Friday, August 22, 2014

Creeping Coup Redux: Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan

Sushant Sareen, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

A few months before the 1999 military coup, a monthly newsmagazine in Pakistan carried a cover story titled ‘Creeping Coup’. In his second stint as Prime Minister from 1996-99, Nawaz Sharif had started involving the military in all sorts of things that ideally should have been handled by the civilian government. From checking electricity meters to unearthing ghost schools to cleaning canals, the army was being deployed in the role of a sort of National Guard. The then Army Chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf was always ready to oblige, quite willingly it appeared. Nawaz Sharif, at that point in time, was unassailable. He had a 2/3rd majority in the National Assembly, the opposition was in disarray, the nuclear tests had beefed up his position even move (even though in the aftermath of these tests, the economy had virtually collapsed), he had sacked a Navy chief and followed it up by forcing out an army chief, the ISI Chief was his man. In short, everything seemed to be going in Nawaz Sharif’s favor.
Then Kargil happened, and things started sliding very fast. So much so that even a statement from the US warning against any extra constitutional move against the elected government didn’t help. Nor for that matter did Nawaz Sharif’s efforts of going out of the way to placate Musharraf. When it came, all it took was what a former Prime Minister Ch. Shujaat Hussain calls ‘one jeep and two trucks’ to overthrow the civilian government. Therefore, the thumb rule number one about civil-military relations in Pakistan is to never imagine that the democratic process is irreversible.

A decade and a half after he was ousted in a military coup, Nawaz Sharif is once again occupying the Prime Minister’s chair. A lot of water has flowed down the Indus during this time and a lot of things appear to have changed. But as recent events have demonstrated, what hasn’t changed is the reality of the military establishment’s ability to destabilize a civilian government and box it into a corner. What also hasn’t changed is the tendency of the civil politicians, whether in government or out of it, to fall back on the military and seek its support to fix their opponents. What is more, with most state institutions steadily becoming dysfunctional, the military has become the default option when things need to be set right. If in 1999 the military was cleaning canals, unearthing ghost schools, reading electricity meters, in 2014 they have gone a step further and have been handed over the security of airports, railway stations, and other vital installations. Worse, not just is the army virtually in control of two major cities – Karachi and now Islamabad – it is practically calling the shots in two provinces – Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The democratic transition from one civilian government to another had led many to imagine that democracy had finally stuck firm roots in Pakistan. Much of the credit for that ‘historic’ transition is due to former President Asif Zardari’s remarkable skill at political gymnastics which ensured that his party’s government completed its term. But he was also aided by individuals and circumstances, without which he might have fallen well short of breasting the tape.

The first thing that helped Zardari was that the PPP was replacing a quasi-military regime and for the military to directly intervene in political affairs soon after restoration of democracy was neither politically feasible nor possible. This is a second thumb rule of Pakistani politics – it is a two party system with the civilians being one party and the military the second party; each side gets a 10 year ‘term’, give or take a couple of years. Viewed from this perspective, the current problems facing the Nawaz Sharif government could be explained as ‘mid-term blues’ of the civilian dispensation. Be that as it may, Asif Zardari got the benefit of this thumb rule. What also worked in his favor was that the main opposition leader was Nawaz Sharif who never really allowed political differences and competition reach the point of no return. Nawaz Sharif’s attitude was partly colored by his experience of the sordid politics of the 1990s when political parties conspired with the military against the government, something that allowed the Army to become the dominant political player in Pakistan. Equally important was the fact that Nawaz Sharif was not left out in the cold after the transition from quasi-military to civilian rule.

By virtue of his party coming into power in the province of Punjab, Nawaz Sharif had a stake in the system which also meant that he could afford to be patient and let the government complete its term. Apart from the role played by Nawaz Sharif in ensuring the survival of the Zardari-led PPP government, there was also a judiciary running amok under the former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and a media which fancied itself as a guardian of democracy. Add to all this the international situation that wasn’t conducive to any direct military takeover, and it’s not difficult to figure out how and why Zardari managed to drag his party’s government across the finish line in spite of a terrible record of governance.

