Question of substance over form - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, July 30, 2010

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First, a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the catastrophic air crash in Islamabad. Each death is a story, each one a tragedy. May God rest their souls in peace.

Also, deeply felt condolences to Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This brave man has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism. Even the terrible heartbreak of his son's murder has not dented his resolve. How many among us would have such courage?

These dreadful events give one pause. The wheel of life, with all its colours comes to a halt as the realisation seeps in of how temporary this world is. But for the grace of God, anyone of us could have been on this plane. Or find ourselves the target of someone's mad, demented vengeance.

In the backdrop of these terrible events, the continuation in government service of one individual may seem less important. But, given the difficult state we are in, it is critical.

Democracy, in a conceptual sense, is the best means to keep a nation together. In theory everyone gets a share, everyone is co-opted. The facts on the ground these days are more complicated, however, with insurgencies in Fata and Balochistan.

The war in Afghanistan with the presence of Nato forces on our borders makes the situation even more difficult. Pakistan has virtually become a neighbour of not just one country but over thirty. Every major nation in the world has an interest in what happens there, and that adds to the complexity of the challenge we face.

Pakistan's armed forces are at the forefront of these multiple tests because the problems are military as well as political. Its leadership is the principle interlocutor for the international community because our role has a bearing on the Afghan war.

Internally, it is engaged in facing serious threats to national integrity. It would be fair to say that today the armed forces are guaranteeing the country's survival. Who commands its vital component, the army, is therefore of great importance, perhaps never more in our troubled history.

It is commonly said that the army is the only functioning institution in Pakistan. I can count a few more, but let us go with this. It is then argued that a viable effective organisation is not and should not be reliant for its success on any particular individual.

The point is also made that an effective institution has or should have orderly succession mechanism in place. The change of command thus should not make much of a difference to the role and effectiveness of the organisation.

There is little to quarrel with these arguments on a conceptual level. Systems that are in place in the army must work, and this includes a change of leadership after the prescribed period. But there is a huge difference between the real and ideal, between the form and substance.

The form dictates that Gen Kayani should retire on the prescribed date and a new commander should assume office. But while the form will be catered to, what about substance?

From whatever little knowledge I have about the functioning of the Pakistani army, very few senior generals today have the experience of dealing with broad strategic issues or of interacting with the military and political leaderships of other countries.

The only two I can think of are Gen Kayani and the director general of the ISI, Gen Pasha. This is not to denigrate the capabilities of any other senior officer. I know some of them and they are outstanding. It is the deep knowledge that comes out of actually doing something, rather than visualising it, that may be missing.

It is for this reason that I welcome the extension to Gen Kayani. He brings not only an outstanding record of military accomplishments, such as the Swat and South Waziristan campaign, but a long experience, three years in the ISI and three as army chief, of directly dealing with difficult security issue facing the country.

He has also accumulated wide knowledge of international negotiations, having interacted with political leaders and military commanders of all the major nations. Some may not understand the significance of this but it is these interactions that often determine the trajectory of our international relations.

The wide understanding we see today of Pakistan's point of view on the Afghan war is largely, if not exclusively, due to the efforts of Gen Kayani. His detailed presentation of Pakistan's point of view to NATO commanders in Brussels has gone a long way in shaping these countries' view of our concerns regarding Afghanistan. The result is greater acknowledgement of Pakistan's role and warmer relations with the Afghan government.

Although some people criticised his role in shaping Pakistan's viewpoint in the strategic dialogue with the US, the fact is that had he not intervened we would have been in trouble. It was Gen Kayani who advised on the methodology of the dialogue and then made sure that we were prepared for it. If this involved interacting directly with senior civil servants, so be it. National interests dictate going beyond the correct form.

The decision of his extension has unleashed an avalanche of criticism and has brought into a strange partnership the ultraliberals and the right wingers who want this government to be sacked by the military. The liberals, because form to them is everything and rightwing media types because they think that after Kayani's extension the government has become more secure.

Both need to transcend these fixations and understand the difficulties that Pakistan faces today. In these testing times, a steady experienced hand is not only essential but critical. This is even more important when we look at the calibre of the top political leadership in the country. A greater bunch of nincompoops would be hard to find anywhere.

I hope, however, that Gen Kayani would over time, play his role to develop a higher command structure for the armed forces that works better than what we have today. In this, I entirely agree with Ikram Sehgal. There is a need to review the efficacy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Headquarters.

While many senior and competent military officers are assigned to it, this organisation's ability to coordinate apex defence institutions is sorely lacking. The result is that every force is pulling and pushing its own agenda. There is a sort of organised chaos at the top, and that is not desirable.

Gen Kayani can perhaps initiate a move to have a chief of defence forces on the pattern of the British armed forces. This office can then become the overall coordinator and virtual boss of all the services.

And Gen Kayani can move up to this position, ensuring that the promotion chain in the army continues as before. If this is done soon, even those who were now hoping to succeed him can be accommodated.


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