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GHQ and the race for the White House

The choice facing Pakistan, and the danger lurking underneath the appearance of things, can be starkly put: is Gen Raheel Sharif about to fade into the sunset just like that or is General Headquarters, our holy of holies, in the throes of planning a variation on the coup routine?

Everywhere, drawing room or barber shop, this question is being asked, not in these words perhaps but the gist of it is the same, the belief having acquired a firm foothold that Pakistan at the moment is a society not so much in transition as in anticipation. A critical point has been reached, the Panama leaks acting as a catalyst in this regard. But no one is sure, except perhaps the keepers of the flame in GHQ and the school of national ideology which is the ISI, what the next step is going to be.

Most people who care to think about these things – and they aren’t in a terrible majority because for most Pakistanis there are other, more pressing considerations like making ends meet – have this feeling, and I daresay some would be able to feel it in their bones, that something is cooking. Precisely what, they cannot say, but the air is thick with the sense of something, something out of the ordinary, about to happen.

Just a few months ago you could hear breezy voices confidently asserting that democracy was alive and well, the constitution was supreme and the era of coups was over. Unless I am mistaken and grossly out of touch with reality, you don’t hear the same sentiment all that often today. Even the ruling party’s spoon collection, the Daniyal Azizs and Talal Chaudhrys, go through the motions of their performance, bashing the opposition and discovering unheard of qualities in their leadership, and looking to the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, as the Madame Chiang Ching of their party (she who hoped to be Chairman Mao’s successor). But they no longer sound that upbeat or confident.

Even MNAs and MPAs of the ruling party wear troubled looks. Coming close to them you get the sense that even they fear that trouble of some sort is brewing.

And, ominously, things are happening on the international stage that could have a profound bearing on Pakistani politics. With the Brexit vote Europe is facing its own troubles and looking inwards. Nationalism and right-wing parties calling for closed borders and an end to the European Union have become a strong force in European politics. Given this new climate of fear-stoking and xenophobia, Europe’s inclination to read lectures on democracy to a country like Pakistan were something to go wrong here would be moderated.

In the US the same trend towards a more insular politics, with calls for stricter border controls and the scrapping of ‘unfair’ trade deals, has become the most pronounced feature of the present presidential race. When the primary season set in this was unimaginable, Donald Trump being considered by the commentariat at large as a passing phenomenon. Now the themes he is touching upon are defining this election. Hillary Clinton is leading in the polls and hers is by far the better-funded campaign. But this much has already happened: serious Americans are beginning to imagine the possibility of a Trump presidency, which would have been considered ludicrous just a short while ago.

Not that Pakistan should be guided by the lodestar of American politics but as far as these things go Trump as president would be good for Pakistan because he has other things on his mind – China, Mexican immigrants and religion-inspired terrorism. Afghanistan does not prey on his conscience. He would want to get out of there sooner than President Obama. Pakistan presently doesn’t have a very high approval rating on Capitol Hill because the US is not getting it right in Afghanistan and it blames Pakistan for its troubles there.

A Hillary Clinton White House would still look at Pakistan through the old lenses – that the Pakistan military is playing games, looking after favourites, etc. But Trump as president is not likely to have similar hang-ups. Afghanistan left to its own devices – regardless of who comes out on top there, the Taliban or any other demons – would not hold the same fears for him. His global agenda is altogether different.

Even if Clinton wins – and most pundits are still laying their bets on her – she’s been through a hard school of experience, what with the Bernie Sanders challenge and the Trump scare, and it is difficult imagining the Democratic Party behaving as if nothing has happened. The globalisation agenda is fracturing. What we are hearing is the death knell of the Reagan-Thatcher consensus when divine wisdom was seen to reside in the workings of the market. Is our political class studying these trends? Is it making a note of their possible implications?

Saudi Arabia had a clear bias when it came to Pakistani politics. What this bias was we saw clearly when Nawaz Sharif was removed by Gen Musharraf in Oct ’99. Saudi Arabia today is a kingdom if not in trouble at least going through a period of profound anxiety, not only because of sharply falling oil revenues which have put a huge strain on its budget but also because of regional developments most notably what it sees as the growing power of Iran.

A more confident Saudi Arabia felt few qualms about openly showing its biases – trying to intervene, ineffectually as it turned out, in Syria; propping up Field Marshal El-Sisi in Egypt; and intervening, somewhat disastrously, in Yemen. The power of its check-book diplomacy is not what it used to be. The alliance with the US has also frayed. By all these tokens, its ability to throw its weight around has decreased.

What does all this mean for Pakistani politics? It should impose some caution on the Pakistani political class. What were considered certainties – this can’t happen, that is impossible, the world will come to our rescue – have diminished. The Panama leaks have fuelled the perception that the loot and plunder of national resources, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny class, has crossed all bounds. When Bernie Sanders talks of the concentration of wealth in the top one percent, this finds a ready echo in Pakistan. When Donald Trump and far-right Europeans talk of immigration Pakistanis can relate to the same when they think of Afghan refugees.

The international climate has certainly changed. To what extent is the Pakistani climate changing? Ramazan brought a lull but once it is over all the signs suggest that Pakistani politics will pick up speed. But where are we headed? What does the future have in store for the country? They used to cut up animals and in their entrails read the future. Anxiety weighs upon the country. Engage anyone in conversation and you will get this feeling. But where is the yogi on what distant mountain who can tell us more exactly about the future?

Email: bhagwal63@gmail.com

Ayaz Amir, "GHQ and the race for the White House," The News. 2016-07-05.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Politics-Pakistan , Panama leaks , European Union , Democracy , Leadership , Diplomacy , Gen Musharraf , PM Nawaz Sharif , Saudi Arabia , Pakistan , ISI , GHQ , MNA