Sunday, 11 March 2012

Exorcising dictators’ ghosts

Where do dictators go when their time’s up? Some get executed; such as the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who, along with his wife, was shot dead by a firing squad in the 80s. Some retire after a successful tenure of coup d’état like Turkey’s Kenan Evren, who is now being held accountable for his deeds. Some have to be forced to retire like General Pervez Musharraf who was offered a quid pro quo deal: safe exit in exchange for a resignation. The fact that he stashed away enough money to live a lavish life in Dubai is a moot point.

A few manage to escape to Saudi Arabia where they buy their own groceries making awkward rounds in superstores with their shopping carts, like Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Some, like African dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa, are fortunate enough to migrate to France where they buy luxury houses and spend their days lazily strolling down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, dreaming of the good old days. Some, like General Qaddafi, live as dictators and die as dictators.

Truth be told, a dictator’s fall precedes the downfall of the country that he once dictated. Look at Africa, Uganda, Romania, Egypt and Pakistan. Some autocrats leave behind such legacies that even at a time of civilian rule, their ghosts continue to haunt us. Hence, we must cleanse our countries from negative spirits by exorcising them.

In Pakistan, such an attempt has been launched by the name of the Mehran Bank Scandal. This scandal focuses on Pakistan’s military, which overstepped its role (as always) and interfered in Pakistan’s politics in 1990 by supporting the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to ensure a dismal defeat for the Pakistan Peoples Party. A sum of 350 to 400 million rupees was distributed to various political figures ranging from Abida Hussain (strangely she is now a PPP leader) to Nawaz Sharif (interestingly, who now voices an anti-establishment rhetoric), Pir Pagara and Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi. Pagara and Jatoi are no longer alive to give their side of the story, but even those living today, refuse to talk.

The main accused in the scandal are General (r) Aslam Beg and former ISI Chief Lieutenant General (r) Asad Durrani, who under the gracious auspices of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, took up the task of wooing PPP opponents with hard cash. Like always, the media is hell-bent upon chasing after those who supposedly took the money, rather than focusing on who distributed some of it, while pocketing most of it themselves. The military brass, who else? They snaffled a hefty sum of 140 million rupees. How’s that for an additional figure to add to the sovereign state’s defence budget?

The petition filed by Air Marshal (r) Asghar Khan, after being put on the backburner for almost 16 years, is now back in court. It’s interesting to see Generals Beg and Durrani reveal their dark side. The former president of Mehran Bank, Younis Habib has, meanwhile admitted to providing them with the said amount – all in the name of the country’s greater good – and tendered an unconditional apology for his role in the act. General Beg however, is not asking for forgiveness. Instead, he is lauding the court for helping him achieve his hat-trick for appearing before the court.

Unfortunately for Beg, his smugness didn’t impress the chief justice much. Thankfully for the general, Akram Sheikh came to his rescue just in time. First, Mansoor Ijaz; now having to manage the general’s ego, Sheikh has a daunting task ahead. General Durrani, meanwhile, has filed an affidavit that does not contradict anything said by Younis Habib. No mean feat since he was the DG ISI when this act was being played out. Additionally, Durrani, in his affidavit, disclosed the involvement of the head of the military intelligence in disbursing funds to politicians. The plot thickens.

But the question is simple. What can be the implications of such exposés? I asked Asghar Khan’s lawyer, Salman Akram Raja, who replied with a question: “Are scalps of punished generals and politicians necessary? Can the exposure already made not be reported as the event itself?”

According to Raja, if the media links the success of this case with immediate successful prosecution of army officers and politicians then it might feel let down. “We should look to inject public morality into our political discourse, says Raja before adding: “Politicians on the take should be scorned as election frauds, puppets on a string.”

In Pakistan, the eclipse of the power of generals has diminished somewhat in the last few years. The military establishment – over the last four years – has played smart. For a change, the Pakistani ‘dictator’ has not been a uniformed general laden with guns and tanks. This time round, energies have been focused on mobilising a powerful web of loyal journalists and politicians, who in turn, dedicate their lives to undermining the present civilian government. If only wishes were horses, this government would have been ousted via a television show in its first few months, or more recently, been swept away in the tsunami of change. By no means would I want to take credit away from the present government which has done enough on its own to destabilise itself. But it is still an elected government and it must be ousted in a democratic way.

