Deterrence theory rests on many factors, one of which is signaling resolve—which must be backed by credibility for it to be effective. Put another way, the statements and/or actions that signal resolve also tend to increase the risk of conflict, and the cost of backing down from a deterrent threat. If an actor is bluffing, he shouldn’t cross a certain threshold. Because, once that threshold is crossed, he would be committing himself to a conflict he might not want, but in which he has got himself trapped. Nothing is worse than showing resolve without credible threat at one’s disposal, especially if the bluff is called.
In his speech in Islamabad on June 16, in response to the actions of the Rangers in Karachi, did former president Asif Ali Zardari just huff and puff and threaten to bring the house down? Given his (well-earned or otherwise) reputation as a sharp political player, it doesn’t seem that way.
But let’s first consider the context of Zardari’s speech and his signaling to the generals: Clean up Karachi by all means but don’t come near my Pakistan Peoples Party, ‘my PPP’ being the post-Benazir Bhutto party dominated by Zardari loyalists. Why? Because there’s honor among thieves; thieves are not supposed to compromise the activities of other thieves. That’s the gist of his speech and his attempt to signal threat. But while the alleged thievery or thieving of the generals remains a matter of some speculation as far as Karachi is concerned, by holding out the threat in the way that he has, Zardari has at least accepted, willy-nilly, that his party might just have a lot to answer for.
Proving charges in a court of law requires procedures, technicalities and much else. There are a lot of smart lawyers around to put everyone, including the concept of justice, in a Daedalian maze from where no one can find a way out. But snoop around, talk to people, go to Karachi and Sindh and see how the city and the province are being governed and one returns terribly disappointed with the performance of the PPP. And that performance is not just about the antiquated and rather comical chief minister of Sindh. He is just the rather brazen face of the party’s overall worldview.
Take the prodigal son, Bilawal. He is back but there is enough inside information with those who observe the scene to know the nature of his differences with his father and, yes, his aunt. Leaving aside his faux-Bhutto, high-pitched attempts at mesmerizing the audience at PPP rallies, as also his inexperience, he did—and does—realize that the party’s concept of (non)governance is hurting it badly and something must be done to stem the rot. He was punted off to cool his heels, reverse his modernity, and become one with Sindh’s quaint socioeconomic and political traditions—except, Sindh may be changing under the nose of the PPP.
So, Zardari believes that politicking is about making compromises and also chalking out areas of influence where every actor must be free to do as he pleases. The five years of the PPP are an example of Zardari’s politicking. Let the military do what it wants for itself and he should be free to do what he desires. If that means giving a full, three-year extension to the Army chief, so be it. It keeps everyone happy and it prevents people from stepping on each other’s toes.
Only, this time, at least in Karachi, that seems to be changing. The Rangers’ clean-up operation seems headed toward some serious, nonpartisan cleansing. That has Zardari worried, worried to the point, in fact, that he chose to speak aggressively and pointedly instead of keeping his usual cool. As he said himself, his patience has run thin.
What he has said about the generals is well-recorded. The generals, at various times in this country’s history, have blundered and blundered terribly. Putting out a list of their misdemeanors and acts of omission and commission will merely add another document to the list of knowns. If Zardari can bring to the list some known unknowns, that will be of help to those of us who record such things. In fact, my suggestion would be that he should only focus on the five years that he was in power and reveal all the compromises he had to make to keep his own playing space intact.
And yet, that doesn’t solve his immediate problem. There is now a new set of generals and unless he can reveal their acts of misdemeanor, what they have set out to do cannot be faulted for what some other generals in the past have or might not have done.
Zardari finds himself in a bind. He could act meek or throw down the gauntlet. He has chosen to do the latter. But going by deterrence theory, if the threat he has signaled is not credible, or if he does not have the resources to climb further up the escalation ladder, then he might just have initiated a conflict he cannot sustain. He could rely on street agitation, but there are multiple other political actors who would like to see the PPP go down. That shrinks the space for Zardari.
If the Army picks up the gauntlet, it will have to show resolve, and resolve means not just taking on corrupt politicians but also corrupt generals and the entire incentives structure that has made the Army so top-heavy. Can the Army do that? Zardari thinks it can’t. His threat relies on the institutional incentive structure that is both the Army’s strength and its terrible weakness. The coming days will be interesting for sure.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He tweets @ejazhaider