Nirupama Subramanian – Op-Ed, The Hindu 27 Oct 2009
The dust has settled somewhat over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. It has been signed by United States President Barack Obama and is now the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009. In Pakistan, the protests against the conditions attached to the legislation enabling an annual $1.5 billion non-military aid have quietened down.
With some exceptions, political parties and the media, which wanted changes in the “humiliating” language of the law, have expressed satisfaction that the U.S. Congress has attached an “explanatory note” even though the text remains unchanged. The note has no legal value, and was offered merely as a face-saver to Pakistan. As Senator John Kerry, one of the co-authors of the legislation, put it, the note only seeks to explain the language of the Bill. Most importantly, the Pakistan Army, which said it had “serious concerns” about the conditions in the Bill, also appears to have made its peace with it.
Those who triggered the intense debate over the conditions in the legislation — strengthening democratic forces in Pakistan, ensuring that it stops aiding militants who carry out terrorist acts against India and other countries, ensuring civilian control over the military, and ensuring non-proliferation — achieved none of their stated objectives. They wanted the government to reject the aid, or the U.S. Congress to rephrase the conditions, or President Obama to send it back to Congress for reconsideration. None of this happened.
But the debate did bring about some other changes, and in the light of this, some observers have questioned the real motives behind the protests. The entire one-month hysteria in Pakistan over the Bill, after it was already passed by the U.S. Congress, resulted in drastically altering the civil-military balance in favour of the military. It left the democratically elected Pakistan People’s Party-led government considerably weaker than it was. It served to isolate President Asif Ali Zardari, and shattered the nerves of the government. It confirmed the Pakistan Army as numero uno.
The debate showed up Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) in clearer light. Despite his thunder about the need to keep the military subservient to civilian rule, his party chose to oppose a U.S. Bill that wants exactly this.
With some exceptions, the Pakistani media too, despite their pride in opposing military rule, made no bones about which side they were on over this issue, saying the government’s “stupidity” in allowing the U.S. to impose such conditions left them with no choice.
In the 19 months that the PPP has been in power, the “KLB fiasco,” as it came to be known, can be viewed as the fourth big internal battle on who really rules Pakistan. The answer is no secret, but each of the four battles has been instrumental in eroding the authority of the elected government bit by bit. Some blame for this definitely rests at the door of the elected politicians and the bumbling, crony government they have run since taking over in 2008, but by no means all of it.
The first battle was for civilian control over the Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s main intelligence agency. The second was the Mumbai attacks episode. It saw the nation rally round the security establishment rather than the government. The third came on March 16 this year, over President Zardari’s stubborn refusal to restore Chief Justice Ifthikar Chaudhary. The nation as a whole welcomed the Army’s put-down of Mr. Zardari in the matter forcing him to restore Mr. Chaudhary. It confirmed the Army’s pre-eminent role in running the country, and the nation’s acceptance of it.
The Kerry-Lugar Bill was the fourth. No one — not the opposition, not the media, not the Army — has yet been able to explain convincingly why the Bill became an issue at such a late stage, especially as its contents and passage through the various stages through the two Houses of the U.S. Congress had been in the public realm from at least five months.
In their frequent interactions with the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon and the military top brass, the Pakistan government, particularly the Army, never brought up the legislation or its conditions as a concern.
If anything, Pakistan wanted Congress to hurry up and pass the Bill. The campaign against it began only by the end of September, after both Houses reconciled their differing versions of the Bill, passed it and sent it to President Obama for his assent.
The media cast the first stone, painting the legislation as yet another failure of the government, directly blaming President Zardari and the Pakistan Ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani. The PML (N) joined in later, reportedly after a secret meeting between Punjab Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, and Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. It was in the days after this meeting, news of which surfaced soon enough, that the PML (N) raised an outcry over the issue in Parliament and outside.
Amid the widespread anti-American and anti-government sentiment, the Pakistan Army’s decision to go public, through a press release, about its “serious concerns” over certain clauses in the legislation, was clearly a populist and political move. It helped to consolidate the Army’s own image — on the rise since the anti-Taliban Swat operation — as the last bastion of Pakistan’s sovereignty and national interests, and showed the government, especially President Zardari, in a poor light by comparison.
Days later, when the attack on the Army headquarters took place, the media were all praise for the way in which the military dealt with it. Few questions were asked about how such a well-guarded location could have been targeted in the manner it was. As one report pointed out, the government could not pick up the courage to order an inquiry, nor did any opposition politician ask for one.
The gulf between the military and the civilian dispensation is now so wide that several armoured divisions can rumble through it. When Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a member of President Zardari’s inner circle, visited the GHQ to lay a wreath for the soldiers killed in the attack, he was reportedly given the cold shoulder. No senior military officer turned up to receive him, and he was not invited to enter the main GHQ building.
It is worrying for many in Pakistan and outside that even as an enemy in the form of the Taliban is threatening to consume the country in an unrelenting orgy of violence, there is no let-up in the attempts to destabilise an elected dispensation. Moves are also clearly on to ramp up tensions between President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani.
An embattled and weakened government now faces another divisive debate over the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the Musharraf-era amnesty law that helped Mr. Zardari shake off the corruption cases against him, enabling him to the presidency.
As ordered by the Supreme Court, Parliament is to take up the NRO and other Musharraf ordinances for approval in November. Although the PPP, with its allies, has the majority to have the ordinance endorsed by the National Assembly, the controversy that is sure to be generated over it can only be more debilitating for both the government and Mr. Zardari. As attempts to cut the ground from under his feet gain momentum, the PPP leader is once again reaching out to Mr. Sharif. Pakistan’s political pot is bubbling up once again.
The noise over the Kerry-Lugar Bill and subsequent political developments have been instructive in a starker way than in the previous internal power struggles about the realities of the Pakistani state, its different power centres, its political parties and the nature of its “independent” media. Very often in the peak of the controversy, letters to the editors in newspapers seemed to have a better grasp of the forces at play and the issues at stake than journalists, politicians and the government put together. Unfortunately, they do not matter.