That is one lesson that our establishment refuses to learn. If it’s not a dictator taking over our country’s affairs, it is the tyrannical thought that drives this country into a state of abyss. The media must see the Mehrangate scam as an opportunity to demand an end to the pervasive role of our intelligence agencies in Balochistan, and get answers to simple queries like why some persons go missing. Questions must not start and end with why money was distributed back in 1990, but we must talk about the military’s role at present and the limits that need to be imposed. Raja is keen to point out that “court proceedings are cathartic rhetorical events and that they can help change the national mood.”

The fact of the matter is that no national security state will become an iridescent democracy overnight. No judgment will help change the mindset of some self-righteous, ambitious generals. But Mehrangate may be the first solid step in exorcising the dictatorial demons that continue to plague democratic regimes. But exorcism is tricky; it will fail if the spirit manages to retreat to the nearest vacuum left by bad governance. It’s time (once again) for the civilian government to please stand up – not to your own political victimisation woes, (not more of that again, please) but to assert control and ensure civilian authority.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Dear Mr Brigadier...

Crime shows are all the rage nowadays. Minutiae of grizzly murders, lovers’ betrayals and rape are re-enacted. They are – to say the least – incongruous, poorly shot and use actors who don’t look the part. Not recommended for the faint-hearted. Add to that, some comic relief. Political satire, making use of actors who are made to look like their real-life counterparts, can send you into fits of laughter. Reality can be funny. However, if you lack a sense of humor, tune in to us: ‘agenda-driven’ talk show hosts.

The only thing all genres have in common are their limitations. Crime shows are all very well if they don’t re-enact extra-judicial killings, religious animosity and ‘jihadist’ ventures. Political satire is funny until they start mimicking the military brass. That will ensure a Pemra notice at best; whereas the worst possibility is to get shut down – as witnessed on November 3, 2007. Talk shows, meanwhile, must self-censor and maintain balance – read: stick up for the military. If you beg to differ, you will be dismissed as a CIA or Raw agent and that will put an end to your credibility, not to mention your patriotism too. Don’t even ask me what the connection between the two is. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

Let me tell you a little story. I happened to make the acquaintance of a retired brigadier some years ago. He is a regular watcher of my show, along with other retired army officials. How do I know? Elementary, my dear Watson. When your mug appears on prime time on the highest rated channel in Pakistan, you can be sure that you’re being watched by the country’s high and mighty. Not the mightiest, but close. The brigadier appreciated my efforts during the Swat operation, sent me bravo messages when I spoke of enlightened moderation and expressed his dissatisfaction on my “mild” interviews with high-level politicians as well as foreign dignitaries. If I dared to acquire an aggressive stance while interviewing a uniformed man, I was “losing focus” and falling prey to “outside” influence.

My recent shows where I have questioned the military operation in Balochistan, and exposed the grief of the families of the “Adiala 11” (a term coined by Cyril Almeida), the messages carry a disgusted undertone. Here’s a preview: “You unfortunately have gravitated into an abyss called agenda journalism based on prefixed but removed from reality thoughts not even on convictions...” He doesn’t think very highly of politicians either: “Lying is second nature for them like drinking a glass of water; the trait you so strain to uncover...but are now being driven in it or by it; your pick. Whether it be the nuclear blasts or Kargil or the first ever attempt at internal coup within the army by a serving ISI chief, Ziauddin, who as a prize for this help was asked to take over as COAS just after making Musharraf the CJCSC two months before; it baffled everyone, no one could make sense of this action. So, despite Musharraf not being in the country of which they thought as the right timing; they misread the national resolve thus triggering a “COUNTER” coup within the Army, the rest is history...”

Yes sir! The rest is history. However, if I dare to disagree with you would you think my ‘narcissistic desire has seized my soul’ or that I suffer from a “below-average” mind? From where I see it, his highness, former chief of army staff General (r) Musharraf left Pakistan in a far more dismal state than it was on October 12 1999. When asked to decide between a rock and a hard place, he opted for both. Siding with the US then was for the greater good of Pakistan. When given the option of carrying on as president and possibly facing impeachment, or choosing to retire and play golf, he chose the latter. But the only unpatriotic selfish ones to choose life and freedom over the country’s well-being are Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Right.

