The curtain has dropped on the first act of the so-called Memogate scandal, but the drama is far from over. With Husain Haqqani’s resignation (or sacking, depending on whom you believe) as the ambassador to Washington, the question loomed: having cowed the civilian government, would the military establishment once again force a former general into the ambassador’s residence in Washington? Military heavy weights were certainly among the top contenders, including a former ISI chief and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this context, the appointment of PPP legislator and former Information Minister Sherry (Shehrbano) Rehman came as a surprise.
Rehman is clearly a remarkable woman. She is a liberal reformer with a sizeable following in Pakistan’s civil society. She has been an award-winning journalist, and has held her own in the male-dominated blood-sport that is Pakistani politics. She has championed democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and media freedom. Her courage is without question.
Where most politicians have fallen over themselves to appear supportive of Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws, Rehman introduced aPrivate Member’s Bill in Parliament to reform them. For her trouble, she has been the subject of death threats, which are something to take very seriously given that the other two champions of reforming blasphemy laws – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti – were both assassinated this year. She also resigned from her post as Information Minister in 2009 over a matter of principle; she had a falling out with President Zardari over the latter’s attempts to censor private media.
Given her record, can the government chalk her appointment as a victory in this latest civil-military tussle? Not exactly.
Firstly, the firing of Haqqani, under dubious circumstances at best, is in itself a victory for the military. Haqqani was a vocal critic of military interference in politics, and virtually any successor would be better from the army’s point of view. Further, the government’s cave-in has left it weakened. Rehman has also been billed as a ‘consensus candidate’ for ambassador, meaning that she is acceptable to the government, the Americans, and yes, the military. But the consensus within the government appears fragmented. The President is reportedly less than pleased by the Prime Minister’s ambassadorial appointment.
The military’s accommodation of Rehman itself is a complex web of interests. Openly forcing a serving or retired military officer in the job would have ruffled feathers not only in Pakistan, but also in Washington where Congress has already been baying to cut aid to the country. Therefore, the closer the ambassador appears to the government, the easier it is to maintain plausible deniability in interfering with the elected government.
There are also subjective factors that recommend Rehman to the military. At a time when American forces in Afghanistan are drawing down and the future of the country is being intensely and violently negotiated by all involved, Afghanistan is the foremost priority for the military establishment and its control of foreign policy. In this area, Rehman’s views are not far from the generals. Rehman’s lectures on Pakistan’s strategic security issues vis a vis Afghanistan seldom stray far from the establishment line (though it must be noted that Rehman is a tireless advocate of better relations with India).
Sherry is also the President of the Jinnah Institute, a Pakistani think-tank. The Institute recently released a report on Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy that essentially endorsed the military’s decades old interventionist policy of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. Notably, Rehman’s designated replacement at the Jinnah Insistute is Ejaz Haider, a reputable journalist with broadly pro-military views.
Finally, Rehman’s gender and liberal credentials are a convenient means of projecting a soft image of Pakistan, but they have a flip-side. Given the sensitivity of the position in light of rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan, her liberalism could be used to foment controversy and maintain the ambassador on a short leash if the need arose. Right-wing religious parties have already been vitriolic, calling Rahman a plant by “the US and the Jewish lobby” for her position on reforming blasphemy laws.
In sum, the civilian government is once again on the back-foot in the face of a political broadside by the military. Is this old wine in a new bottle simply the latest chapter in the history of the military dominating the political arena? In some sense it is. But it also represents a dangerous evolution by the military in playing a more subtle and complex game. If that is true, then the final act is yet to play out.