Nawaz Sharif
File photo of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif | Photo: Krisztian Bocsi | Bloomberg
Text Size:

It looks like it’s time to take a bag of popcorn and watch this game because Pakistan’s politics just became thrilling again. The political opposition, which up until a year ago was made to look redundant, is back in action and ready to take not just Prime Minister Imran Khan but also Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, ISI chief Faiz Hameed and their cabal on a roller coaster ride. The message that the newly formed coalition, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, has conveyed to Rawalpindi is to immediately jettison the Khan government and pave way for holding free and fair elections that could generate results possibly different from what one saw in 2018.

It would be foolhardy to give a date or time for the change of government in Islamabad, but the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif, is playing aggressively to increase the cost of running a hybrid political system for the army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chiefs. For a political army, lack of legitimacy is an institutional anathema. When politicians show it the red rug, such an army either charges to vanquish, or the matador wins, thus, creating greater space for civilian life. A lot will depend on how much and how long can General Bajwa keep his officer corps aligned behind him.

Also read: Pakistan Army can’t risk controversy with Nawaz Sharif, sacrificing Imran Khan easier

Nawaz Sharif back in the game

The direct naming and shaming of top generals and that too by Nawaz Sharif, a mainstream leader from Punjab, is a first in Pakistan’s political history that has experienced direct military rule for 17 years and indirect influence using various means for the rest of the 56 years. Until early this year, the military’s supporters would privately say that Imran Khan was there to stay because the army had brought him for at least 10 years. In fact, given the media gag, restrictions on freedom of speech, harassment of political activists and much more, the plan looked doable.

In many ways, Khan brought the relative strengthening of the political opposition on himself – poor management of the government and economy began to drill a hole in the prime minister’s popularity. In the name of eliminating corruption, which he is unable to do, Khan also managed to aggravate the civil bureaucracy that is fearful of being hounded by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s primary anti-corruption body, resulting in inertia in the civil service. Since coming to power, the prime minister has also shown little interest in anything other than targeting Nawaz Sharif.

However, as Nawaz Sharif has indicated, his duel is not with Prime Minister Khan, but the generals popularly referred to as Khan’s ‘selectors’.

In the 1990s, there was hardly anyone in the outside world or not from the PML-N circuit, who thought of Sharif beyond his inclination for Lahori gastronomy. I remember conversations with some of the Pakistan hands in Washington during the 2000s. They never took Sharif seriously and were guided by the popular narrative about him. But he has learnt from his years in politics, and definitely how to get back in the game. Nawaz Sharif is certainly no Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who died fighting a military dictatorship. But Sharif is a Punjabi, who has, over the years, managed to build a sizeable clientele and followership among the civil and military bureaucracies and the capitalist class in the largest province. He is also a survivor in politics, who has shown the capacity to push back yet again.

His two recent speeches – Gujranwala and Quetta – indicate his resilience to return to the ring. Any retaliation will gain the PML-N more space as was demonstrated by the hybrid regime’s retaliation to Sharif’s Gujranwala speech. The ISI tried to crack its whip and forcibly arrest Sharif’s son-in-law, Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar from his hotel room in Karachi in the wee hours of the morning. The fact that Safdar was in the room with his wife Maryam Nawaz was meant to send a crude message to the PML-N leadership. An intelligence agency used to picking up ordinary people with impunity from around the country and making them disappear didn’t realise the cost of its action in this case.

The fact that it was done in such a shoddy manner – kidnapping the Inspector-General of the local police and forcing him to sign the police report that could enable the ISI men who led the team to make the arrest — resulted in a push back from both the Sindh government and the Sindh police. While the story was wrongly and maliciously reported by segments of the Indian media as a civil war, demonstrating how little is known about Pakistan, the incident was a significant case of inter-institutional rift that came at the back of increased consciousness in the country that Khan has weakened the army chief. Tired of constant intervention by the paramilitary and army, the police pushed back leaving a mark on the military’s morale. The incident was an embarrassment for General Bajwa who had to call Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and assure an inquiry into the matter.