Musharraf not only thought for himself but also others who could help prolong ‘himself’s’ reign on power. Enter: the NRO. An ordinance crafted by a foreign power, negotiated by the then DG ISI, implemented by the then chief of army staff that continues to make a mockery of democracy and malign politicians and the parliament that actually rejected it in the first place. That is history’s real dilemma. If you start narrating the NRO’s history from 2009, Zardari, PPP and other politicians emerge as villains, whereas if you go back and start from 2007 when this ordinance was promulgated and negotiated, the onus shifts to Musharraf and the then DG ISI.

Retired army officials expect journalists to forejudge civilians’ patriotism based on their decisions. However, a mere question regarding the strategy of the establishment deserves shunning.

Media is lauded when it grills the ‘bloody civilians’ over the slightest of mistakes they make in this placebo-governance. But when the same journalists pose questions to the powers-that-be, they are termed un-patriotic. If we are allowed to interrogate the losses of Pakistan Railways, discuss the damages incurred by PIA and expose the corruption in Steel Mills, shouldn’t we also be allowed to ask why our own army is conducting an operation in Balochistan? Why can we not question the wisdom of those who chose to use private jihadi organisations as a strategic tool? Why does questioning the establishments’ strategic decisions automatically put us on the payroll of the Jewish lobby or the CIA? What is the maximum a journalist can do? Ask questions. Regardless of how inane, the only one harmed in the process is the one who puts forth the question.

It is a fact that military establishments are powerful in many countries. But they are also answerable to the parliament, judiciary and the media. When needed, General Petraeus, Leon Penetta and McChrystal have been called before the congress and asked to explain themselves and their decisions. Mind you, these have been open hearings, not in-camera briefings.

You see, Mr Brigadier, the world is a difficult place to live in. One can’t bear authority without responsibility. If the establishment wants to maintain its holier-than-thou persona by calling the shots on decisions that drive this country, questions will be raised. And they will have to be answered – not by devout ‘fans’ of the military brass – but by the holy highnesses themselves.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Pakistan: A to Z – for dummies

As Pakistan wobbles between democracy and autocracy, modernity and a return to Zia’s era, balancing itself precariously amid cautious secularism and reckless repression, the world looks on. However, the world has no idea of how to view this country and how to interpret its actions. Reason: a clueless foreign press. I realised this when I came across some slightly ignorant foreign journalists on their recent sojourn to Pakistan. To help these unfortunate few, I decided to create an alphabetical list for Pakistan, a sort of political welcome guide for visiting journalists.

Let’s start from the first alphabet: ‘A’. Pakistan’s greatest challenges begin with this letter. Allah, Army and America. Islam in its entirety has been twisted for political gain in this country. Islamic parties – with hardly any support when it comes to the ballot box – play a significant role in policy-making. The emergence of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council is a case in point. With myriad groups and individuals joining hands against the threats posed by the US and India, this group promises its supporters – and there are many – to ‘ensure the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan.’

‘A’ also stands for the army; Pakistan’s only alternate to corrupt governments. Pakistan’s army not only defends its people from outer threats but also has a firm hand on the inner dangers brought about by inept “civilian” governments. And for America: the proverbial bad guy. It’s always the ‘American war’ we end up fighting. A is also for Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari. Entering perhaps his last year in office, there are more and more paradoxes to sort through as the world tries to figure out this leader, who so eloquently speaks of making peace with his enemies but is marred with alleged corruption charges.

‘B’ in Pakistan stands for its forgotten province: Balochistan. Plagued with violence, human rights atrocities and sectarian violence, Balochistan offers many a ground for proxy wars. It is however, a forgotten tale that many do not wish to explore or mend. The fact that Pakistan’s agencies are also fighting an inner war with Baloch separatists, keeps the rest of Pakistan mum on the issue.

‘C’ is synonymous with the Chief Justice of Pakistan. A man who sparked a revolution in Pakistan’s history when he was removed from his position by General Musharraf in 2007 for daring to defy him. He is one man this nation hopes will give them justice.

‘D’ is for drones. For the US, by the US, of the US. Widely condemned by out-of-power Pakistan’s political parties and the ones in power seem powerless to change a goddamned thing. ‘E’ is for energy – which is scarce when needed and in abundance where it’s not required. Pakistan’s courts, it seems, are full of energy while parliament suffers from a lack of it. E is also for Elections – both energy and elections are running on a deadline!

