LtGen (ret.) Talat Masood: "Pakistan is not a lost cause"

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 29-Jan-08 | Author: Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan

LtGen (ret.) Talat Masood (right) with WSN Editor Pakistan Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan: "Pakistan's instability triggers anxiety abroad, despite its nuclear assets being safe and secure"

Pakistan has arguably never been in such a fragile state since the 1971 break-up of the country (i.e., the loss of East Pakistan after the disastrous war with India). Since the myriad of political, military, ethnic, sectarian and (recently) economic problems facing the country are already receiving widespread coverage in the international media; an extensive backdrop to this interview does not bear repeating.

At the risk of appearing alarmist, it seems that in recent years Pakistan has in fact been beset by seemingly endless violence (witness the almost 2000 county-wide civilian deaths from terrorist/suicide attacks and sectarian violence in 2007) as it attempts to return to civilian rule and combat growing Islamic militancy and an insurgency along the Pak-Afghan border. Even many Pakistani’s living in the heartland of the country are deeply affected seeing that there have been a series of suicide attacks against senior political leaders and security forces all over the country (not to mention the bloody siege at the Red Mosque in the heart of the federal capital). In the process, large numbers of civilians are getting caught in the cross fire as collateral damage. This is breeding a sense of insecurity throughout Pakistan and doubts are being raised as to whether the state structure has atrophied to the point where it is incapable of or unwilling to provide basic safety and security to the general public. The stresses and stains pressed upon a professional army faced with such varied and widespread internal problems of a delicate nature need not be stressed.

The bloodiest and most dramatic of the suicide attacks have been against former Prime-Minister Benazir Bhutto. Since accounts of the cause of her death have differed, her cohorts are insisting on an UN probe into the murder. Rumours are rife as to the identity of the perpetrators; many Pakistani’s look askance at official government explanations that militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda are responsible for such attacks. Apart from other considerations, the US is often blamed for scheming to break up the federation of Pakistan once again after the tragedy of 1971 in order to justify military intervention to “secure” the nuclear arsenal in collaboration with Pakistani forces. It is said that US contingency plans exist for such a scenario, which would entail establishing control over the (relatively limited) section of Pakistani territory within which nuclear assets have been deployed or stored.

Another “conspiratorial view” places the blame on retired or active elements within the intelligence apparatus, despite the fact that according to Western reports, covert state support to jihadist organizations has declined since 2001. This view holds that the motive would be to create conditions under which where elections would be impossible to hold, thereby increasing the likelihood of another martial law or a disguised military rule. This would be seen as a last resort aimed at securing the integrity of the federation and providing a semblance of law and order. Meanwhile a host of other problems are bedeviling the upcoming elections and the future of Pakistan as a whole.

One thing is certain; Ms. Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December has thrown the Pakistan deeper into political crisis and put an end to American efforts to broker a power-sharing deal between her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and President Pervez Musharraf. The PPP’s main rival, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) says it will work with the PPP to restore democracy in Pakistan. Meanwhile President Musharraf ‘s popularity appears to be at its lowest ebb and his image as an American puppet in the “war on terror” is seen as his biggest liability.

Lt. General (retd) Talat Masood and Senator Enver Baig were gracious enough to grant me interviews in which they addressed many of these issues. My discussions with Ambassador Tariq Fatemi were also very informative and insightful. These gentlemen touched upon a host of issues, including the security situation and its international repercussions, the role of the judiciary, legal and other complications affecting elections, the investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s murder, succession and the internal dynamics of her People’s Party, as well as the ethnic tensions and civil strife afflicting Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and main port.

In our 24 January interview for WSN, Lt Gen (retd) Talat Masood discussed the latest developments in Pakistan. General Masood served in the Pakistan Army for 39 years, retiring in 1990 as Secretary for Defence Production in the Ministry of Defence. Prior to this, Lt. Gen. Masood was chairman and chief executive of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board. Since retirement, he has been closely associated with think-tanks and universities regionally and globally, working to promote peace and stability in the region. He writes on security and political issues in national newspapers and foreign magazines and is a prominent commentator on national and international TV and radio networks.