It was as big a faux pas as the paid sit-in by Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) in Faizabad, Islamabad in 2017 against the PML-N government. The Karachi incident exposed yet again the ISI chief’s ineptitude in handling domestic political affairs. If the army was banking on breaking the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) away from the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), its action in Karachi did the opposite.

Also read: Pakistan’s opposition is publicly naming all-powerful army as root of all evil. But what now?

A new social contract

Nawaz Sharif’s Quetta speech demonstrated a skilful hand – the PML-N leader tried to not only put a distance between Imran Khan and his military backers but also between General Bajwa and his few merry men and the army as an institution.

“It is our army we should love them and show them respect as long as they follow the constitutional remit,” was Sharif’s message. He tried to tell the rest of the generals that the PML-N and the army could start afresh only if the generals got rid of the Bajwa-Faiz duo and their team. It is certainly unprecedented that a politician so openly incited the institution to rebel against its top command, which has increasingly brought disrepute to the army through its closeness to an inefficient political government. Interestingly, the ploy of labelling Sharif as a traitor may not work. The ordinary Pakistani is too tired of Khan’s mismanagement and has begun to point a finger at the generals who brought him to power.

However, journalist Imad Zafar says that Sharif aimed at more. Sharif and the PDM want rewriting of the social contract and ensure that future generals and officer cadre understand that a coup or a hybrid-coup is illegal.

Following the tone of the Nuremberg trials, Sharif’s message was that there will also be accountability for those who helped dictator Pervez Musharraf carry out the 1999 coup by illegally climbing the walls of the prime minister house. A strategic reset of civil-military relations will be essential after the tactical victory of removing Khan is achieved. As simple as it may sound, it will not be entirely easy for the GHQ to jettison Khan. The prime minister has a lot hidden in his closet that could be exposed and he may also go down fighting, which will prove equally costly for the army chief. A lot will depend on the increasing of a chasm inside the GHQ. Nonetheless, an even more important issue is the lack of capacity of the opposition parties to manage a strategic transformation.

First, political parties will have to set a code of conduct for themselves as Sharif had once done with Benazir Bhutto.

Second, political parties, individually and together, will have to devise institutional structures to ensure the military’s cooperation and obedience without running the risk of threatening generals. Perhaps, someone wearing a thinking hat in the parties ought to read Alfred Stepan’s discourse on how they did it in Brazil and the southern cone. Traditionally, civilian regimes have depended upon trusted interlocutors to talk to the military without really understanding how the institution works. Over the years, the political parties and parliament have lost the capability to control the military. There was never any effort to invest in institutional structures that would empower parliament vis-à-vis the GHQ. Work would have to begin on that score even before a change in government is made possible. A politically ambitious and technologically advanced military bureaucracy cannot be fought back without developing a core expertise that would make a cogent civil-military dialogue and a pushback possible.

Also read: ‘Go Niazi go’ to ‘Go Nawaz go’ – Pakistan protests are like a rock concert with songs, DJs

Making the effort worth it

A social contract, however, has to be bigger than civil-military relations. The political parties will have to be willing to re-arrange overall socio-political and socioeconomic relations beyond winning elections. It was extremely heartening to see Maryam Nawaz Sharif talk about enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Notwithstanding that the subject is irksome to the ISI, it is also part of the larger problem of absence of a political solution in Balochistan. While such brutality must stop, the PML-N will have to demonstrate its ability to right its own wrong of skewed distribution of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) resources to smaller provinces. Sharif’s government had given preference to the eastern route going through Punjab and Sindh as opposed to the western route from Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

A healing touch will also have to be extended to the country’s religious and ethnic minorities that are under tremendous pressure but were not spoken about. Interestingly, no one at Quetta jalsa, including Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami party’s Mehmood Achakzai, spoke about Shia Hazaras, one of the issues in Balochistan. Although secularism in Pakistan is not on the cards for any political party, improving relations among religious communities is a necessary part of the social reset, which is also one of its big challenges. It’s an issue that is potentially divisive and could be used in future to weaken any political government.

It’s a fact that the political opposition has created an essential milestone for itself and the state. But it will be equally significant to see what path they are capable of treading. Limiting the effort to a change in leadership is not worth the effort. Right now, it’s Bajwa and Faiz who look weak, not the Pakistan army. If a strategic reset is not managed, the generals will return.

Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

9 Comments Share Your Views


  1. It is futile to think Pakistani politics without Army. Ever since it creation, Pakistan has been filed by Generals, sometimes directly, at others by proxy, with the blessings of Americans and now China.

  2. this person has been the foster child of army and was brought up by them , why are you advocating as if he is newborn messiah for Pakistan!??? His narrative is as selfish as it gets.
    We should struggle against army but not him as torchbearer!!!

  3. Ayesha sidiqa is the greatest expert on pakistan’s problem of institutional imbalance. This article succinctly describes everything there’s to know about it. It should be read, twice.

  4. A one-sided article which has no reasonable or understandable logic except corrupt, convicted and disgraceful absconder is a changed man now. Whereas he is not. His foul utterance is a futile attempt to exert pressure on the Army and get some favours to save their looted public money and get a space for his fraudulent daughter Ms. Calibiry Font in national politics. The author knows this distinctly. But Sharif family has enough money to dole among such paid journalists or writers. It is very easy for this BAGOHRA thug to use foul language against Army generals sitting in the comfort zone of London. I bet if ever he returned he would face the wrath of the masses. He would get more shoes on his ugly face.

  5. it’s funny that every pakistani whosoever she or he may be, they have to make a snide comment against india. here the author says indian press wrongly and maliciously reported the incident as a civil war. even while they create a tamasha for the whole world to see, they still want to take cheap shots at india. i wish to make two points.

    first of all, in india it’s totally unheard of that the army could kidnap the police. we should have called it bizarre or madness. we have just civilly said it is a civil war.
    moreover everything about india is misrepresented in pakistan. Just look at their school curriculum and see how much venom is written against india and hindhus. compare that with our curriculum.
    it’s high time most of the pakistanis start looking at the mirror.

  6. The writer has an old and public hate affair with Pakistan’s military.
    AGREE: Pakistan’s military needs to come under civilian leadership, and their budget should be audited.
    DISAGREE: that you left out the part about Nawaz Sharif and PPP being super corrupt. Nawaz Sharif was a darling of this same military, so him crying fowl now is not a principled stand, it just makes him a sore loser.

    Despite a lot of administrative blunders by Imran Khan, he’s the most popular leader in Pakistan. If he can just get inflation under control, I think he will easily win a 2nd term.

  7. TS Darbari -Though there is a huge hue and cry about the wave of revolution for free and fair elections in the Army-occupied Pakistan but the same is not possible. There are several reasons behind this statement. The foremost reason is that Pakistan army won’t let happen so. If a government completely supported by the citizens of Pakistan comes in power and if such a government tries to amend the constitution of Pakistan to control the army that would be suicidal for Pakistan army. Therefore, they don’t let happens so. Secondly, even if somehow fair elections took place in Pakistan and a government is formed through democratic means, it won’t bring huge transformation because of the rule of army and fundamentalists of Pakistan which are reckoning forces in the country. Thirdly, they need to change their approach towards the world and Pakistan highly needs to educate and modernize its system. Terrorism has made the country hollow and therefore uprooting the terrorism and bringing the army and ISI under control through the constitution are highly recommended for the betterment of Pakistan and its citizens. Pakistan also needs to think about extending cooperation to its neighbours and being more supportive. Huge introspection is required on their part. #TS_Darbari #Ts_Darbari_Blog #TS_Darbari_News #Ts_Darbari_Views #Ts_Darbari_Blogger #TS_Darbari_Comments #Ts_Darbari_Opinion #About_TS_Darbari #TS_Darbari_Articles #Politics #Views #Comments Mr. TS Darbari is a top management professional, with several years of rich & diversified experience in Corporate Strategy, New Business Development, Sales & Marketing, Commercial Operations, Project Management, Financial Management and Strategic Alliances

  8. In Pakistan, everyone has been conditioned to pussyfoot around the Military, including this writer. Perhaps, Pakistan is the only country where the Army needs budget from the Parliament, but the Parliament which controls the purse strings cannot control the Military. It would seem funny, had it not been a tragedy. Nothing short of bringing the Military under civilian control will work. The tail should stop wagging the dog.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here