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Friday, January 18, 2008

Media Watch: Pakistan's Gen. Kiani Waiting in the Wings

Gen. Kiani, the new Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army is reputedly a quiet, professional soldier, who weighs his words carefully. Potentially, he could be Washington’s new man in the frontline state of Pakistan. While it is still too soon to pass a verdict on him, we can examine some of his recent actions and follow more to come to see if he fits the bill.

He has recently passed an order forbidding contacts between serving army officers and politicians. Will the infamous ISI be exempt from this order is the key question. ISI is always headed by a serving officer and allegedly has files on every single politician, which it unabashedly has resorted to in the past to deliver calculated results.

By another order he is withdrawing acting servicemen seconded to the civilian administration in the past.

These two measures are seen as tentative but timely actions to ward off the criticism of the Army intrusion in civilians affairs. And are seen as belated, though positive steps in the right direction.

But on the day Major General Ahmad Shujaa Pasha, Director General of Military Operations claimed full success for the Army Operations in Swat, the Pakistani Talibans captured an Army outpost and dislodged the soldiers occupying the Saarogha Fort in Wana, South Waziristan, a Mehsud Tribe stronghold.

As a media watcher, it is interesting to see how this news was played locally and internationally. Here is a sampling of this news coverage:

Daily News: Seven troops, 40 militants killed in South Waziristan
Dawn: Dozens dead as Islamists capture Pakistan fort
The Frontier Post: 7 soldiers. 40 attackers killed in SWA (South Waziristan) clash
BBC: Militants overrun Pakistan fort
Al Jazeera: Pakistan security camp attacked
CBC: Militants overrun Military Base in Pakistan
Reuters: Militants capture Pakistani fort, 47 dead
ToI: 30 Pak troops killed as militants capture fort in Waziristan
The Hindu: Taliban captures Pakistan fort

The significant thing to note is this attack happened in the strong hold of Baitullah Mahsud. He is the same Taliban leader with alleged Al Qaeda links, cited in issuing suicide bombing threats against Pakistani military men and politicians.

Saarogha Fort is one of the four forts in the Mehsud Tribal region. And with over 100,000 troops (some allege acting as mercenaries for the US interests) the army has more than pie on its face.

This is seen as a major set back for the tough Gen. Kiani. It would be interesting to see how he responds to this humiliation.

Those who support the beleaguered Musharraf Administration, a dwindling number since March 09, 2007, say the Army front man is still in full control of the situation and playing both the internal and external politics craftily. To get through the Muharram and pre election jitters he has created the “Ata” (flour) crisis, which would be resolved just in time for the elections on February 18, 2007. He and his aides are still talking with the major players, to keep all options open.

And then there are those who increasingly say Musharraf has to go because he has been bumbling from one mess to another uncontrollably. They cite a long list to back up their assertions: the reference against the SC judge, the Lal Musjid (belated) actions, the inability to extend the federal writ in NWFP, the rise in parochial and ethnic fundamentalism, lawlessness in the aftermath of Bhutto assasination, rising civilian toll from suicide bombings.

This is where General Kiani comes into the picture. If Musharraf fades, the spotlight will shine on Gen. Kiani. There is no other constitutional or effective remedy available.

And that is where his ability to re-exert Army control and usher in law and order over the divisive and defiant Talibans and other fundamentalists will be judged. At the same time he will have to deal with the lawyers, students and politicians who have sensed blood and want results.

We should also examine the experiment in Bangladesh carefully. With the Army unpopularity in ascendancy he may deem to remain in the background and prefer to rule with civilian faces fronting for him.

After calling for elections, and transferring power to a caretaker government, the two former PMs are entangled in judicial cases and are languishing in jails. The "caretakers" have full military backup. And are postponing the elections till they (or the military) are assured of a predictable results.

If not Musharraf, will Kiani be accepted by the West and more importantly by the restive Pakistanis behind a 'civilian' caretaker front that will govern until the promised elections are delivered?

Or will things head for a different direction - a coalition government comprising of all major political players sans Musharraf that will bicker and fail to agree on any decisions? This will result in the Army to play the divide-and-rule game that they have learned to excel at.

Politics in Pakistan resembles a hockey game played by blind and deaf players who think of themselves as nothing but visionaries.

[First published at]


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