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Pakistan Military’s Desire to Slip Into The Driving Seat Once Again

P.K. Upadhyay was a Consultant with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for its Pakistan Project.
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  • January 13, 2012

    Some very strange developments seem to be unfolding in Pakistani politics. A political dogfight between the civilian and military leaderships has been unheard off in the country’s history so far. The generals never had to air their differences with the political masters in the public as they are doing at present. When faced with a ‘defiance’ of their writ at any stage, the generals have always taken over power after booting-out the civilian government. In a rare case, as during the time of General Waheed Kakar, the Army did not directly take over power, but forced the feuding President (Ghulam Ishaq Khan) and Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharief) to quit and brought in a new government. The story, as told by Pakistani columnist Azeem Chaudhary, goes that General Kakar, in his full ceremonial uniform with a pistol holster by his side, called a meeting of Ishaq Khan and Nawaz Sharief and, when they tried to resist his gentle persuasions, just tapped his baton on the table and asked them to quit, which they complied with meekly. Then why this time around is General Kayani not able to push out the President and Prime Minister and has let the current army-civil tug-of-war drag on since May, when the present political crisis seems to have started in the wake of the Abbottabad raid? The simple answer is that the Pakistan Army in 2012 is not what it used to be during the Ayub Khan to Musharraf eras. At present, it does not have the confidence to enforce its diktat due to a weakening of its earlier hold on the power structure on account of the sharp deterioration in the Pakistan-US military-to-military relationship, changes in the social complexion and the background of the current crop of military officers as well as the deep penetration of jehadi influence in the Armed Forces.

    The US raid on Osama’s hideout marked a watershed in more sense than one in the contemporary history of Pakistan. On the one hand it further accentuated the already deepening rift between the US and Pakistan establishments over Afghanistan as well as the relationship with the Taliban and, on the other, rocked the fledgling post-Musharraf relationship between Pakistan’s civilian government and the Army leadership. For the western world and particularly the United States, the raid exposed the Pakistan Army’s duplicity in dealing with Osama and Taliban and raised serious questions about its role and commitment to fight Islamic radicalism. For the Pakistanis it exposed their Army’s (lack of) capability and even commitment to defend the country’s ‘honour’ and ‘principles’ by standing up to the Americans. These sentiments did not engulf just the civilian society but also reverberated in the barracks. Soon after the US raid, General Kayani and his Corps Commanders had to face many difficult questions from junior officers about the Army’s response to the US action. On May 5, the Corps Commanders’ meeting decided to institute an enquiry into the ‘intelligence failure’ about US plans, as also to enforce an immediate reduction in the presence of US military personnel in the country. Pakistan’s civilian government, on its part, was confused and vague in its reaction. It tried to score some brownie points by contending that the US raid was made possible by intelligence Pakistan provided and that the “killing of Osama Bin Laden showed the commitment of Pakistan and the world community in the war against terrorism” (Prime Minister Gilani’s statement). At the same time, it ‘warned’ the US that the Abbottabad raid should not set a precedent for such “unilateral actions” in future.

    The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) was quick to move to exploit the situation for its political agenda by targeting both the Zardari government and the Army. Taking advantage of the anti-American and anti-establishment mood in the country, as demonstrated by the media focus on the role and performance of the Army not in just harbouring Osama bin-Laden but also in handling the US action, the PML(N) called for the setting up of an independent enquiry commission to investigate the Abbottabad raid. Later, just a week before the budget session of the National Assembly was to commence, it requested an emergency session of the House to discuss “the delay” in the setting-up of the Commission. The Zardari-Gilani regime yielded ground and held an in-camera session of both houses of Parliament (May 13), during which the entire top-brass of the military was present. ISI Chief General Shuza Pasha admitted to intelligence failure and surrendered himself to full parliamentary accountability. But at the same time, he also held the provincial government, the local police and other agencies responsible for this failure. Parliament adopted a resolution to set up an enquiry commission to ascertain the full facts about the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as well as the circumstances and full facts about the US raid, determine the nature, background and causes of the lapses of the concerned authorities and make recommendations to prevent such incidents in future.

    Sensing that they had gained an upper hand, Nawaz Sharief and his party stepped up their assault. Sharief made an open demand for parliamentary scrutiny of the budgets of the Army and the ISI. He held out a thinly veiled threat to the government by declaring that his party would support the government only if it was ready to stand on its own legs and not live with a begging bowl. Later, PML (N) convened a meeting of various opposition parties to give the government an ultimatum to set-up the enquiry into the Abbottabad raid by June 3 and subsequently submitted a notice to the Speaker of the National Assembly for the purpose. Buckling down, the government announced on May 31 the setting up of the enquiry commission under the chairmanship of Justice Javed Iqbal, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, which commenced its proceedings from July 25 and summoned the Chief of the ISI, the DG of Military Intelligence, and the heads of various police and intelligence agencies to present their testimonies. The Pakistani media carried reports to the effect that the commission raised many awkward questions about the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the security cooperation between the US and the Pakistani militaries, which made the Army feel uncomfortable.