- Exclusive WSN interview with LtGen (ret.) Talat Masood conducted by WSN Editor Pakistan Sahabzada Abdus Samad-Khan -

WSN: Is Pakistan to be seen as a “lost cause“ (as sometimes projected in international media)?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Pakistan is not a “lost cause”, but clearly, is going through a very a difficult period and once again stands at cross roads. There are three fault lines the outcome of which will determine the future course of events. Firstly, it is the fundamental question of whether the country will continue with the status quo wherein the military is dominant or embrace the rule of law, respect the sanctity of the constitution and promote democracy. Secondly, the struggle between moderate and extremist forces is very critical for the future. Currently, the extremists are expanding their influence especially in the tribal belt and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), areas that are close to Afghanistan’s lawless south and southeastern parts. This challenge will require a comprehensive approach involving selective use of military coupled with political engagement and economic development. A political government should be in a better position to get the support of the people in fighting the militants and the war on terror. Lastly, the wide income disparities and elitist policies has given rise to social inequities that have to be corrected through better governance, enhanced agricultural and industrial output and sensitivity toward poor segments of the society.

WSN: How stable is Pakistan?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Prolonged military rule and inept politicians are contributory factors toward Pakistan’s instability. Strengthening of its institutions especially the judiciary, parliament and civil society are necessary for stabilizing Pakistan.

WSN: What role is the Army expected to play in the circumstances outlined above?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: The Army is the strongest and the most pervasive institution in Pakistan. This has given rise to civil military divide. The best option for the Army is to withdraw from politics and focus on its profession. Fortunately, General Kayani, the new Chief of Army Staff has stated that he would pursue this course. No doubt the Army leadership will be watching events very carefully and also be available to support the political government in case it is sought. However, the military’s input in foreign and defense policy and internal security will continue to an appreciable extent in the near future.

WSN: What is your assessment of new political talents like the Chief of Army Staff; what about the cricket star Imran Khan?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: The new Army Chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani is known for his professional competence and would prefer to remain apolitical. The people of Pakistan too want the Army to stay away from politics. And fortunately the mood of the military is very similar, as they have learnt from the past. The military is also facing a major internal challenge of insurgency and it needs the support of the people to fight this asymmetrical and guerilla warfare. General Kayani’s leadership attributes are needed more in the context of the military than in the realm of politics. Imran Khan’s image and stature has been enhanced due his principled stance during the recent civil society movement. He has proved to be a great philanthropist and cricketer but the coming years will show if he can play a major role in politics as well. His political party, Tehrik Insaf, has a small following and it has not gelled so far. Imran seems to be more inspiring and at his best in an individual rather than a political leadership role, where there is need for greater flexibility, compromise and consensus building.

WSN: How strong are the radicals?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Militancy is on the increase in Pakistan and radical elements hold sway in the tribal belt and several pockets of the NWFP. This is essentially the cumulative fall out of decades of Jihad against the Soviet occupation, events following 9/11, instability in Afghanistan and years of neglect of the tribal belt. The militants can only be neutralized through a comprehensive approach spread out over years by using military power selectively and simultaneously engaging them politically and carrying out economic development in the region.

WSN: How will the government reconcile the security risks posed by the unavoidable assembly of crowds with holding of safe, free and fair elections? This seems to be a doubtful and hazardous task in view of the strain it would impose upon the deployment of security forces in multiple directions; namely commitments related to law and order during the elections and combating military insurgencies in various parts of the country.

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Providing effective security to political leaders during elections is a huge challenge to the government especially after the murder of Bhutto. Candidates for national and provincial assemblies should rely more on corner meetings, television and radio debates and door-to-door canvassing. Only few large public gatherings should be held. These should invariably be in the open away from built in areas and speaker’s podium or platform kept out of range from suicide bombers and assault rifle fire.

