Thursday, July 9, 2009

ZARDARI'S ADMISSIONS: NEW DAWN OR POWER PLAY?

A stunning admission like this, made not long after victory has been achieved but when the danger is still potent and life-threatening, takes a lot of courage. That too by the President of a country that has for decades employed terror as a means of achieving "strategic" national objectives. This is not the first time that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has spoken out against terrorists. But never before has any Pakistani head of government, or even senior politician, gone this far to admit the role of the state in actively promoting terrorism.

"Let us be truthful to ourselves and make a candid admission...militancy and extremism emerged on the national scene...because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short term tactical objectives." This is what Zardari openly said a couple of days ago.

These words would have undoubtedly created huge tremors in sections of the Pakistani establishment that still are on the old path, ongoing military operations against the Talban notwithstanding. At any rate, these words have raised hopes of a new dawn in Pakistan and indeed the whole of South Asia. But is such optimism justified? Or is there more to it than meets the eye in Zardari's continuing offensive against Islamic extremism and terrorism?

In an interview given to NBC on May 07, 2009, Zardari had said that the ISI and the CIA had together created the Taliban. In a similar vein, in his keynote address at the Socialist International Congress at Athens in Greece on July 01, 2009, he had blamed the US for exploiting Pakistan "as a tool of Cold War intrigue" and abandoning it after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, "to the forces of extremism and fanaticism". It may be recalled that almost a year back, he had warned that the Taliban should be banned because Pakistan faced a grave danger from it, and had alleged that President Musharraf was taking their side while pretending to fight with the US against them. Then, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal in October 2008, he had gone to the extent of calling militant groups operating in Kashmir "terrorists" - something he later denied after there was a predictable uproar in Pakistan - and declared that India was not a threat to his country.

If we analyse all these statements together, it becomes clear that the wily Zardari is carefully laying the blame for all the fundamentalist mess that Pakistan finds itself in today at the feet of the military establishment without saying as much. And he is not resorting to any falsehoods to do that: it is the military that has been calling the shots always, even when civilian governments have been in power.

Examine the following facts:
  • Zardari's latest and most startling admission was made in an address to senior bureaucrats where he made it clear that terrorists have challenged the state not "because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralised" but because of the policy to use them to achieve short term tactical objectives. Who laid down the policy? General Zia-ul-Haq. And objectives? Other leaders, primarily military.
  • What is the ISI that Zardari has blamed for creating the Taliban? It is a powerful intelligence outfit that is a part of the Pakistani military establishment. Army Chief Kiyani was, in fact, heading it before he took over his present assignment.
  • Who first decided to send terrorists to Indian Kashmir to meet "tactical objectives"? The military again, under Zia-ul-Haq. That is why Zardari called them terrorists.
  • The "heroes of yesteryears until 9/11" are the terrorists of today who have begun to haunt Pakistan, says Zardari. Evidently, as far as he is concerned, there are no "good" terrorists or "freedom fighters"; all of them, including those fighting the Indians in Kashmir, are now haunting Pakistan, and need to be eliminated.
  • As far as the influential role of the army is concerned, Zardari says that he is in control of everything in the country, including the military, and that the Parliament has the final say. That is what Zardari wants. As everyone knows, it is the Army Chief who is the last word in Pakistan; he is the one every civilian President has to be wary of.
Had such encouraging statements which virtually echo what India has been saying for decades been made by a military ruler of Pakistan, one could have safely concluded that they reflect radically new thinking in that country and could well lead to a new dawn in the relations between India and Pakistan based on mutual self-respect and peaceful co-existence with zero tolerance for religious extremism and violence. But when a civilian President, and that too Zardari, once famous as Mr Ten Percent for the bribes he took when his wife Benazir Bhutto was PM, makes them, there has to be a sub-plot.

Zardari's admissions are best seen in the context of the power struggle that has been going on between the military and the civilian government that came to power last year. Initially, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari got together and got rid of President Musharraf. But after that, Zardari deviously made himself the President and left Sharif nursing his wounds. Sharif got one back later in forcing Zardari to reinstate the Supreme Court judges dismissed by Musharraf etc, and Zardari has not been able to recover lost ground since then. General Kiyani is keen to clip Zardari's wings even further and turn him into an irrelevant puppet while he pursues the military's agenda for Pakistan from behind the scenes. If he cannot be reigned in, Kiyani will want to replace him by a pliant individual or even himself, in keeping with the glorious traditions of some of his predecessors.

Zardari knows all this too well. So, what better insurance to safeguard his own position than speaking the anti-Taliban, anti-madrassa and anti-terror line that is soothing music to the ears of the the US and the rest of the moderate world, and putting Kiyani on the defensive by publicly all but blaming the dominance of the military for the mess that the country is in today?

May be Zardari is aiming even higher to ensure that the Army does not take over in future again and accepts the supremacy of the civilian leadership finally. He may even succeed, given the way things are beginning to shape, and the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House. But till he or any other civilian leader can fully demonstrate that it is his writ that runs in Pakistan and that the military has finally succumbed to the democratic will of the people, such admissions, no matter how dramatic, must be seen only in the context of the internal struggle that Pakistan is going through and not as a fundamental change in its basic outlook or attitudinal orientation towards its immediate neighbours.

A new dawn is not yet on the horizon.
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Readers may also read:
1. Zakaria's Afghanistan strategy: salvage or surrender?
2. Understanding and defeating the ideology of terror
3. Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of the same terror coin
4. India and Pakistan are not victims of the same terror
5. Swat is now Pakistan's flog valley