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David J. Karl Headshot

The Real Tragedy of Memogate

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The key lesson of the Memogate controversy is the readiness of the Pakistani political class to exploit the civil-military imbalance for tactical advantage.

On one level, the widening Memogate mystery/conspiracy drama playing out in Pakistan is yet another example of the endemic dysfunctions between the powerful security establishment and their nominal civilian masters that have lead the country throughout its history to the brink of ruin. But the affair also demonstrates the long-running failure of the political class to understand that, even in the throes of competitive politics, it has a common interest - indeed a fiduciary obligation - in upholding the principle of civilian supremacy over the military.

The unfolding saga centers on an unsigned backchannel note delivered to U.S. military authorities following the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. The document, whose authenticity has yet to be ascertained, requests U.S. help in preempting a feared military coup against Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. In exchange, a host of enticing, albeit incredible, concessions is offered, including:

  • installation of a new national security team in Islamabad filled with pro-American officials;
  • transferring to U.S. custody the leaderships of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani insurgent network;
  • giving American forces "carte blanche" to conduct operations on Pakistani territory;
  • bringing greater transparency to Pakistan's swelling nuclear arsenal;
  • abandoning support of militant groups in Afghanistan.

Suspicions over the note's provenance have come to rest with Zardari, who is seen by many in Pakistan as an American stooge, and with Husain Haqqani, who Zardari selected as his envoy in Washington even though he is thoroughly distrusted by the military. Both men deny involvement. But the controversy has now cost Haqqani his job and speculation is rife that army leaders will use the uproar to further diminish the politically-weakened Zardari, perhaps even ousting him from office.

Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's main opposition party, has also waded into this combustible mix. His actions offer a particularly egregious example of the political class's penchant to manipulate the volatile issue of civil-military relations for myopic gain. Speaking at a political rally the other week, Sharif blasted Zardari for "bargaining on national sovereignty and people's self-respect." He thundered that Haqqani is "asking the US to control the Pakistani military when we should resolve our own problems." His younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab (the most important province in Pakistan), has likewise charged Zardari with selling out the country's sovereignty, while Sharif's political supporters even accuse Zardari of committing treason.

Given how Nawaz once committed the very same acts for which he is now bludgeoning Zardari, he is trafficking in rank hypocrisy. In 1999, during Nawaz's second stint as prime minister, he was the target of considerable criticism, including accusations of undermining the army's honor and betraying the Kashmir cause, for cutting a desperate deal with President Bill Clinton to end the Kargil War with India. Fearing that the Pakistani army, under the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf, was about to take its revenge by overthrowing him, Nawaz urgently dispatched Shahbaz to Washington to seek the Clinton administration's intercession.

As British journalist Owen Bennett-Jones relates in his acclaimed book, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, Shahbaz pleaded that Washington had a moral obligation to protect his brother given the political risks he ran on Kargil. But Shahbaz also padded his case by passing along Nawaz's offer to take a harder line with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and help hunt down Bin Laden. The trip had the desired effect when U.S. officials signaled their opposition to "extra-constitutional actions" against Nawaz.

In the end, the warning shot failed to avert a military take-over and Sharif was arrested and subsequently exiled to Saudi Arabia. Given his vexatious history with the army chieftains, one might expect Sharif to have a greater sense of solidarity regarding Zardari's own travails with the military. Yet that has not stopped him from now pandering to the generals in Rawalpindi, announcing that his antagonisms with them were a thing of the past and that they would find in him a most suitable partner in the event they grow tired of Zardari.

To be sure, Sharif is only following a well-worn script. Pakistani history is replete with examples of opportunistic politicians who view the imbalance in civil-military relations as something to be exploited for tactical gain rather than rectified for the nation's good. In an irony that ultimately cost him his life, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Zardari's political party, built up the security establishment in order to suppress his political opponents. As the military constantly rotated them in and out of the prime minister's office in 1990s, Benazir Bhutto and Sharif took turns celebrating the other's demise rather than condemning the debasement of the Constitution. And instead of uniting following last May's Abbottabad raid to claw back decision-making authority from a humbled military, civilian leaders instead equated patriotism with fealty to the army.

The uniforms in Rawalpindi deserve the lion's share of the blame for the deep morass that Pakistan has fallen into. But as the Memogate controversy illustrates, the political class is all too willing to come along for the ride.