While I was looking in another direction, Pakistan has been suddenly (to me at least) been enveloped in a new and serious political crisis. My first reaction to a friend whose column in a Pakistani newspaper had alerted me to the crisis was, “Oh please, not another political crisis; I can barely stay on top of the one unfolding in my own country; couldn’t our political leaders do these things sequentially?”
Well, no respite, it seems for those of us who are concerned about democracy in these times of its seemingly universal troubles and crises.
We are, thus, trapped in crisis politics, which seem to be the hallmark of our times.
I have been consumed by the crisis of democracy in the US and I had, frankly, lost track of the Panama Papers investigations in Pakistan. Although I knew the Supreme Court had appointed a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), I was caught short by its rapid work and extremely explosive conclusions.
These investigating bodies, whether called teams, commissions, committees, or whatever, usually take a very long time to do their work, and are often not able (or willing) to produce unambiguous conclusions.
Think of the investigation now underway on the connections between President Trump’s campaign organisation and Russian intelligence.
That started under then-FBI chief James Comey, who was fired, probably for his serious intent to follow the evidence trail to its logical conclusion, and continues under Special Counsel William Mueller since May, and is expected to go on under the methodical Mueller until next year sometime.
Yet the JIT in Pakistan seems to have completed its work in about two months.
And, if I remember the Panama Papers revelations clearly, its work would have involved tracing financial transactions over a number of years through foreign banks and companies.
This seems to me to be fairly intricate work, requiring financial and accounting expertise, and even with such expertise would have taken time, perseverance, and patience. A completed report of that magnitude in two months is remarkable. This will, of course, throw suspicion on the report as having been rushed through to predetermined conclusions for political reasons.
I did not know, until I read it in the press after the JIT report had been released, that military intelligence officers had been included in the JIT’s ranks.
Whether this was to supply needed technical expertise or to push it to the rapid completion of its task is unclear to me, but it raises notions of military interference, or bias, and casts a certain cloud of suspicion on the report.
On the other hand, I read that the JIT also was able to employ outside and foreign firms specialising in forensic investigation of financial flows and other issues.
This undoubtedly was the main factor in its ability to produce its report so quickly.
According to some reports, other countries were also helpful in providing information. None of this, however, is likely to allay suspicion that it is biased, given the rush in which the report was pushed through.
I have found little consensus in the gamut of analytic opinion available to me except on a couple of factors. First, all are astonished that the report has been completed in only two months, given the paucity of expertise in financial forensics available in Pakistan.
Trump’s impeachment would not change the regime, only its head. And in Pakistan, if the Supreme Court decision results in an advanced general election, it is not clear to me that Sharif’s party would not win again, even without Sharif
Second, the presence of military intelligence personnel on the JIT has convinced many that the military is involved. But there is no agreement on what it might want to accomplish by being involved.
Nor is there any agreement on its likely outcome; the predictions run from it being lights out for Prime Minister Sharif to it being just another show of political strength by the military, a poised hammer if he continues to try to claw back power.
Of course, things may be much clearer by the time that readers see this piece.
The JIT report will be examined by the Supreme Court this week, and there could be a denouement by Friday.
But many of the analysts appear to believe that the court fight will be long and drawn out.
If so, it is hard to see how Nawaz Sharif can remain PM while he is under threat of indictment.
Sitting here in the US, watching our own political crisis unfold (like watching paint dry; it is so painfully slow), I am struck by some similarities and some differences between the American and Pakistani crises. Though in the end, the two crises may turn out to last about the same length of time, one clear difference is the sequence and the speed of the investigative phases of the two crises.
The Pakistan crisis dates to the Panama Papers revelations of April 2016, but began in earnest in August when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan filed a petition in the Supreme Court to disqualify PM Nawaz Sharif.
The hearings before the Supreme Court lasted from November 2016 to April 2017, at which time, the SC ruled that there was insufficient evidence to remove Sharif and ordered the JIT to conduct the investigation.
The JIT, faced with an investigation the difficulty of which I described above, reported back to the SC in July, a bit over two months later.
To the outsider, still watching the paint dry on the investigation into the Trump campaign’s relations with Russian intelligence, already almost six months along (with some hitches and organisational problems to be sure), this does not make for solid confidence in the JIT’s investigative procedure’s methodology or conclusions.
So we shall see whether this is the final act of the Nawaz Sharif political melodrama, thrown out of office twice by the military, imprisoned by the military, and now threatened to be both thrown out of office and imprisoned again. If it happens, it will be pretty sure, though possibly never provable, that in a sense, the “deep state” got him, those (mostly mythical in my view) amorphous, anonymous, supposedly entrenched institutions and personnel that operate under the surface in great secrecy to control government policy making. There is no state more likely to have an extant deep state these days than Pakistan.
One might say that both deep states are pushing for regime change.
But in the US, Trump’s impeachment would not change the regime, only its head. And in Pakistan, if the Supreme Court decision results in an advanced general election, it is not clear to me that Sharif’s party, the PML-N, would not win again, even without Sharif at its head.
In any case, there are primary causes and immediate causes in politics as in everything else. The immediate cause of PM Sharif’s problems is Imran Khan, the Panama Papers revelations, the Army’s dislike of him, or all three.
The immediate cause of Trump’s difficulties is his campaign’s relations with Russian intelligence. But the primary cause of both their travails is similar: The abuse of power and the feeling of so many politicians, that they are above the law.
William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article was previously published in The Friday Times.