Faced with a choice between doing something hard and something easy, politicians will do what’s easy
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Faced with a choice between doing something hard and something easy, politicians will do what’s easy

No dirty and obvious jokes with respect to the title, please, this is serious business.

So after the Osama raid, there were two options available to our civilian leaders and politicians. One, they could – as Shahid Saeed laid out in this brilliant, must-read post – go for the jugular, and hope to change the military-civilian balance in this country. Two, they could do nothing, in the hope that they earn brownie points with the khakis, or put differently, in the hope that they don’t get put on any khaki black lists (yes, that’s a lot of color-coded metaphors in one sentence – I’m fashionable like that).

The first option is a challenge, since it takes guts, coordination across party lines (something our parties are not well-equipped to do), and a willingness to go down in flames. If it works, fantastic, but if it doesn’t, you’re out of a political job for the rest of your life. It is the prototypical high-risk high-reward strategy.

The second is a safe strategy, since it ensures that you won’t stick out like a sore thumb, and you won’t pay the price for any indiscretions. The status quo remains. It is a low-risk low-reward strategy.

Well, it’s been a week, and I think it’s safe to say that our “bloody civvies” opted for the latter. Not one high profile politician or civilian leader has even blamed the military and ISI for this fiasco. No one has questioned why or how Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad. No one has questioned why or how the Americans could get in and out of the country and tell no one about it, without the Pakistani military even being aware of it (which is what happened, if we are to take the military’s word for it).

Instead, our opposition leaders have done what’s easy: blame Zardari and Gilani, and blame America. The first is stupid, since those two have about as much knowledge of, and influence over, military matters in Pakistan as the average Pakistani on Twitter. The second is classic missing-the-point-sideshow-BS, since America did not even technically violate Pakistan’s sovereignty by launching the raid, as evinced by this Declan Walsh report.

No, there really should be only one target here, and it’s the khakis. Sadly, it appears, they look like they’re going to get away with it.


A bunch of khakis, seen here getting away with it. Photo: AP

Here’s the thing though: this was absolutely, positively the time to do something. The khakis’ position has not been weaker in 40 years; there is little they could have said or done if three or four big parties came together, across party lines, and promised a parliamentary inquiry. What, you think they’d launch a coup? Nonsense. At this time, in this geopolitical environment? Please.

What is puzzling to me is that the politicians are so scared of the khakis that they’re willing to jeopardize their own long-term futures. If you conceive of the military-civilian dyad as zero-sum game, then it makes no sense for the politicians to NOT strike at the khakis when they can.

It’s probably true, however, that politicians conceive of their primary rivals as other politicians, rather than the military. That is, politicians probably don’t think of their dynamic with the khakis as zero-sum; any one individual politician is likely to think that both he and the khakis can win at the same time at the expense of said politician’s rivals. This is probably why we’ve seen so much collaboration and partnering with the khakis by basically every single party in Pakistan (and yes, PPPers, that includes you — who do you think BB was talking to in Dubai at the end of Mushie’s time?).

It’s still sad though. One thing that’s very clear from the literature on Latin American democratization is that military-dominated societies don’t always stay dominated by the military, but for them to go away, the civilians have to do something about it. When militaries are discredited, whether it’s because of torture, disappearances, really dumb wars *cough Falklands cough*, or whatever, it’s up to civilians to take advantage of that brief moment in time when they are discredited, and reform institutions such that the “new” status quo becomes entrenched. That is the point about institutions; in essence, they reflect the balance of power at the time when they were created, and in so doing, help perpetuate that power even when the causal conditions have vanished (Ikenberry’s 2000 book is my favorite explication of this argument, though there are others).

So let’s imagine, if we can, a military that partakes in torture, disappearances, dumb wars, and embarrassment on the international stage. Tough job, I know, but just imagine. Now, at the precise moment when they are most discredited — that is, the precise moment when they are least likely to hit back — doesn’t it make sense to establish some sort of precedent that outlives the momentary embarrassment? As an illustration, the Argentine government of Raul Alfonsin ensured that parliament oversaw the military’s budget, appointed a committee to investigate the disappearances that took place during the Dirty War, and basically put them in their place. That he could do this immediately after the country was sick of the military’s antics in the 1970s and early 1980s is no coincidence. What if the PPP and PML(N), along with the smaller parties, came out this week and issued a joint statement saying they’d appoint a committee to investigate this incident? What if they — gasp, shudder — said they’d like to see the receipts for all those fancy toys we keep on buying from the Americans and Chinese, seeing as how they don’t appear to do a great job in times of military crisis? At a time when the khakis are on the back foot, shouldn’t it have been imperative that the civvies keep ’em there?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that (a) politicians know what’s good for their short-run interests, and (b) act on behalf of those interests. But I am bummed out that the civvies don’t have the foresight to conceive of their interests differently. I’m especially bummed out that the PML(N), who’ve been perhaps the party which enjoys the least cooperative relationship with the khakis in today’s Pakistan, have done and said nothing against them.