WSN: What is your take on the notion that the Local Administration has been weakened by the Nazim system because it is highly dubious and unreliable as an instrument for ensuring free and fair elections.

LtGen (ret.) Masood: The devolution plan that President Musharraf so enthusiastically introduced has proved to be a great failure both in terms of providing good governance at the local level and for ensuring fairness of elections. In fact the party in power has exploited it for gaining distinct advantage in the pre- and post-election period.

WSN: The Election Commission (which is charged with organizing and overseeing the 18 January elections) is seen as being far from neutral owing to the fact that the Election Commissioner was a Presidential appointee rather than a consensus candidate chosen by all parties. Would this not cast serious doubts on the conduct of the voting mechanism and thereby de-legitimize any new government that emerges?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: The Election Commission is, undoubtedly, partisan and the Election Commissioner does not enjoy the confidence of the major parties. Nonetheless, political parties are participating in elections under protest. Already there are complaints that pre- poll rigging is taking place and the administrative structure and President’s conduct is tilted heavily in favor of the erstwhile ruling party, PML-Q. If rigging is done on polling day on a large scale then there will be protests and the legitimacy of the incoming regime would be highly questionable and controversial.

WSN: The Judiciary is not considered to be “functional” at the higher levels as most of the senior judges in the provincial High Courts and the Supreme Court refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order proclaimed on 3 November 2007 along with the imposition of a state of emergency (the dissenting judges were replaced by President Musharraf’s loyalists). Yet the chances of electoral disputes arising are very high seeing that the sanctity of the courts has been severely compromised, leaving no neutral body to address grievances related to the elections. To what extent will this inflame tensions and tend to undermine the equity and soundness of the election process as a whole? How likely is it that protests might turn violent owing to such frustrations?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: People and the political parties have lost faith in the judiciary since 60 of its most eminent and honorable members were ousted by President Musharraf for refusing to endorse his “emergency” and other unconstitutional measures. This environment is likely to breed unrest.

WSN: The elections will coincide with the findings of the British team investigating Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. What affect will that have, if any, on the situation?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: If there was startling information that a government agency was involved or had links in the perpetration or planning of the murder then there can be a severe reaction.

WSN: Other pressures (e.g., power, food and gas shortages), which all seem to have emerged in one fell swoop, and are redolent of “Murphy’s Law”, pervade all the scenarios mentioned above. Will the government be able to outface these critical shortages, which carry deep political implications?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Current power and food shortages, inflation and the deteriorating law and order situation are reflective of years of poor governance and bad management. It will surely undermine the electoral prospects of the ruling party (PML-Q) and its coalition partners.

WSN: There is much media hype about the possibility of external intervention in Pakistan’s affairs (i.e. to secure nuclear weapons and covert, or even overt, military operations by foreign forces); are these fears justified?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: Pakistan’s political instability, triggers anxiety abroad, despite its nuclear assets being safe and secure. The Strategic Planning Division (SPD) has taken innumerable measures from organizational improvements to introducing latest technology and equipment to improve safety and security. Moreover, the SDP has introduced the personal verification scheme and enacted strict exports controls. If the political situation stabilizes after the elections then these misplaced fears will disappear.

WSN: Recent reports indicate that the “Pakistani Taliban” are undergoing a major transformation in which tribal chiefs are being replaced by more radical leaders in an effort to establish a more coherent and centralized command and control system for the new movement (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan). In doing so, they hope to consolidate a somewhat disparate movement under a singe umbrella organization. What are the chances of its success?

LtGen (ret.) Masood: The merger of 40 Taliban groups does not augur well as they would draw synergy from each other. This nexus needs to be broken up through selective application of military power combined with political dialogue with tribal leaders and economic development of the tribal belt and the NWFP.

WSN: Many thanks for your generous contribution to the cause of the World Security Network.