Notebook

October 17, 2011 10:31 pm

Heartache in Rawalpindi

It’s been a disastrous year for Pakistan’s military leader, says James Lamont

General Ashfaq Kayani may wish he had hung up his boots when he was supposed to last year, and retired with honours.

It’s been a disastrous year for Pakistan’s military leader in a country where loss of prestige often leads to unpredictable outcomes. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden a stone’s throw from an elite military academy, the taciturn Gen Kayani has been more withdrawn than usual. The embarrassment of Bin Laden’s location left his international partners aghast. The covert US raid that killed Bin Laden made nuclear-armed Pakistan’s defences look weak and prised open the country’s sovereignty.

A personal betrayal has followed. His best friend in the US military, Admiral Mike Mullen, had worked hard to gain Gen Kayani’s trust. But Adm Mullen’s parting shot before his own retirement was to claim “veritable” links between Pakistan’s military intelligence and a dangerous militant proxy called the Haqqani. Adm Mullen’s incendiary remarks are still burning in army headquarters in Rawalpindi. At worst, the comments infer that the Haqqani network has a “mail order” type relationship with masters in Islamabad who call up attacks on Nato troops in Afghanistan. If so, the US and Pakistan are closer to a state of war than strategic alliance. Frenzy has ensued. Some in Pakistan think the US will invade their country. And even the most sanguine shudder at the consequences of a second US raid against a target like Ayman al-Zawahiri, an al-Qaeda leader, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

On the US side, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have moved quickly to smooth over Adm Mullen’s stark assessment. Nonetheless, the US is drawing in the purse strings. A lot of military assistance is now held up or is under review. A new equilibrium is likely with lower expectations on both sides. As one US official puts it, the era of when “they lied to us and we pretended to believe those lies” is wearing thin.

Stumps up

One of the most exciting additions to the Pakistani political scene in recent years is Imran Khan. The fast bowler and former captain of the national cricket side, Mr Khan was largely written off as a political novice when he launched his Pakistan Tehrik Insaf party 15 years ago. Last time at the polls, he only won one seat – his own. Now, with parliamentary elections expected next year, he is being taken more seriously. Even his political rivals say he may get as many as 20 seats.

True, Mr Khan is a celebrity leader without a grass roots party structure across the country. But he does have a self-belief that other political leaders lack. Mr Khan calls it a “killer instinct” – a characteristic that served him well on the pitch and which he is now trying to translate on to the political canvas.

Rain may yet stop play. Among Pakistan’s muttering classes there’s talk of the army losing patience with Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency and intervening before an election offers him a possible second term. Called the “Bangladesh model”, some of Pakistan’s business leaders expect an army-backed technocratic to take up the reins in Islamabad to stabilise the economy – taking the steam out of Mr Khan’s pace attack.

The Last Post

The Wagha Border, the land route between rivals Pakistan and India, is best known for a swaggering military parade that takes place every day at sunset. But the days of the foot-stomping at the Check Point Charlie of south Asia may be numbered. The mustachioed “jawans”, selected for their towering height, are about to give way to the march of stevedores.

Last week, Pakistan agreed in principle to award India Most Favoured Nation status – a key signal that Pakistan will not stand in the way of improving bilateral trade. Lifting visa restrictions is next.

Events on the ground bear out the diplomatic advance. Crossing the border by foot can now be accomplished in about 20 minutes. Trucks don’t have it so easy. A long line of trucks bearing food and chemicals on the Indian side is evidence of the pent-up supply.

A new commercial terminal will soon open. The roads have already been transformed from single tracks to dual carriageways linking Amritsar and Lahore in a way only imaginable in the days of the Grand Trunk Road pre-partition in 1947. Opening hours are to be extended. Then who knows, a McDonald’s restaurant might come next?

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