Fresh approach

Fresh approach
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Hussain Haqqani, ex-Ambassador to US, admitted that he had issued visas in 2011 to dozens of Americans, including covert US intelligence agents, which ultimately facilitated the elimination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad by US Special Forces in May 2011. This has stirred up old accusations of “treachery” on the part of Mr Haqqani who, it may be recalled, was hounded into resigning and then put on the mat in Memogate in 2011 for standing with the PPP leadership and challenging the writ of the military establishment of the time.

Mr Haqqani has always defended his position by claiming that the visas were issued with the express permission of the then prime minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani, and the then Defense and Air Attache in the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC, Brigadier Nazir Butt, who is now a Corps Commander. Now, finally, after a month or so, the ISPR has broken its silence on the matter with a tweet that simply says that the stance of “state institutions on the issue of visas has been vindicated”.

This raises two interesting questions. First, why did the ISPR wait so long before wading into the matter? Second, why is it confining itself to a brief and general statement that neither sheds much light on the matter nor pours fuel over it? Indeed, this is significant because it is a visible departure from previous practice in which the ISPR under General Ashfaq Kayani and even more so under General Raheel Sharif was aggressive and vocal on many matters including some that were not strictly in its domain. Has the current military establishment under General Qamar Bajwa departed in some subtle manner from the ways of its predecessors? If so, is that a good or bad thing?

Two other recent developments raise similar questions. Consider.

Imran Khan has alleged some sort of a crooked “deal” between Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari that has facilitated the return of Mr Zardari, the return and bailing out of Mr Sharjeel Memon to Pakistan, the flight of Ayaan Ali out of Pakistan and the release from prison of Dr Asim Hussain (the latter three are alleged to be “close” associates of Mr Zardari). Certainly, it is curious that all three developments favour the PPP. But if there has been some sort of deal, how has Nawaz Sharif benefitted from it because Mr Zardari continues to blast him on one count or another. So if there has been some deal, it must be on some other count.

On two issues, the PPP has conceded critical space to Nawaz Sharif. One is the issue of military courts and the other is the issue of the Rangers’ stay and powers in Sindh. But both are dear not so much to Mr Sharif as they are to the military establishment in its war on terrorism. On both the PPP had taken a tough stance. It was threatening to torpedo the Bill extending the legitimacy and scope of military courts (it has a majority in the Senate) and it was warning Islamabad that it would not extend the stay of the Rangers in the province unless it was assured that the military establishment would not target its party for corruption under the guise of combating terrorism.

On both counts, it seems an “understanding” has been cemented between the civilian and military establishments that will lead to a reduction in friction and greater stability that enables both to get on with their respective jobs.

This is not to say that the current military establishment has decided to condone corruption among politicians and ruling parties or to blithely accept civilian hegemony in running Pakistan. It is simply meant to signal a new way of addressing Pakistan’s national security problems by trying to create a minimal consensus with the civilian governments in office on core existential issues. This is to be done by diminishing overt rifts over policy instead of seeking constantly to establish military hegemony by exacerbating conflicts that undermine and undervalue civilian institutions.

This shift is very welcome. Pakistan desperately needs political stability to encourage foreign investment and economic development to alleviate poverty and ignorance that feed into the narrative of terrorism – CPEC is the most critical ingredient in this paradigm. Pakistan also needs civil-military cooperation and consensus to confront threats on its eastern and western borders and to showcase its willingness and ability to negotiate fruitfully with both neighbours and foreign powers that it is a responsible state that is determined to combat terrorism rather than sponsor it in any manner.

The arrival of General Qamar Bajwa has heralded a fresh and more fruitful approach to civil-military relations and the national interest that augurs well for Pakistan in its tortured journey to democratic and stable nationhood. It is time for politicians like Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Imran Khan to respond in like fashion by eschewing personal or party political interests in favour of the same national interest.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.