After two massive rallies in Gujranwala and Karachi, the 11-party opposition, Pakistan Democratic Movement, has opened the doors for re-evaluation of civil-military relations in the country. Dismissing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civilian government as a puppet, speakers at the rallies referred to Imran Khan as ‘selected’, while openly attacking senior generals as the ‘selectors.’
The military’s entrenched role in all the affairs has been a fact of Pakistan’s political life for years. But the military establishment has never been criticised so directly and openly as it is being now by opposition politicians, particularly former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It took 22 years for the Supreme Court to recognise that the 1990 election had indeed been subject to military interference — then-army chief General Aslam Beg was hand-in-gloves in manipulating the polls where some politicians were funded through an “Election Cell” to thwart Benazir Bhutto’s chances.
Ironically, Beg’s decision to support the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) had resulted in bringing Nawaz Sharif to the office of Prime Minister for the first time.
The nexus is well understood now
In the years since that military-assisted rise in 1990, Nawaz Sharif has come into his own. He has developed a mass following and is now recognised as a democratic voice for civilian supremacy.
Having been elected thrice, and removed from office thrice, Nawaz Sharif has seen and understood how Pakistan’s military influences politics.
Sharif was overthrown in a military coup once (in 1999), but on the other two occasions, he was removed from office through ostensibly invisible machinations within constitutional processes. Instead of playing along with the pretence that the responsibility for his ouster lay with a civilian president in 1993 or a Supreme Court panel in 2017, Sharif is now giving a blow by blow account of differences with the generals that led to his ouster.
In 1993, Sharif was forced to resign, along with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, after the Supreme Court overturned Ishaq Khan’s decision to dismiss Sharif’s government. Then army chief, General Abdul Waheed Kakar, was involved in forcing the resignations.
Another component of the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has also been at the receiving end of the establishment’s disapproval. Its leaders have been elected to office four times and removed from power in a military coup once (1977), dismissed by presidential fiat twice (1990 and 1996), and effectively neutered by the judiciary in 2012.
The PDM’s other partners include various nationalist parties, representing the Pashtun and the Baloch, all of whom have been described as ‘anti-national’ at one time or another for their refusal to accept a conformist vision for Pakistan.
In 2018, the army leadership thought that it was bringing to an end its clashes with civilian politicians trying to assert independence once and for all. They supported cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who had been in politics since 1997, without much success.
Knowing his desperation to become prime minister, and the fragility of Imran Khan’s political base, it was assumed that if Sharif was pushed out of politics and the PPP was confined to the Bhutto-Zardari families’ home base of Sindh, the army would no longer have to worry about civilian leaders pursuing policies different to the ones preferred by General Headquarters (GHQ).
A tight spot
The opposition’s current resurgence is a reminder that politics is not amenable to staff solutions worked out by military officers. If the current opposition campaign maintains its momentum, the military leadership might have to withdraw support from Imran Khan, which might turn him into the establishment’s critic.
But sacrificing Imran Khan might be the easy way out, because the opposition’s attacks are making the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and his intelligence head controversial. While politicians are used to controversy, army generals are not.
Pakistan’s military leaders, like military leaders everywhere, do not like to be mired in controversy. Moreover, it is important for military commanders to be seen as fighting for the whole nation, not just for one political faction or party within it.
The initial response of the Pakistani military, as well as the civilian government installed by it, to the opposition campaign has been to reject the opposition’s effort to make the army leadership controversial. But there is a limit to the extent that the military can play an extensive political role, and still keep it hidden from the people.
Civilian-military rule not in sync
Pakistan has come a long way from the early 1960s when, under Ayub Khan, no one outside the army even knew the name of the head of the military intelligence service because the military’s internal appointments were not advertised in the mass media. Even under Zia-ul Haq, military men stayed out of the limelight and the military’s political business was conducted through discreet civilian intermediaries.
Now, the military’s relatively incompetent civilian partners themselves expose their backers just to establish their bonafides. Direct calls and text messages by military intelligence operatives to politicians and journalists often leave little room for deniability about an ostensibly apolitical institution playing a political role.
Part of the blame for the military’s ability to influence politics lies with politicians and journalists willing to do its bidding. As the road to power goes through GHQ, it is natural for ambitious individuals to seek the help of generals and intelligence officers to advance their careers.
When they decided to put their weight so openly behind Imran Khan and his party, the army bosses thought they were creating a civilian government that was on the same page as themselves. In the process, the generals took the risk of alienating the army from anyone who was opposed to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the one party that the generals backed.
Now, when the opposition is calling out that alliance between the army leadership and an incompetent civilian government, it won’t be enough to merely deny that nexus.
Nawaz Sharif’s attacks and the opposition’s campaign force Pakistan’s military leaders to review their current stance on politics mainly because the army, as an institution, might not like controversy over its support for Imran Khan in the 2018 election to drag on for so long. In the past, a political reset occurs whenever people in Pakistan’s streets turn negative towards the generals’ political role. What shape that reset might take this time is not yet predictable.
The author is the director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military’, ‘India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan’. Views are personal.