Nawaz Sharif started his 3rd term with some advantages that Asif Zardari never enjoyed. Based on the strength that these advantages gave the Nawaz Sharif dispensation, many observers and analysts were convinced that democracy would only get strengthened. Nawaz Sharif had a comfortable majority in the centre and controlled two provinces –Punjab and Balochistan. The judiciary and media were not hostile to him. In fact, the judiciary was beholden to him because of the role he played in the restoration of judges. The PMLN’s legendary media management skills meant that he would not face the hostility that Asif Zardari had faced from a right-wing, illiberal and intellectually challenged media. Most of all, the army appeared to be a bit on the back foot. They were wary of Nawaz Sharif and weren’t quite sure whether he will adopt a vindictive and vengeful policy towards the military. There were fears in the army that Nawaz Sharif might actually take the rhetoric of civilian superiority seriously and try to implement it. This wasn’t a problem that the army faced with Asif Zardari or his nominated Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, who were more than willing to even grovel before the military to keep it in good humor. So much so, at one point Gilani is reported to have said that he had told the then army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani that he was at the service of the military.

While the army didn’t expect this level of obsequiousness from Nawaz Sharif, it also didn’t think it would be very smooth sailing with the new Prime Minister because of his reputation for never forgiving and his legendary aversion to being pushed around or being dictated to. Therefore, some amount of civil-military tension was inherent, more so because Nawaz Sharif was expected to not just push the envelope but also push back in order assert himself and show who is the boss and who will call the shots.

In the case of the PPP government, the civil-military tussle and tension came fairly early. Within weeks of the ouster of Musharraf from the Presidency, an attempt was made to bring the ISI under the control of the interior ministry. The army let the government know in no uncertain terms where it got off. After this first chastening, the PPP consistently yielded to the wishes and whims of the military. In Nawaz Sharif’s case, it took around six months for the latent tensions to surface. Until October 2013 when Gen Kayani was in office, and given how well-set and well-established he was, Nawaz Sharif bided his time. Another restraining factor on Nawaz Sharif during his first six months in office was the presence of the former chief justice, who retired only in December. It was after the exit of both these people that the transition was complete and Nawaz Sharif was in a position to be pretty much his own boss, or so be thought because almost immediately the problems started.

There were broadly four issues that became the bone of contention. The first was Musharraf and the treason case against him. The second was the government policy on TTP or the Islamist insurgency terrorism. The third was India and the fourth was the media war which broke out after the botched assassination attempt on the Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. All these issues prompted the political hyenas to jump into the fray, either because they thought they could exploit the growing gulf between the civilian government and military, or as many believe, they were put up to this in order to box the government into a corner.

The manner in which these issues became a wedge between the government and the military give rise to two or three more thumb rules of Pakistani politics. Thumb rule number three is what can be called the paradox of power. Briefly, this means that in Pakistan the more powerful and unassailable you appear to be, the weaker and more vulnerable you are because the anti- forces then have a compelling reason to bring you down regardless of the consequences. A corollary to this thumb rule is the ‘devil may cause attitude’ of Pakistan and Pakistanis wherein the culture of ‘bringing down the wall of the neighbor or enemy even if you come under it’ has been internalized. This corollary has implications for India because when Indians parrot the nonsense about ‘neighbors can’t be changed’ and ‘geography cannot be changed’, the perversity that guides Pakistani thinking is often ignored. In other words, the Pakistanis would go to any length to bring India’s wall down even if they perish in the process.

The fourth thumb rule is that civil-military relations are based on system of diarchy in which the civilians are allowed a free hand in taking charge of municipal functions, while all the serious strategic, defence and foreign policy matters are controlled by the military. The fifth thumb rule is that once you appoint an army chief you lose control over him. It is a unique country in which an elected Prime Minister appoints his own nemesis. At the very least, it is a unique system in which the appointing authority loses control of the appointee as soon as the appointment is made.

These thumb rules need to be kept in mind to understand why the predicament in which the Nawaz Sharif government finds itself in and despite enjoying a more than comfortable majority in the National Assembly, rumors of its pre-mature demise are starting to do the rounds.

The Musharraf case clearly caused lot of bad blood between the military and the civilian government. It is not that the army is in love with Musharraf but more that it’s an institutional response to a former chief being humiliated and being put on trial. An even bigger issue is that of senior military officials being held accountable by the ‘bloody civilians’. For Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf is both a personal and political issue. At a personal level, Nawaz Sharif and many members of his kitchen cabinet have suffered terrible indignities at the hands of Musharraf and would like to settle scores. Politically, while the hardliners realize that the Musharraf issue can backfire on them, they also don’t want to open themselves to the chance of having resiled from the tough talk they did on Musharraf both while in opposition and after coming into power. The pro-treason trial lobby in the ruling dispensation fears that they will have to pay a heavy political cost if they let Musharraf go scot free. Plus there is the entire argument that if Musharraf is left off the hook, then it will only serve as an encouragement to the next man on the horseback to usurp power. While these people are aware of the heartburn in the military, some of them argue that if they have to run the country they must have a free hand else what’s the point of being in government but without the power to do things they want to do.

