A tale of two prime ministers

The year was 1988. The Cold War that Pakistan had helped burn with a deadly heat was coming to a close. Gorbachev had just informed Afghan president Najibullah that Soviet troops were pulling out of Afghanistan and official accords had been signed in Geneva.

As Soviet troops waited to vacate the country, the ISI’s central arms warehouse at Ojhri, just outside Rawalpindi, was destroyed in a gigantic explosion.

Over 10,000 tonnes of rockets, mines, antitank missiles, long-range mortars and Stingers meant for the Afghan jihad went up in a mysterious blast that formed a mushroom cloud over Rawalpindi and Islamabad and rained death on the two cities.

The rumour mill immediately began to churn: was it an Indian or Israeli attack, paranoid citizens wondered? Had India tried to target the Kahuta nuclear plant? Didn’t the explosion fit a pattern, asked defence ‘experts,’ of recent attacks against military and civilian installations by pro-Soviet agents? Did anyone see a truck bearing an Afghan license plate enter the compound, journalists furiously wrote? Or was the camp blown up by Pakistanis looking to avoid accountability by an American audit team coming over to count the last of the Stinger missiles and make sure they hadn’t been had been sold off on the international black market?

Mohammad Khan Junejo, prime minister at the time, appointed two committees to probe the incident: one military, the other parliamentary. The reports never saw light of day but insiders say all fingers pointed at two of Zia’s top generals.

A prime minister who had spoken publically about taking large staff cars away from senior military brass and replacing them with domestically made Suzukis had already been giving top generals and intelligence officials sleepless nights. The Ojhri report was the last straw.

While Zia wanted his generals saved, Junejo was not a man to relent. One of Zia’s senior aides recalls the peculiar meeting between Zia and Junejo after the 1985 general elections when Zia warmly welcomed Junejo in his office and told him he planned to nominate him as prime minister of Pakistan. A grim-faced Junejo did not thank the president but instead asked briskly: “When do you plan to remove martial law?”

This was the beginning of an acrimonious relationship and an accumulation of grievances that would blow up with the Ojhri camp in 1988, when Junejo was sent home, or as some will argue, chose to walk rather than give in to Zia. Junejo’s defence minister told a local newspaper that the ISI raided his office the day after the government was dismissed. “They returned all my belongings, except the briefcase that contained the Ojhri report.”

And just like that, the Ojhri camp probe had led to the fall of Pakistan’s first democratic government.

Twenty-three years later, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the custodian of Pakistan’s transition to democracy, told parliament an internal army inquiry led by a confidant of the army chief would probe the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. The prime minister would not say when the inquiry would be finished or if it would be made public; just that an army-led team would probe a matter in which the army seemed to be most directly involved, either by way of incompetence, or complicity, or worse yet, both.

But in a parliamentary resolution following a rare, ten-hour long briefing with top military officials, the government was forced to commit to an independent commission. And once again, there were two parallel teams looking into one disquieting episode.

Any guesses who will finally be held responsible and whether you and I, average Pakistanis, will ever know the truth?

Never in recent memory have the army and ISI been subjected to such criticism as in the wake of the Abbottabad operation. But even then, Prime Minister Gilani gave up an easy fight and closed ranks behind the military establishment.

But flaccid behaviour, dear prime minister, is too often empowering for a cunning enemy. Today, because of you, this logic has created a dangerous moment in Pakistan. An already all-mighty army is now certain it can get away with anything for little reason beyond the conviction that it just can. In your grand retreat is a grand scandal that is making some of us sick with worry. And part of the worry is for you and your government. Remember Zulfi Bhutto: he suppressed the Hamood-ur-Rehman report to save some generals but the men in uniform came after him years later. Brace yourself.

Was there a reason beyond the solidarity of the decent that should have compelled you, dear Gilani Sahib, to take the army to task? Yes. That reason is Pakistan’s future: the very question of this country’s survival against an army and its national security doctrine that has boomeranged on Pakistan too many times to ignore.

You were no ordinary prime minister, Gilani Sahib. On your shoulders rested the burden of carrying Pakistan safely down the democratic road to a real transition. But you and your government have chosen to take another route – to becoming a peeling palimpsest of democracy that will soon be completely hidden under the muddied bootprints of military men. Brace yourself.

(From The News)

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  3 comments for “A tale of two prime ministers

  1. mashaikh@hec.gov.pk'
    June 2, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Amazing article. Comparisons beautifully woven together. Keep up the good work!

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