. Having lost territory in battle, and unlawfully declared ‘terrorists’, the Taliban have not yet been defeated, for that is a state of mind. There can be no peace without their involvement. Peace deals with local Taliban are a meaningless pacification fa├žade – just closing our eyes and pretending that we are doing what we can. And so is our economic development and education package, of which very little has materialized in seven years. Hundreds of suicide bombers are ready to lay their lives for a cause – do they recruit them for money? Were the 9/11 bombers madrassa students or poor and hungry? And this is quite well understood by Washington and by Islamabad too; but they are such spin masters. If Osama and Mullah Umer were dead, would it make any difference to this war? Would the Afghans and our tribals then accept US occupation of Afghanistan? There is no other option: the US and NATO have to leave this region. Taliban will accept peace only under a neutral peace keeping force without regional players, and a time frame for internationally conducted elections. In today’s environment not many countries would be willing to send a peace keeping force, but when Taliban accept a negotiated settlement, peace can return; and neutral players will step in to save the world. Yes, to save the world, for that is the potential of devastation that lies hidden in this imbroglio. 

But this is not the Washington way of doing things and will, therefore, not come about. They will continue to propagate fear of Islamic radicals amongst the American public, regardless of change in government. Their build up in Afghanistan and along our coastline will continue. CIA, already grown to fearful proportions with sanctioned liberty to enroll agents from within our unsuspecting population, will continue to connive with RAW and destabilize Pakistan. No wonder the ISI is being discredited, for they understood and were resisting their game plan, and General Musharraf refused to “do more”, which literally implied that he sacrifice our core security concerns for unspecified US agenda. 

It is, at best, irrelevant to address concerns like burning down schools and bomb blasts. The issue at the core of the problem must be discussed. All the rest is its fallout, and only relevant for propaganda. “The Taliban are coming! They will take over the country! They will whip us into submission!” What rubbish are we being made to believe! It took two decades and billions of dollars to radicalize Afghanistan under a deliberate scheme. The only extremism in Pakistan till 9/11 had been sponsored sectarian terrorism. There is no possibility of a cleric takeover in Pakistan. However, this is a country created in the name of Islam; has been and will remain as such – The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is our faith, this is our constitution and this is our destiny. And our Army’s battle cry has always been “Allaho Akbar”.

Since there is no US intent to find peace, we must fend for ourselves, as best as we can. To begin with, let’s call our Tribal Areas: Pakistan, when we talk to the US. This is not alien entry into Tribal Areas but into Pakistan. The distinction will be a great folly. They would like us to back off from the Tribal Areas and leave it as ‘No Man’s Land’. This will not happen. For us, there is no choice but to formally declare US entry into Pakistan as an act of war. We must move to the UN and elsewhere to seek assistance, and meanwhile cause military deterrence to US incursions. If the diplomatic battle does not succeed, which is likely, we have no option but declaration of neutrality in the US Afghan war. This is the note on which our journey started. It will imply closing all support to the US and also tightening our belts. That is the price of sovereignty. Else we can continue to pretend that we are fighting our war, till we are splintered, subdued and defanged. 

Within the parameters of current internal dynamics of Pakistan, the US cannot remain in indefinite occupation of Afghanistan. There is no option for them but to subdue Pakistan, and this cannot be brought about without a major upheaval. Their policy is stagnating, and they have little patience left. There is no possibility of militarily denuclearizing Pakistan. A clean sweep is not a practical proposition, we are beyond that point. Pakistan will have to be politically subdued into surrendering its capability; even though the political surrender is brought about through military means, without escalating to the nuclear dimension. The time is, perhaps, not yet ripe for this end game, yet they hurry into it. Continuing peaceful political subjugation should currently be their preferred option. But they have made the mistake of an early entry, perhaps due to incorrect assessment of our reaction to their intrusion, and misreading the military and public response; or perhaps out of arrogance of their might. If we wait too long we will be internally exhausted and unable to cope with their design, when it unfolds. We must tackle them now. 

Their possible design is to destabilize Pakistan through spreading militancy across the country, causing internal fissures, political chaos and economic meltdown, generating total breakdown of law and order resulting in despondency and hopelessness in the nation, and then engineering a military confrontation with India, and creating a global uproar about a destabilized Pakistan not in control of its situation and the possibility of nuclear weapons falling in the wrong hands, with a view to push for a UN Resolution under Chapter 7 to take control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Under the circumstances of the Resolution being vetoed, escalate the military situation to maul Pakistan’s infrastructure and military capacity, while backing the militants to take over the now exposed areas of Balochistan and Frontier Province. The US then intervenes, as a friend, to prevent India from pushing Pakistan over the nuclear threshold. Pakistan, at this point, would stand devastated, fragmented and disillusioned, with no capacity to sustain itself. Nuclear disarmament under the UN would follow, since the world would have been brought to the brink of a nuclear holocaust and barely saved by the US. An irresponsible and now an unviable state cannot be left in possession of a nuclear arsenal. 

Were such a design to materialize, Pakistan will have no option but to reverse the conformist wisdom of first fighting a conventional war and then, on reaching the threshold, bringing up the nuclear card. The US will, in any case, intervene at this point. Their game would have been played and Pakistan would stand shattered. Under such multi dimensional threat, we would have no option but to avoid a conventional engagement and open up with the nuclear card. A declaration that an attack by India would be considered an attack also by its ally the US and anyone else who cares to join the game, and therefore all US interests in range would be engaged. A nuclear warning shot in the Bay of Bengal, across India, demonstrating our circular range capacity would be most appropriate. You don’t mess with a nuclear power and get away with it. 

This or something like this is what our enemies might be contemplating. The US cannot continue its domination of the region without subjugating the Pakistani nation. A nuclear Pakistan cannot now be subdued through political means alone; therefore some violent methods will have to be employed to end the game. May Allah grant us the wisdom and strength to handle these issues. This is not a time for political bickering and infighting. Perhaps this is the most critical period of our history, a time when we need to be giving strength to each other; a time to hold hands. We have never been confronted directly by an enemy this size. Our internal cohesion is critical to our survival. We have no friends around who would come and put things right for us. Lets’ do it. 

The author served as Chief of General Staff of Pakistan Army from 2001 to 2003.