To be sure, there is a split within the ruling party on the Musharraf issue with one faction advocating the hard line and another faction led by Shahbaz Sharif and the Interior Minister Ch. Nisar Ali Khan advocating caution and accommodation. What really spoiled matters was when an alleged understanding that Musharraf would be allowed to leave the country after a court allowed him to do so, was scotched by the hard line faction at the last minute. Many formal and informal advisors are now advising the Prime Minister that he should live to fight another day and not fritter away his government on as irrelevant a figure as Musharraf, more so when even the army would like to see his back. For now there is a stalemate on this issue. But increasingly it seems the army will eventually get its way.
The second issue was on how to handle the TTP and other Islamist groups. The army’s strategic calculation demanded that action be taken against the ‘bad’ Taliban and control be established over the ‘no-go’ areas like North Waziristan. The civilian government had its reasons for not being very enthusiastic about giving the army a go ahead to launch a military operation in this area. One reason was of course personal security of the members of the ruling family and party. But another reason was that an operation would mean giving a free hand to the army which would increase its political space, something the government wanted to avoid. There was also the whole issue of blowback or retaliation which would not only affect the political popularity of the government and alienate its conservative right wing vote bank but also ruin the economic and investment climate. But as things have turned out, the military finally got its way when it launched the operation. In a clear signal that it was the military and not the government that called the shots on the operation in North Waziristan, the announcement of the operation was made first by the military spokesman and the Prime Minister’s statement followed.
The third issue bedeviling relations between the civilian government and the Army was India. Nawaz Sharif was very keen and eager to do business with India. A trade deal heavily loaded in favor of the Pakistan was agreed by India in February 2014. But at the last moment the military put pressure and scuttled it. The army clearly is not ready to let the civilians take charge of the India policy and it increasingly appears that the government has given in to the army on this issue. What this means for India is that it should take anything that the civilian government in Pakistan says with a healthy dose of skepticism. In any case, India’s policy on Pakistan should not be predicated on what the Pakistanis say but on what they do and by all accounts what they are doing on ground doesn’t really inspire any confidence that there is any major shift in policy towards India.

The fourth issue which spoiled relations between the government and the military was the media war that broke out after the assassination attempt on the Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir. After Mir’s TV channel accused the ISI chief of being behind the attempt on his life, a virtual storm was unleashed against the Jang/Geo group. Much of this was orchestrated by the ISI which mobilized other news channels against Geo and used all sorts of strong arm tactics to shut Geo down. This was a moment of truth for the Pakistan media and it exposed the lie of independence of media. The ISI-Geo tussle was in part a commercial fight. For some months now, there were reports that ISI was in the process of starting a news channel of its own. Seed money for this was allegedly being partly contributed by the international terrorist and criminal Dawood Ibrahim. Also allegedly involved was a dubious business group in Dubai which is infamous for gold smuggling and also runs a TV channel in Pakistan.

The big obstacle in the path of these plans was Geo, which not only dominated the news networks and print media but also poked the ISI in the eye by exposing its media plans. As long as Geo’s domination continued, the ISI’s news channel would remain a bit player. Shutting Geo down or blocking its transmission was therefore imperative if space had to be created for another channel in an already crowded media space. The other channels became wiling partners in this misadventure, behaving like typical hyenas to bring down an adversary against whom they couldn’t compete otherwise. A prominent role in this was played by ARY channel which for months had been conducting a campaign of slander and vilification against Geo and its owners. The civilian government was caught in the middle of this media war and tried to walk the tight rope, or if you will the knife’s edge. They couldn’t ignore the army but also could not allow it to ride rough shod over Geo because if today it was Geo, tomorrow it would be someone else, perhaps even the government itself.

