Some thoughts on Naseerullah Babar

Whatever Naseerullah Babar’s contributions in his decades-long political career, it was interesting to see how quietly the news of his death was received. This was partly due to his long illness in the last few years and partly due to the tumultuous events of the last few days. But it is interesting that the response was so muted, nonetheless, given how intertwined he was with so much of the PPP’s politics from the 70s through the 90s. Perhaps one can say that the era of a certain hawkish mindset within the PPP is dead. It was instructive, a few months ago, to see Masood Sharif Khattak doing the talkshow rounds criticizing the performance of the current Interior Minister’s performance. Rehman Malik, he said, hasn’t even visited Naseerullah Babar on his sickbed in the last two years that he’s been ill. But beyond that, there’s been a fundamental shift in approach which is best demonstrated by the change in the policy towards Karachi. Rehman Malik’s policy of cooperation with the MQM could not be more different to Naseerullah Babar’s (and Benazir’s) hawkish approach.

It was interesting to listen to one of BB’s interviews in 2007 in which she talked about her government’s commitment to security and gave the example with which her party put down ethnic terrorism in Karachi. In a way it showed that she was somewhat out of touch with the political changes that had occurred since 2002 when MQM’s political image had been rehabilitated and moved back into the mainstream. It would have been interesting to see how Naseerullah Babar handled this changed reality. Even before he became ill, he had distanced himself from BB on her return to Pakistan, because of his objections to the NRO and because, possibly, of BB’s changed attitude towards the Taliban. Remember, before BB’s death, Naseerullah Babar was supposed to have arranged the phone conversation between her and Baitullah Mehsud in which he assured her that he would not attack a woman.

In the final analysis, one wonders whether PPP gained or lost from its association with its hawkish elements of whom Naseerullah Babar is surely the most interesting example. It is true that the hawkish tendencies of Naseerullah Babar and General Tikka Khan led to the same strategic mis-steps that the military establishment is infamous for. In fact, there was a sort of competition netween Babar and the military establishment about who would get the glory for the Afghan policy which in retrospect is really fascinating:

40. What was the isi role in Afghanistan in the period 1974-77?

It was a top secret affair and the isi had no role. The secret was shared between Mr Bhutto, myself, Aziz Ahmad and the then Army Chief Tikka Khan. This was for obvious reasons. The Foreign Office could with, nonchalance deny if raised at un or any other forum.

Conversely, Naseerullah Babar’s comments on the Ayub and Yahya military rule shows on which side he stood, when it came to civilian vs. military rule:

Very few officers were involved in martial law duties. In retrospect I would say that it was the most unfortunate event in Pakistan’s history. Corruption was institutionalised from 1958. Initially senior officers started from buying dinner sets and proceeded in allotment of agricultural land and urban refugee property. Presently, it is in mega millions. It is most ironic that it was initiated by the Ayub martial law.

and:

He joined the Pakistan People’s Party in 1977 after the arrest of Bhutto. He famously threw away his Hilal-i-Jurat (with bar) and other army medals at the presiding officer of a military tribunal, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the military regime of Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

One can see a sort of twisted logic in ZAB and then BB using figures such as Babar and Tikka Khan. Consider Operation Midnight Jackal of 1990, the counter-operation launched by Masood Sharif Khan Khattak the then DG IB chief to counter an ISI plot to overthrow BB’s first government. In the crudest of terms, and stripped of all romantic illusions, politics is about consensus building between various elite groupings. That means that when a section of the elite plays a dirty game, an equally dirty game is required to counter it. Of course this is the classic ethical dilemma raised by Gandhi.

For Gandhi the means-end dichotomy lying at the heart of the traditional revolutionary theory was fundamentally false. In human life the so-caned means consisted not of implements and inanimate tools but of human actions, and by definition these could not fall outside the jurisdiction of morality. Furthermore the method of fighting for an objective was not external to but an integral part of it. Every step towards a desired goal shaped its character, and utmost care had to be taken to ensure that the steps taken to realize it did not distort or damage the goal. The goal did not exist at the end of a series of actions designed to achieve it; it shadowed them from the very beginning. The so-called means were really ends in an embryonic form, the seeds of which the so-called ends were a natural flowering. Since this was so, the fight for a just society could not be conducted by unjust means.

I realize, a more incongruous paragraph could not have been quoted in the midst of an article about the realpolitik of Naseerullah Babar and his hawkish colleagues. But it’s useful to analyze the quest for civilian parity with the military in light of Gandhi’s rejection of the means-end dichotomy of political violence. In this case, the question is, are hawkish political maneuvers, i.e. the idea of beating the establishment at its own game, justified in the process of rebalancing of Pakistan’s civil-military divide? Personally, I see very little different, qualitatively between Naseerullah Babar’s heavy-handed (and in my mind unjustifiable) approach in Karachi and the military establishment’s approach to Balochistan in the last 4 years. Similarly, for Babar, the Afghan policy was simply a race to take credit for the same flawed policies. And while Babar attempts to absolve Bhutto of the debacle of the Balochistan military operation of 1974-1976 by passing the buck to Abdul Qayyum Khan and his intrigues, it’s interesting that Tikka Khan, the “butcher of Balochistan” and the main executor of the disastrous military policy was himself such a PPP loyalist. Moreover, as Babar himself admitted, moves like the Balochistan military operation and the Hyderabad Tribunal, in which ZAB’s civilian government increasingly took on the form of the oppressive military establishment, were used by Zia-ul Haq to ultimately bring the Bhutto government to an end. One can see the same pattern reoccurring with the collapse of BB’s second government and the extra-judicial killings and security situation in Karachi being used as the justification.

However, it is interesting to consider that at the height of its popularity, PPP did have an appeal to, and made use of, such hawkish figures who, today, would consider it toxic. To me, it’s a reminder that all political groupings spring from the same elite, the only thing which defines them is how they stand against each other and how they balance each other out and from that, society is shaped. In other words, politics makes for strange bedfellows.

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