‘F’ is for Fazlur Rehman. The leader of an Islamic party, the JUI-F, the man is a seasoned politician. He has a strong support base and the uncanny ability to swing with the ruling government even while sitting in opposition. He can fake it to make it. Maulana Sahib is changing colours once this one closely. ‘G’ for GHQ. If you’re pro, you’re sure to visit this place often. If not, you may be forced to visit this place often enough. H stands for our foreign policy. Husain Haqqani, Hussain Haroon, Hina Rabbani Khar and Hermes.

‘I for Imran Khan. He is the change Pakistanis have been yearning for. At least that’s what many of his supporters believe. One of the skills a relatively new politician like Khan possesses is being able to project more than one possibility about himself. One Khan is a visionary, who reframes Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis with the US and another Khan – who chose Makhdoom Javed Hashmi as his vice chairman – wants to be respected by liberal democrats. He also has the toughness to dictate the dictators (or so he believes). No one knows which side of Khan will win eventually; but if he wins, he will have to reveal his real Imran Khan.

‘J’ for judge-mental. This country seems to be on a pendulum mode swaying between the judges and the mentally unstable. ‘K’ for K..k..k..k...Kayani. The chief of army staff is considered to be Pakistan’s most powerful man. Either you’re him, or you have to be on your ‘K’ for knees to please him.

‘L’ for law and order and legislative assemblies. One is non-existent, the other is spoken about abundantly but still remains a lost cause. ‘M’ for military, mullahs, media and missing persons. One you can’t criticise, one you dare not disapprove of, the other you may not condemn and one you must speak out in favour of. Warning: you just might go missing yourself.

‘N’ is for Nawaz Sharif, the NRO and the National Assembly – all three created by the very establishment that now openly denounces them. ‘O’ for Omar – Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Oops, one was found to be living here for years...Oh God! Let the other one not be hiding here! ‘P’ for Pasha, ‘P’ for Pakistan and ‘P’ for patriotism. Enough said. ‘Q’ for Quetta Shura. Figment of imagination or reality?

‘R’ for Raiwind and Raisani. One, the ‘humble abode’ of Mian Nawaz Sharif, the other, the chief minister of volatile Balochistan. One is a big house: the other, is just a loud mouth! ‘S’ for sectarian killings and Saleem Shahzad. One’s killers cannot be nabbed, the former, don’t exist. ‘T’ for turncoats – their turnaround will turn the fate around of some parties. Eagerly awaited. No regrets, please.

‘U’ for Uncle Sam. It’s always you, Sam! We’re fixated on detecting Sam’s footprints even where our own imprints are obvious. ‘V’ for vendetta. Politics of vendetta. Like they say, “democracy is the best revenge.” ‘W’ for the World Trade Centre, the war on terror and the warriors of God. All which resulted in anarchy and chaos with Pakistan as its epicentre.

‘X’ for the xenophobia that we all suffer from. May it be our religion, our cast, our ethnicity, our language, our provincial boundaries or our fragile sovereignty. We refuse to live and let live and have no tolerance for difference of opinion. ‘Y’ for Yousuf Raza Gilani – why, oh why, Gilani?! Pun intended.

And that brings us to ‘Z’ – President Zardari. He’s the one running the country into a mess. Or so we’re told. He’s the power at the helm of all affairs. Or is he? ‘Z’ also reminds me of Zeus – the all-powerful Greek God famous for manoeuvring minor Greek gods like pawns. Zardari is just one of the players in the power game of this country. Who’s our Zeus is something I don’t need to explain. Not even to foreign journalists.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

You can leave your hat on!

We, in Pakistan, are odd schemers. While some have shifted their focus to the many possibilities that Mansoor Ijaz’s revelations may unleash, others are increasingly weary regarding his security arrangements. A few can already sense their bubble bursting and are doing what they can to make sure Ijaz makes that trip to Pakistan. Similarly, there are some who are putting all their energies into scaring off Mansoor Ijaz. The message is loud and clear: ‘You make this trip mister, and you’re going to be staying at Pakistan’s Hotel California – you can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave!’ But there’s life beyond Mansoor Ijaz and we’ve got a lot more on our plate. Take our own security for instance.

