Memos and mysteries

Sunshine bores the daylights out of the folks in Islamabad. Chasing shadows, moonlight mystery – that’s the stuff.

Asif Ali Zardari.

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In this city of rumours and allusions, we’ve learned to understand political life mostly in terms of conspiracy. It’s a surprise the spy novel hasn’t come into its own here.

But while a little intrigue never hurt anyone, can we afford to chase after shadows when real monsters haunt the land?

For the last many days, the Zardari-haters have been out about town fretfully waiting for the president to be booted for sending a memorandum to the Americans offering to replace Team Kayani with a set-up friendlier to the US. All this because, following the Osama raid, Zardari “needed an American fist on his army chief’s desk to end any misguided notions of a coup.”

Of course, the theory fits perfectly with the idea of the paranoid, cunning, calculating Zardari we’ve all come to know and hate. The boys in uniform were deploying their weapons against him so he went for their backs, dagger in hand.

Vintage AZ? Maybe, but definitely typical Islamabad, city of the faithful, where faith means believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Really, how would an attempt to sack the army top brass discourage a coup? Anyone who knows how difficult it is to keep a secret among three people knows how absurd is the idea that Zardari imagined he’d get away with this undetected. Plus, didn’t he himself give the generals the extensions they wanted? And why does our man in DC, the army-hating ‘US ambassador to Pakistan,’ need to be bypassed to pass on a message that is decidedly pro-US and unmistakably anti-army?

But try suggesting any of this to someone in the grips of AZ-phobia and this memo-reverie, and he’ll gently shake his heads and begin to walk you through the cherry-picked lumps of ‘facts’. The screaming mass of reason pointing in the opposite direction? – who cares. Try hard enough and you can possibly find evidence Nawaz Sharif masterminded 9/11. It would certainly make for a more interesting story, and that’s what Islamabad’s hackeratti is interested in: an interesting story.

But since everyone’s got a theory, here’s mine – an untested, unprovable theory, mind you, but those are apparently the ones thousands of well-meaning people will go out of their way to believe. And the theory is: when secrecy and conspiracy are part of the very system of government, a vicious cycle develops. Because truth is abhorrent, it must be concealed, and because it is concealed, it becomes ever more abhorrent. Having power then becomes about the very concealment of truth, and covering up the truth becomes the very imperative of power – and the powerful.

The end result: a population raised on a diet of conspiracy. A critical mass of clueless people left clutching at whatever shreds of ‘truth’ they get from his majesty the analyst with his privileged access to facts and a unique understanding of this troubled country. He could tell people he’s the emperor of Pluto and most wouldn’t even blink. And those that do? Some may live to make a difference, others may not. Saleem Shahzad R.I.P.

So where does that leave us with the dreaded memo that has apparently sealed AZ’s fate? As a friend recently said in response to my naïve questioning: “When someone insists X is about to happen, just wait and see if it does.”

So perhaps we can rest the balderdash a while and think about the more mundane dynamics of the Pakistan-US relationship. For example, everyone’s favourite talking point from the Clinton visit is when she said Pakistan and the US are now “95 percent on the same page.”

There are two interpretations of the 95 percent comment: one, we bullied the US into agreeing with 95 percent of our ‘plan’; and two, relations have 95 percent stabilised because we genuinely have 95percent similar goals and are 95percent in agreement on how to execute them.

The first interpretation is laughable, of course. The second requires pause. Because in international affairs, if not politics in general, it’s often not the 95percent we agree on that matters. It’s how crucial and deal-breaking the five percent is about which we disagree.

Lesson one: It’s always better to have a small percentage of something than a big percent of nothing. Right now, it seems we have a lot of nothing – the Americans want to be our friends; they appreciate our sacrifices in the war on terror; they want to work with us for Afghan peace – but a rather small percentage in terms of concrete steps we are willing to take to help them save US lives. And that, outside the world of our nighttime imaginings, is what the US really cares about.

Now, say you were standing with one foot in the oven and the other in an ice bucket. According to the percentage folks, you would be pretty comfortable, no?

Lesson two: 95 percent is a cool number but only when you look at the big picture can you see that it takes more than metrics to make up the whole.

Final lesson: Whether it’s army-defying, democracy-destroying memos or the dynamics of our foreign relationships, most of the time, you and I would be lucky if we knew a millionth of one percent of anything that really goes on in this country.

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