As the crisp autumn sun in London peered through my window, it made me nostalgic for home in Pakistan. Could I and many others like me, for whom home has been made inaccessible by a powerful military leadership ever more eager to punish dissenting voices, hope to return, now that the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has spoken up? Can Sharif change the political value system so that people don’t have to abandon home to save their lives?
Addressing virtually, at the All-Parties Conference held on 21 September, Nawaz Sharif, himself in exile in London, spoke bravely about the military and its agencies as the “State above the State”. Is he ready to push back a military that is well-entrenched in power politics, today? Sharif’s words voiced the concern of many thinking Pakistanis, or even the average man on the street who is not blinded to the fact that the present Imran Khan government represents civilian rule at its hollowest— the government denotes a hybrid martial law rather than a democracy. But the more important question is that can Nawaz Sharif succeed in his journey? And should this be considered a moment that carries the potential of delivering Pakistan from the clutches of the Army General Headquarters?
Sharif making a comeback
But, what’s for sure is that the months to come will become messier. With his speech, Sharif, who had kept silent for almost a year, has become relevant to Pakistan’s politics yet again. Obviously, Imran Khan and his cabal will try to push back. All the possible tricks from the bag – the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Investigation Agency, and media gag – will be used to fight back. Not that the political indecency that we may see will be new to Pakistan’s politics.
The two primary political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), had a bitter relationship that began to smoothen only after Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto signed the Charter of Democracy in 2007. The charter couldn’t really take off after Bhutto’s assassination – neither leadership was generous towards the other during the decade of 2010. The military, in fact, succeeded in playing one against the other and manipulating their respective leadership’s greed for power to its advantage. While both parties completed their tenures – the PPP from 2008-2013 and PML-N from 2013-2018 — the prime ministers could not complete their terms.
This also makes Sharif the most conscious and experienced in shenanigans and manipulation of Army General Headquarters, or the GHQ. Of all the political players, he seems to be the one with greatest clarity about how the military is deadly for the country’s democracy. He is also conscious of the fact that the GHQ looks a bit more desperate than it was, perhaps, six months ago. Some of the observers of Pakistan’s politics were conscious that some channels were initially able to air most of Nawaz Sharif’s speech, thus, the conclusion that someone in the military’s corridors didn’t want to impose utter silence. Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political groupies later pushed back by stopping any debate on Sharif’s speech in the media and painting it as part of some ‘Indian’ conspiracy. The Army chief, General Qamar Bajwa and his ISI chief Lt. General Faiz Hameed, fired a warning shot against thosedragging the Army into politics as the Army “did not have a role in politics”. Interestingly, Parliament elected in 1988 was told that the Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, did not have a political wing when it had one all along.
Where the Army’s civilian planning failed
While it’s still early to conclude that the military leadership has reached a consensus regarding Imran Khan’s future, the two facts that must be reckoned with are that the Bajwa-Hameed duo have managed to drag the military even deeper into politics, and that their hybrid government formula (military ruling the State with a civilian façade) has not worked because of inherent incapacity of both the military and civilian leadership.
Imran Khan was brought forward and selected to run the government primarily to deal with civilian (only) corruption and get resources from abroad. His cancer hospital project had given the hope that he could build institutions and attract funding, especially from Pakistani diaspora abroad. Not only has Khan failed to bring in money— his own supporters abroad are not sending huge amounts to Pakistan any more— butwithin two years, external sources, in the form of China and Saudi Arabia, alsoseem to have dried up.
Of course, Khan alone is not to be blamed for the foreign policy faux pas. The Army GHQ is equally responsible for miscalculating Beijing’s patience while Islamabad practically brought the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to a halt so that the military could negotiate its share and take control of the project. Its attempt to carve an alternative alignment with Turkey at its center, in the process exacerbating bitterness with the long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. At this juncture, even playing a central role in negotiating the American peace deal with the Taliban is not likely to deliver more dividends because Washington, now, has its own communication channels with the militants and is likely to be less dependent on Islamabad.
The other important issue pertains to rumors of discomfort within the Army over Bajwa and Faiz’s maneuvering and management of the Service in a manner that makes some within the officer cadre weary and nervous. If anything, the two Generals seem to have pushed the Army in the direction of an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the society. The Pakistan military, which enjoys a different relationship with the society as compared to militaries in Latin and South America during the 1970s and the 1980s, is gradually moving in a direction from where its oppression has become more visible. From gagging of the media and manipulation of the judiciary to disappearance of people – increasing fear in the name of fighting a 5th generation warfare is likely to increase the military’s vulnerability.
For Nawaz, old tactics won’t work
But the million-dollar question is: will the combined opposition or Nawaz Sharif on his own be able to fight those in power? At the minimum, it means pushing the envelope to the degree where the military realises it must abandon Imran Khan and his government. If Sharif plays a game of lesser stakes, he will only be able to remove Khan, perhaps get into power, but then accommodate a lot of what military wants. This would be like yesteryear. The maximum, of course, is changing the course of the country’s politics and ensuring a more stable transition to democracy.
Though Sharif’s speech was forceful and confrontational, it was typical as well. While criticising the current Army leadership and holding it responsible for the political mess, Nawaz Sharif was careful in conveying that he cared about Kashmir and national security. He also talked about corruption— not in his own party but that in the Imran Khan government, which in itself is a reminder of the 1990s when both PPP and the PML-N played the corruption card against each other. For a more substantive shift to democracy, the old tactics will not do.
As the Opposition parties gear up their respective support to agitate against Imran Khan with a plan for a final big get together in January 2021, Sharif will have to deal with the reality of managing his own party from abroad. As he prepares his determined daughter, Maryam, for the role of fighting the political battle on his behalf, he will also have to deal with the fact that the majority of his own party members, who would be involved in the fight, are happy to compromise.
Both, the PPP and PML-N leadership, will have to rise above the constant ‘behind-the-back’ compromise with the military as was demonstrated by passing of the anti-money laundering Bills that have a direct bearing on Pakistan and its position on the FATF list. It seems that the Army and ISI chiefs got together with leaders from both parties to insist upon supporting the Bills. It was afterwards that about 11 members from the PML-N and eight from the PPP absented from voting, which is considered highly controversial and antithetical to civil liberties. You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
The two major political parties in Pakistan are showing the same kind of weariness as dynastic parties in the rest of South Asia. Nawaz Sharif and even Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, have miles to run to recreate their parties and develop the depth which could eventually push back the military into proverbial barracks for good. The PPP and the PML-N have been around long enough to learn that absence of structure to fight back and constant accommodation of the military in power politics may ensure transition but not bring transformation to democracy. The parties will have to negotiate with the military but a substantive conversation will mean not using the old methods and military clients in their parties. Until then, the speech was a good first one but still a long way from the real change that can bring shine to the eyes of those waiting to return home.
Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. She tweets: @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.