Three lawyers were gunned down in Karachi on Wednesday, allegedly on sectarian grounds. While security officials remained cautious in pinning the blame on sectarian groups, lawyers across Pakistan went on strike. This was certainly an improvement over staging a sit-in outside the governor’s house, a practice recently witnessed in the case of slain scout Askari Raza. The body of Raza, amid a crowd of screaming protestors caught the attention of the media but not of the relevant authorities. Their demand to book the suspects identified as Raza’s killers fell on deaf ears. However, not everything in Pakistan gets a cold shoulder. The judicial commission investigating the Memogate affair kept its eyes and ears open for details on security arrangements for its protagonist, Mansoor Ijaz. Dear Mr Ijaz: sectarian killings are common in Pakistan. Although we hold national security issues in high regard, we have no security plans to safeguard our nationals. The fact that you are an American citizen may help, however the fact that you belong to a minority sect that is largely victimised in our part of the world, please enter at your own risk. The military’s security blanket may help, but then there are never any guarantees.

As Karachi crawled to normalcy after the lawyers’ killings, another three men were sprayed with bullets in Quetta. The dead included an inspector of the Federal Investigation Agency, a government employee and a television actor. Not a word of condemnation from the 17-member Parliamentary Committee set up by National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza. The silence may have come as encouragement because more men were gunned down the next morning. This time, unknown assailants attacked a security check post in Sui leaving at least five security officers dead. But rather than expressing their dissatisfaction on the precarious security situation in Pakistan’s largest province, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security expressed their satisfaction over the arrangements made by the government to protect Mansoor Ijaz in the country.

If the situation in Karachi and Quetta wasn’t alarming enough, Punjab got even worse. Spurious drugs consumed by cardiac patients left at least three hundred in critical condition. While Punjab’s Health Department was deliberating a response, the number of patients affected by the contaminated drugs was rising. A few months ago it was the dengue virus that had engulfed the lives of hundreds of people in Punjab, owing to low platelets and white blood cell count. This time – with similar symptoms – the cause is faulty medicine. The PIC has thousands of people registered for free medicine and their negligence in this regard is nothing short of criminal. Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif – also the acting health minister – has set up a committee to investigate the matter and promised a sum of five hundred thousand to each family of the deceased. Although Sharif may not have an immediate remedy for an endemic that his own health department’s negligence may have helped unleash, he has prescribed the best remedy for Mansoor Ijaz’s security. If the federal government does not provide security to Ijaz, the Punjab government will arrange for it. Seems like this may be one promise Sharif will stay true to (because he wants to). Shahbaz Sharif offered ‘adequate security’ if Ijaz chose to come to Lahore to record his statement in the Memogate scandal. He promised to take personal responsibility of Ijaz’s protection from the moment he lands to the second he departs. 

Sharif has, simultaneously, also extended an invitation to the judicial commission probing the controversial memo to come to Punjab to record Ijaz’s statement. Honorary members of the commission and Ijaz may choose to accept Sharif’s offer, provided that they are not suffering from cardiac ailments. If they are, they must bring their own medicine and just in case, also some mosquito repellent. There may still be a dengue mosquito lurking around somewhere.

And if Punjab is where Ijaz prefers to land, he must steer clear of Seemal Kamran. The Punjab Assembly minister of the PML-Q is one who believes in addressing issues by nipping them in the bud. Literally. Ms Kamran recently tabled a resolution demanding a complete ban on ‘objectionable musical concerts’ in all government and private educational institutions of the province. Imagine what she would think of a man who was lustily compering a wrestling match between two women!

Last but not least, this Pakistani-American with a boat-load of evidence must steer clear of the moral vigilantism of a certain TV show host with a reputation for stalking couples in parks. Though we know Ijaz prefers his entertainment in darkened rooms, this anchor may gather together a gaggle of women to condemn him on live television. Worse yet, she might corner him with his stripper of choice and scream: “shaadi karo, shaadi karo!”

But this particular anchor is clearly not the only one keeping an eye out for immoral acts. After all, the cry was raised by a group of good desi boys who recognised Ijaz and raised the moral alarm. Apparently it’s only okay for some people to look. We may not realise it yet, but there are larger problems staring us in the face. For all his foibles, Ijaz is removing the layers of our leaders’ hypocrisy. His demands for security and claims of having evidence proving complicity at the highest levels of government reveals a knowledge of the risks associated with any visit to Pakistan. He offers us the naked truth, but can we handle it?

We are odd strategists for sure. Possibly by the time Mansoor Ijaz’s truth is revealed, there may be more than just one man running for cover. Mansoor Ijaz may want to come in from the maelstrom, but he should keep his hat on, just in case.