Pakistan: A triumph of sense over sensibility?

Political unrest in Pakistan has its root in underlying distrust and latent hostility.

Asif Zardari and Yousuf Raza Gilani
Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani has reportedly been threatening the chief of army staff and intelligence agency [AFP]

Washington, DC – It appears a measure of good judgment and rationality have returned to Islamabad this past week. Both are welcome, and overdue.

Despite the latest histrionics between Yousaf Raza Gilani and the military leadership, in which the Pakistani prime minister darkly suggested that the chief of army staff and the head of Inter-Services Intelligence had committed acts both “unconstitutional and illegal”, only to be warned in turn that such statements “could have serious ramifications“, both sides have turned down the rhetorical heat considerably, and appear ready to get back to business.

Following an apparently conciliatory meeting between army chief Kayani and President Zardari, this week also saw a four-way meeting among Kayani, intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Gilani and the country’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, focusing primarily on challenges in Afghanistan – which, by the way, have not dissipated during the recent political distractions.

Meanwhile, the over-hyped Supreme Court investigation into the so-called “Memogate” scandal appears to be running out of steam. Nearly all sides are apparently, and belatedly, losing patience with the endless manipulations and coy insinuations of Mansoor Ijaz, whose October op-ed in the Financial Times, alleging a government conspiracy to enlist US support against Pakistan’s army served to launch the current political crisis in the first place.

Pakistan supreme court to investigate memo scandal

It seems most unlikely that Ijaz will subject himself to the personal risks associated with a return to Pakistan, or expose his elaborate allegations to the risk of close evidentiary cross-examination. Ultimately, absent some basis in compelling fact, the overheated souffle of the Memogate crisis will inevitably collapse upon itself.

All of this serves to underscore the fact that the recent political unpleasantness in Pakistan has had relatively little to do with substance, but a great deal to do with underlying distrust and latent hostility among the major power blocs in the country, and the eager enthusiasm of various actors and institutions – the Supreme Court perhaps most prominent among them – to exploit an opportunity to pursue pre-existing agendas and settle personal accounts. After all, what, precisely, would the US have been able to do to forestall a Pakistani military coup, even if it had been invited to do so?

It is not as though US levers have had great effect on Pakistani behaviour in the recent past. And what were the chances, this past summer and fall, that the Pakistani military, its public esteem and support at an all-time low following the humiliation of the US Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden, would actually entertain seizing control of the government?

However, as unseemly as the whole Memogate crisis has been, it has served a useful purpose. It has shown all concerned that the traditional power relationships in Pakistan are not immutable, that they are, in fact, evolving, and that as much as some may be tempted to brand the Land of the Pure as an incipient failed state, both public and private institutions are proving to have greater power and resiliency than previously thought.

Irreparable damage?

Yes, the Pakistan army remains the preeminent institution in the country, and the greatest repository of competence – if decidedly not wisdom – in the Pakistani system. Memogate has served to underscore, however, what we thought we already knew, which is that while the officer corps may have the means to protect its solidarity and its entrenched interests, it no longer has the base of popular support to impose its will on the country at large.

Since the departure of Musharraf, the army has not wanted to assume political power; recent developments have demonstrated moreover that it cannot, at least not without doing lasting, and perhaps irreparable, damage to itself. It may not like having to co-operate with an unsteady and self-seeking civilian government, but it now fully and transparently recognises that it has no choice.

When as weak and malign a character as President Zardari actually does something good for Pakistan, one naturally assumes that it is inadvertent. It was just such an unintentional service which he provided when he left South Asia for Dubai earlier this month. In 1953, the Shah of Iran briefly fled the country in the midst of a political struggle with Prime Minister Mossadegh, serving to dramatise what was potentially at stake, and helping to rally latent, but genuine support for the monarchy.

Similarly, when Zardari suddenly sought “medical care” abroad while under the combined assault of the army and the Supreme Court, he was most likely acting out of genuine fear for his future; but as a piece of political theatre, his act very likely concentrated minds in the army leadership as to the unpalatable consequences of the current course of events, thus inducing them to back off. The recent assertiveness of Prime Minister Gilani demonstrates that a lesson concerning the limits of the military’s power in Pakistan has been learned, and not just in the army.

Yet another indication of evolution and political maturation in Pakistan is the current stance of the Supreme Court. Courts, as we all know, do not command armies. The force through which they can demand adherence to their rulings is a moral one. For all its current overreaching and bumptiousness, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, having previously been a doormat to executive power for many years, now commands a moral authority to which others must pay heed.

Likewise, the growth of Pakistan’s public media, which is perhaps the most positive legacy of General Musharraf’s time in power, has created a force for transparency which can no longer be entirely suppressed – even if various attempts at intimidation have achieved a measure of temporary, tactical success.

It may already be hard to remember, but just a few days ago it was beginning to appear to many, including this observer, that Memogate could potentially lead to a fundamental crippling of the Pakistani state. As the crisis winds down, however, it appears that the relevant lesson is a very different one: That Pakistani institutions, while not strong, are considerably stronger than previously thought, and that rumours of their demise have been much exaggerated.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.