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Of kings and pawns

What do those who have choreographed the ridiculous events unfolding in Islamabad really want? Here’s my take.

To unlock the mercurial intentions that lie behind the thinly veiled theatre of the absurd under way in Islamabad, consider the predicament of the pawn in a game of chess.

The pawn is one of the most complex pieces on the chessboard. Its ability to move is the most constrained of all the pieces, it is the most expendable, available in large numbers, and performs the most menial tasks of guarding the heavier pieces, fortifying the king, or blocking individual squares from the pieces of the opposing army.

But should a pawn complete its advance and reach the end of the board, it turns into a queen — the most powerful piece on the board. Then the game turns comprehensively, and few opponents ever manage to recover after this.

For many decades now, civilian politicians have been little more than pawns on the chessboard of Pakistan’s politics. Their purpose has been to take the fall for the massive failures brought on by the misguided strategies of the ‘king’ calling the shots. Their manoeuvrability in the game has been the most constrained out of all the pieces on the board, they’ve been called upon to shield the heavier pieces in their own army, and to block the advance of the pieces in the opponent’s army.

But today — for the first time since this game began — a pawn on Pakistan’s chessboard has advanced and almost reached the end of its journey to the other side. If President Zardari crosses the finish line and advances into the last row of the board by completing his term, he may not become the most powerful piece on the board — but this pawn will certainly become a far heavier piece, with a far more expanded room for manoeuvre.

His journey has not been an easy one; a pawn’s journey to the other side rarely is. Along the way, he has watched his fellow pawns sacrificed on the spears of his opponents’ army — Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti. He has dutifully fortified his ‘king’ in moments of extreme peril — Swat, Abbottabad, Mumbai. He has blocked the advance of the opponent’s pieces by persuading Nawaz Sharif to not pursue a course of confrontation with the army.

And yet today, when he is perched on the brink of redeeming his investment, he finds out that he, like any other pawn in the game, is supremely expendable.

But why should the leading pieces in the game, the ‘king’ of the board so to speak, wish to dispense with this pawn at this stage? Precisely because if the pawn should complete his journey, and become a stronger piece, his powers will gather strength while the powers of the remaining pieces will wither.

To understand how this works, consider the contours of the moment. Pakistan has to go through not one, but two transfers of power in the next few months. The first transfer of power will be to the interim government, and the second to the newly elected government that will emerge from the elections, assuming they are held.

Each of these transfers is going to be a deeply contested affair. From the looks of things currently, we know that somewhere, somebody is trying to muscle their way into the process, although that somebody refuses to be acknowledged. But everybody has a pretty clear idea who that somebody is, Asma Jahangir alluded to it when she said that behind Tahirul Qadri is the boot.

If elections are held, and a new government emerges in its aftermath, the next stage will be the three major retirements that are due later this year. The chief justice, the COAS and the president all see their terms end in the year 2013. Of these three, the president can get himself re-elected from the new assemblies, but the game is pretty much up for the other two at that point.

Fresh selections of the successors will provide President Zardari with a moment in which to consolidate his position, and lay the ground for another five years in the presidency.

At that point the realisation will settle in amongst the larger population that Pakistan is standing at the midpoint of Zardari’s decade. In all of Pakistan’s history, only three individuals have had the dubious honour of defining a decade with their name, and all three were men of the boot. If it happens, this will be the first time a pawn will share the honour thus far reserved only for ‘kings’. The transformation of the pawn into the most powerful piece on the board will be complete and dislodging him after that will be much more difficult, hence the growing urgency to do the job now while the window presents itself.

But why seek to dislodge him in the first place? The answer there is unfortunately simple. Those who have engaged in this game of political puppetry have always engaged in it for the same reason. They have a regional chess game of their own to play — a game with real blood and real lives — and wish to use Pakistan as a launching pad in this game.

The emergence of the pawn as the most powerful player on the board is happening with the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan as the background. Once American forces have left the region, the jackbooted puppeteers of this absurd drama think that the war for the control of Afghanistan’s future will begin in earnest. And preparations need to be made for this conflict, preparations in which the pawn who has thus far served the ‘king’ so dutifully needs to be disposed of, and replaced with another pawn who has a better understanding of what needs to be done.

President Zardari has to jump through hoops of fire in the months to come, because the third big question facing him is this: how far are these puppeteers willing to go to achieve their aim?

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.

khurram.husain@gmail.com; Twitter: @khurramhusain

Khurram Husain, "Of kings and pawns," Dawn. 2013-01-17.