Barely 14 months after convincingly winning a general election, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is being asked to resign amid threats of street protests. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based Sunni cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri plan separate marches on Islamabad on August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. Several politicians and parties known for their close ties to Pakistan’s deep state, the ISI, have announced support for the anti-Sharif protests.
Sharif will most likely ride out this first wave of attack. He retains an absolute majority in parliament and, by most accounts, there is no appetite in the country for a military coup. But the protests will weaken Sharif and sap the elected government’s energies, diminishing its effectiveness. That is exactly how the wings of the previous civilian government led by Asif Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani were clipped. Then, the judiciary played a critical role in tying up elected leaders in knots though, this time, the judges have yet to get involved.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half its existence as an independent country. When it can’t govern directly, the military and its intelligence services still want to exert influence, especially over foreign and national security policies. At any given time, there are enough civilian politicians, media personalities or judges willing to do the military’s bidding for this manipulation to persist.
Currently, the military wants Sharif to curb his enthusiasm about normalising ties with India and turn away from Pakistan’s past policy of meddling in Afghanistan’s politics. It also wants an end to the treason trial of former dictator General Pervez Musharraf.
In the Pakistani military’s worldview, coup-making should not result in a trial for treason. The armed forces represent patriotism, even if their errors result in the loss of half the country’s territory, as happened in 1971 with the loss of Bangladesh. Civilians, on the other hand, can be judged traitors merely for advocating a different path forward for the country.
Ironically, the latest effort to destabilise an elected civilian government is taking place at a time when the Pakistan army is ostensibly waging war against jihadi terrorists in North Waziristan. The chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, has promised that the war will continue until all terrorist groups are eliminated. Usually, war unites political rivals, but there has been no effort by the military and its civilian political allies, or for that matter by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to overcome polarisation.
The current political chaos reminds me of a conversation I had with the then US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, soon after the covert American operation that resulted in discovering and killing Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
Grossman, who was in Islamabad at the time of the May 1, 2011 operation, described the atmosphere in the Pakistani capital as “surreal”. He told me that he felt Pakistani officials and the rest of the world seemed to exist in “parallel universes”.
The veteran American diplomat noted that instead of realising the need to be apologetic about the world’s most wanted terrorist being found in their country, Pakistanis angrily protested America’s decision to kill bin Laden on Pakistani soil without informing Pakistani authorities.
As Pakistan’s ambassador to the US at the time, I could not tell Grossman that I agreed with him. But like many Pakistanis who worry about their country’s future, I have often noted my compatriots’ tendency to live in a world all our own.
The rest of the world is clearly concerned about the inadequacy of Pakistan’s efforts in eliminating the jihadis. The spectre of terrorism impacts Pakistan’s economy adversely and makes it difficult for Pakistanis to find jobs or travel abroad. Sri Lanka recently withdrew visa-on-arrival facility from Pakistani citizens, further reducing the number of countries where Pakistanis might travel without a visa.
But these adverse reports barely find mention in Pakistan’s media, which remains preoccupied with the shenanigans of people like Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri. Such is the media noise that Pakistanis are often kept ignorant of how the rest of the world looks at their country and remain confused about considering jihadist terrorism the principal threat to the country’s survival.
Pakistani leaders seem to prefer hyper-nationalist rhetoric and allegations of corruption against their rivals to an honest debate about the country’s loss of direction. Thus, Imran Khan and Qadri are not behaving differently from the way Nawaz Sharif and the lawyers’ movement acted against Zardari in the preceding five years.
Calls for a change of government, even if it is only a few months after its election, serve as a substitute for serious debate about how Pakistan may have lost its direction as a nation. There is virtual denial about real problems like rising extremism, increasing intolerance, widespread violence and the prospect of global isolation.
Denial leads to self-deception. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey recently found that even in Pakistan’s closest ally, China, only 30 per cent of those polled had a positive view of Pakistan. But the poll and its implications were barely discussed in the Pakistani media, which has been focused on the verbal duels between Sharif’s supporters and opponents. Parallel universes indeed!