- MJ Akbar
Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari’s sins could fill a few volumes during a lean publishing season, but he has one compelling virtue, all the more impressive for being so rare in politics. He stands by his friends.Cynics might snipe that this is because he has so few of them. But friendship is always an elastic commodity when you reach a pedestal. There is also, for starters, nothing personal about it.
Perhaps the reigning Pak authority on fair-weather friendship is Husain Haqqani, the man who has lost his grace-and-favour job as Zardari’s envoy to the United States. Haqqani has never wasted time on sentiment in a career remarkable for cross-party acrobatics. He started out as an activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the student politics of Karachi University and found a benevolent godfather in the late General Zia-ul-Haq, the despot who hanged his bete noire Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Zia propelled Haqqani into the lower orbit of establishment. The establishment never recovered.
Haqqani slid as easily into Nawaz Sharif’s groove as he did into Benazir Bhutto’s. The Bhuttos seemed unfazed by his association with Zia. No matter who rose to the top, Haqqani rose with him or her. He was one of the great marvels of meritocratic sycophancy. The second, it should be stressed, would have been impossible without the first.
Such sensational careerism paused when the army returned to power after Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1998. It paused but did not halt. Haqqani retreated to that familiar hiding place of reluctant exiles, the American academic world. Washington is both sharp and generous in its human investments. This one turned productive when Haqqani became ambassador to the US. The shrewd Haqqani had placed his own bets on the Bhuttos when in exile. The restoration was marred by the tragedy of Benazir’s assassination but Zardari proved a reliable mentor when he became the luckiest President in Pakistan’s turbulent history.
Haqqani’s moment should have lasted at least as long as Zardari’s. But both became complacent. They forgot, or thought they could sidestep, the classic faultline in the earthquake zone known as Pakistan’s power structure, the permanent conflict between civilian and military forces.
When the Pakistan Army draws a line in Islamabad, it does not write on sand. Haqqani lost his cushy job because he thought his wiles could trump the army as Zardari’s term began to wind down. He appealed for help to the one institution he considered superior to Pakistan’s army, the Pentagon. It was an astonishing example of stupidity on the part of someone with a reputation for being clever.
The issue is no longer whether Haqqani was guilty of treason, but whether Zardari is complicit. Zardari could hardly be unaware of the limits of civilian authority. His own and his family history should be sufficient guide. Even as President, he was forced to give Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani an unprecedented three-year extension. He did not do so willingly. He has now watched helplessly as the isi welcomed Haqqani to Islamabad with an interrogation. The big question now is: how much time does Zardari have left?
Kayani is aware that a coup will not get the domestic or international support necessary for a veneer of legitimacy. Neither can he be sure of support from the Supreme Court. Why risk a shot in the dark when his target is so vulnerable in daylight? It makes much more sense for Kayani to use the army’s influence to force an early general election. After these elections, Zardari and Haqqani can bond again in New York as retirement benefits in Islamabad come with toxic conditions.
Fear of uncertainty is less than half the story in Pakistan. An increasing number of influential Pakistanis are being driven abroad by the certainty of fundamentalist violence and the danger to their lives. Najam Sethi, the well-known journalist, now edits his Lahore-based newspaper from America. He is on the hit list of those who killed the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Sherry Rehman, named as Haqqani’s replacement, will be far safer in Washington than Karachi. She has courageously championed the cause of minorities being persecuted by fundamentalists. The palpable fear among the thin crust which remains sane and liberal in an increasingly beleaguered nation is not fear of Talibanisation in next door Afghanistan but the Talibanisation of Pakistan.
How many times can you become a refugee in two generations?