Generals in the dock
GENERAL Petraeus was, until recently, a genuine American hero. Having masterminded the ‘surges’ in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the CIA director was widely hailed as a thinking general, not a charge levelled against any Pakistani commander.
The fact that his career and reputation now lie in tatters over a minor error of judgment says a lot for the accountability process in the US military. Gen John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has also been caught up in the same scandal currently titillating the media and the public. He, too, may have to resign.
Thousands of miles away in Turkey, scores of generals, admirals and other senior officers have been sentenced to long prison terms over the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy. This shadowy organisation of ultra-nationalist Kemalists is accused of plotting terrorist attacks, as well as the toppling of the government.
While many questions have been raised about the evidence used to convict the accused officers and civilians, the fact is that an elected government has been able to finally subject Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control.
To put this remarkable fact in context, in the second half of the last century, Turkish generals staged no fewer than four coups.
Until recently, they saw themselves as the guardians of the secularist principles that Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the founder of modern Turkey, inserted into the constitution.
Although widely respected, they made the mistake of taking on the popular AK Party government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Just a few years ago, the idea of senior generals in Turkey being arrested and convicted would have been unthinkable.
Given these two examples of military accountability, why are Pakistani generals held responsible by the Supreme Court for rigging the 1990 election still free? Other senior officers, too, have openly boasted on TV about their role in paying off politicians and journalists.
Clearly, the government has a duty to prosecute these officers. The Supreme Court has been very clear in its judgment that charges should be framed, and the cases against officers responsible for manipulating the 1990 elections brought before an appropriate court.
In doing so, the Supreme Court has handed the government a very hot potato. But to mix a metaphor, the judgment is a double-edged sword: on the one hand the PPP has finally been vindicated in its claim that it was robbed of the 1990 election; on the other, it is extremely reluctant to stir up a hornet’s nest by initiating court proceedings against senior retired officers.
The point of arresting accused persons prior to their trial in serious cases is to prevent them from fleeing, and to ensure that they do not subvert the course of justice by influencing witnesses and destroying evidence.
But after a lifetime of bending the knee before our powerful military, I can understand the reluctance of the Zardari government in calling Aslam Beg and company to account.
Nevertheless, the matter is too serious to sweep under the carpet. And it is not just army officers who have been accused in the scandal: many politicians have been named, together with the amounts they are supposed to have received from their military paymasters.
I do not often agree with Imran Khan, but he is absolutely right in demanding that politicians named in the judgment should stay out of politics until they are cleared.
Although Asad Durrani gave a list of these politicians to the courts some 15 years ago, it is only now that we have a confirmation in the form of the recent judgment.
One suggestion for trying these ex-army officers is for them to be reinstated in service, and the charges against them placed before a military tribunal. This would be a very bad idea because the acts they committed, according to their own statements, have nothing to do with the military, and everything to do with subverting the electoral process.
I am glad that Nawaz Sharif, one of the alleged recipients of the military’s largesse in 1990, has agreed to an FIA probe, despite his reservations about the body’s objectivity and efficiency. This adds pressure on Zardari to launch an investigation: if the leading opposition figure supports it, the government has few excuses to drag its feet.
One reason for the government not to flinch is that it needs to send out a powerful signal that military interference in civilian affairs will no longer be tolerated. For much of our history, our army has either ruled directly, or destabilised elected governments during their curtailed tenures.
Most of us remember Operation Midnight Jackal in which serving army officers tried to buy over MNAs to bring down Benazir Bhutto’s government. And this was by no means an isolated incident. Many politicians and other journalists have been bribed and bullied into toeing the military’s line.
If we are to build a firewall between the military and civilian spheres, we must be prepared to take the heat that will be generated by a public trial of senior officers. Sadly, unlike the Turkish government, the PPP-led coalition lacks the credibility needed to take on our powerful military establishment.
The reality is that much of the media could support the generals in a face-off with the elected government.
Over the years, scores of journalists have allegedly benefited from a cosy relationship with various intelligence agencies. They could be counted on to whip up an anti-government frenzy should it move to bring the Asghar Khan case to trial.
Fearing this kind of backlash, Zardari and his allies are delaying matters until elections are announced, and a caretaker administration assumes power. They hope that once a trial is initiated, it will meander on, as cases do in Pakistan, and they won’t be blamed either by the generals or the media.
While I do not support the kind of hyperactive behaviour we have witnessed in our higher judiciary these last few years, I think there is a case for a suo motu notice here.
The Supreme Court can set a deadline for criminal cases to be registered, and court proceedings to begin. This would let the government off the hook as it can claim it is only carrying out the court’s orders.
Once and for all, our generals need to learn that they aren’t above the law.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.