The Geo episode exposed the armpit of Pakistan politics and media. It became clear who stood where and how independent or subservient the media was. It also exposed the helplessness of the judiciary vis-à-vis the army, and irrelevance of civil society. The limitations of the civilian government in reining in the military became apparent. But ironically, the episode also revealed the weakness of the Army which despite all its efforts could only go so far and no further in targeting Geo. The point is that while the Army remains the most powerful political force in Pakistan, it no longer enjoys the kind of domination that it did some years back. Over the years, it has been challenged politically and militarily and its monopoly over the national narrative has also been dented.

While the Army’s ability to destabilize the government remains quite intact as does its power to overthrow the government, it probably no longer enjoys the power to run the country as it did in the past, not that it ran the country well when it got the chance. In fact, most of the problems confronting Pakistan today can be traced back to the military regimes or the military’s control over national security and foreign policy. What, however, gives the military an advantage over the civilians is the bugling and inefficient and uninspiring performance of the civilian governments – not just in the political realm but also in the economic and administrative domain. The failure of civilians to give even a modicum of good governance and solve the problems of the people has created space for the military.

Today, the political situation is once again in a bit of flux. Just one year after winning a third term as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif’s government is finding itself under siege. Partly the situation is of the government’s own making and its bumbling and bungling ways. Apart from the fact that the government has failed to give even a little relief from the crippling energy shortages despite doubling the electricity tariffs, it is the almost amateurish political management which has created the spectre of instability despite the government having an almost 2/3rd majority in the National Assembly. For now a challenge is being mounted in the street by Imran Khan and a somewhat clownish cleric from Canada, Tahirul Qadri who is promising an instant revolution like it is some kind of instant coffee. Imran Khan, whose intellectual capacity and political thinking, is limited to drawing silly cricketing analogies wants the system to stay but at the same time is threatening to overthrow it by using street power and set the date of Aug 14 for forcing the government out of office. On the other hand, Tahirul Qadri, who was given a huge issue after the Punjab government fired on his supporters in Lahore and killed around a dozen people and injured around a 100, is making no bones about wanting to scrap the whole system.

Normally, a demonstration or even a massive anti-government protest shouldn’t be much cause for worry for a legitimate government, even less so when the demands being made by the protestors are illogical, extra-legal and even extra-constitutional. But Nawaz Sharif’s style of politics has come back to haunt him. Apart from the fact that many in the ruling party think that the agitation on streets is being orchestrated by the army to bring the government under pressure, perhaps even oust it, it is the steady isolation of Nawaz Sharif and his immediate circle from rest of the political mainstream and even his own party that is creating the impression of a government that is flailing rather helplessly. Not only has Nawaz Sharif ignored the very institution from which he derives his strength and legitimacy i.e. Parliament, he has also alienated members of his party by appointing cronies and family members to all plum positions in government. Even the decisions being taken are by a tiny group comprising the kitchen cabinet. The neglect of elected legislators has meant that they really don’t have any stake in the system. Worse, Nawaz Sharif has also ignored the main opposition party, PPP, which has suddenly woken up to the uncomfortable fact that by maintaining a posture of friendly opposition it is getting marginalized in the larger political game. The space that PPP has ceded has been filled by Imran Khan’s party, especially in the Punjab. Not surprisingly, PPP leaders from Punjab are restive and itching to take on the government. In order to keep the flock together, the PPP has now started making noises which have only added to the discomfiture of the ruling dispensation.

The nightmare for the government now is that if there are large scale street disturbances which go out of control, it could lead to a military intervention even if the military doesn’t want to intervene. The Army finds itself caught on many fronts and taking over the government will only stretch it further. Apart from confronting all the economic, political and other problems facing the government, the army will also have to face up to the diplomatic implications of ousting an elected government. Conversely, given that the army has already been involved in so many things, it might even consider taking over if things go out of control of civilian government. For its part, the civilian government has demonstrated its weakness by asking the military to intercede and convince Imran Khan to back off. It has also made a rather clumsy attempt by pitting the army against Imran Khan’s supporters by handing over security of Islamabad to the Army.

Under these circumstances, even if the current round of political confrontation passes off without incident, the government has already subordinated itself to the military and the only logical conclusion of this is that henceforth it will be left with only municipal functions while the military will call the shots on all issues of foreign and security policy including the mother of all issues which is India. What this means is that any engagement that India enters into with the civilian government will remain hostage to the Pakistan Army’s unreconstructed and unreformed view of India.

Published Date: 20th August 2014, Image source:

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