The political drama that followed the arrest of a CIA agent in Lahore last month exposed a bewildering mix of intolerant Islam and hostility to the US that has proved beyond the control of even the powerful Pakistan Army. Continued failure by all of Pakistan’s political elites to confront this hostility may yet prove more deadly than any suicide bombing or natural disaster.
Like most sagas in Pakistan politics it is difficult to determine the precise moment when this latest crisis broke but the murder of the Governor of Punjab by his own security guard in January was certainly a watershed.
When Governor Salman Taseer publically criticised the country’s controversial blasphemy laws in the months prior to his death, he faced a torrent of abuse and death threats from mainstream religious groups and media commentators. After killing him, elite police commando Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a defender of Islam in a series of demonstrations in Pakistan’s largest cities, the biggest public gatherings since the lawyers movement of 2007 and 2008 that led to the reinstatement of senior judges deposed by former dictator Pervez Musharraf.
After Taseer’s murder, senior politicians across the political spectrum tried to outdo each other in professing their credentials as defenders of the faith and support for the blasphemy laws.
All of that intensified after Raymond Davis, a CIA agent and former special forces soldier, was caught by police in February.
He was arrested after shooting two would-be assailants dead in Lahore. A third man was killed as he was hit by the vehicle of an American rescue party rushing unsuccessfully to whisk Davis away. Obama was quick to claim Davis was a diplomat who had immunity from persecution, a claim upheld by Pakistan’s civilian government. Condemnation from religious groups and prominent media commentators stoked public outrage, however, and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was dumped for refusing to endorse Davis’s immunity claim. All the while the Army, the most powerful institution in Pakistan, sat quiet and allowed civilian authorities to take the heat for a further apparent surrender of national sovereignty to the Americans.
It is difficult to describe the sense of fear currently gripping Pakistan society in light of the furore over the blasphemy laws and the Davis affair. These two seemingly disparate issues, involving a poor farmer and a CIA agent, have united a wide and usually conflicted religious lobby and the conservative media punditry under the banner of protecting Pakistan’s Islamic identity from Western, liberal, and imperial designs.
The religious lobby has characterised reforms to the blasphemy laws as an attempt to legalise insults to Islam. The capture of Davis was also taken as further evidence of foreign, non-Muslim encroachment into Pakistan. Along with the dramatic circumstances of his arrest, the fact that Davis had in his possessions photos of known militant sanctuaries in the Punjab sparked all manner of conspiracy theories — including one that claimed Davis was secretly providing nuclear material to Al Qaeda and another that he was responsible for directing American missile strikes in the tribal areas. The rumour mill effectively enabled Pakistanis to blame foreigners for the deadly spate of terrorism that has rocked all major cities over the last few years — instead of recognising the homegrown militancy and intolerance at the centre of the violence.
The US did not help its cause for a number of reasons.
First, in insisting so publicly and stridently that Davis was immune from prosecution, Washington totally failed to read public sentiment. At one point, US diplomats suggested detaining Davis in the official residence once occupied by the slain Salman Taseer while his case was before the courts, a foolish proposal given so many Pakistanis considered Taseer an agent of the West for standing up for a Christian. A more delicate approach would have greatly diffused the tension.
Of course, the even greater problem is that both the US and the Pakistan Army have created a phenomenal secret intelligence network within Pakistan that has worked above and beyond the aegis of elected officials. With so little accountability for the powerful in Pakistan, including the US, and a mainstream media dominated by sensationalism, it’s no wonder that many see secret designs at work.
Yet of all such secret designs, the ones that are least likely to figure in public debate are the very real ones involving the Army.
Newspaper investigations have revealed that the two men murdered by Davis were on the payroll of the Directorate General of Interservices Intelligence or ISI, the powerful spy agency that answers directly to Army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. It appears Davis was being tailed by them for breaking one of the unwritten rules of America’s operations inside Pakistan — investigating militant groups in the Punjab without the acquiescence of the Army.
One of the big victories for the Army as a result of the Davis affair was wrangling greater oversight over secret US operations in Pakistan. This is a significant achievement. It is important to remember, after all, that not only is the military the key recipient of US assistance in the Pakistan state — $US2.72 billion in 2010 alone — it also plays an important role in stoking anti-Americanism. Just days after Davis was released, for example, Army Chief Kayani condemned a massive US drone strike that killed around 40 in the main Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan.
In contrast, Kayani said nothing after the assassination of Taseer or the very public support for his murders from some quarters. According to one report, Kayani privately told foreign diplomats in Islamabad that he could not even publically condole Taseer’s family because too many rank and file soldiers sympathised with the assassin.
As the dust settles over the Davis affair and on the grave of Salman Taseer, it is increasingly clear that the Army is the one clear winner from recent events. But its failure to condemn the extremist vigilantism masquerading as defence of Islam has created more space for an already powerful segment of society. For years the most powerful militant groups in Pakistan were those patronised by the Army. But recent events have proven that the intolerant ideas these groups promote is far more potent than anything in the generals’ arsenals.
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