    The Army was already making moves to counter all this challenge. Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, whose Jamiat-ul Ulema-e-Islam (F) had initially joined the PML (N)-led campaign for an enquiry into the Abbottabad raid, disassociated itself from the move, terming it as against “national interests” apparently under the Army’s persuasion. The Army seems to have also put pressure on the government to scuttle the enquiry, or consign it to the cold storage. As the government found itself on a politically weak wicket but at the same time unwilling to yield, the Army’s veiled hints became more open and ominous. What must have increased the discomfiture of the Army was the government’s thinly veiled efforts to distance itself from the Army and the Abbottabad episode. When the Army began to huff-and-puff in its efforts to bring the government down to its point of view, Zardari, or someone close to him, appears to have thought about approaching the Americans to exercise their influence over the Army and restrain it, thus giving birth to the ‘Memogate’ affair. The former Ambassador to US Hussein Haqqani, considered close to Zardari, has been accused of writing to Adm. Mullen seeking his assistance in installing a “new security team” in Islamabad that would be friendlier towards Washington.

    Nawaz Sharief’s efforts to fish in troubled waters as also to move closer to the Army’s position on ‘Memogate’ on the one hand and to force early general elections in the wake of the ouster of the Zardari regime in an Army putsch on the other, intensified. By the second half of November, after describing the parliamentary enquiry commission as a sham, he petitioned the Supreme Court to investigate the Memogate affair and punish “without any leniency” those who had “taken the country into abyss of despair”. ‘Memogate’ was indeed the last straw for the Army and Zardari was forced to go abroad for ‘treatment’ on December 18, after seeing Kayani a day before. However, as the Army showed no inclinations to take over power and no alternative arrangements to fill the post-Zardari void were in place, the PPP Government continued and Zardari also came back to the country, vowing on the eve of the anniversary of Benazir’s assassination that he would continue to fight for the ‘infant democracy’ in the country.

    It was clear that the Army was reluctant to assume power and, at the same time, also reluctant to let the Zardari-led PPP government continue. It appears to have chosen the judicial route to hound out the government. Apparently, a deal between the Army and the Chief Justice of Pakistan allowed not just a renewed focus on the old National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) cases against Zardari and others, but also the setting up of a four-judge judicial enquiry into Memogate under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of the Baluchistan High Court, to “investigate” the episode and report in four weeks. In response to the Court’s orders for submissions, the government denied any link between the mysterious memo to Mike Mullen and the President and wanted the Court action to be quashed. However, Kayani highlighted it as high treason and an attempt to demoralize the military. Interestingly, the submissions by Kayani and Shuza Pasha were made to the Court directly through the Attorney General, totally by-passing the civilian government. On its part, the Ministry of Defence submitted through its Secretary Lt. Gen (Retd.) Naeem Khalid Lodhi that the government had no operational control over either the Army or the ISI. This pushed the polemics between the Army and the government to a new and bitter high and both Zardari and Gilani chose to speak out against “conspiracies to pack up the elected government”. In a clear move to enlist Chinese support, while Kayani went to Beijing, Gilani gave an interview to the Chinese People’s Daily (January 9) where he described the Army commanders’ submissions to the Supreme Court as “unconstitutional and illegal”. The Army joined issue with the government by issuing a press release warning it of “serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country”. In continuing tit-for-tat responses, the regime responded by sacking the Defence Secretary and the Army, in turn, called a meeting of the senior generals to discuss the situation.

    Why is this unprecedented and uncharacteristic spat between the Army and the civilian government continuing? Apparently, the United States is a factor. Although, for the record, the US Administration and Pentagon had dismissed the memo to Mullen, they seem to have quietly acted on it by heavily leaning on the Pakistan Army. Despite the recent breakdown in their relationship, the US military still has a considerable hold over the Pakistan Army in the form of continuing supply of spares and other vital equipment, apart from training and intelligence cooperation. The Americans could have conveyed to Kayani and company that ousting the civilian regime in a coup would mean a total break in links, including the supply of spares and other wherewithal. The Pakistan Army cannot resist this pressure, since without using US supplied armour and attack helicopters, it cannot continue its operations against the Taliban in FATA or the Baluchi rebels in Baluchistan. Another inhibiting factor for Kayani and his generals could be the extent of penetration of the Army by jehadi elements. For sometime now, there appears to be a lull in clashes between Islamic radicals and the Army. While a let-up in US drone strikes (after the handing over of the Shamsi airbase) appears to be a significant facilitating factor for this lull, it cannot be the key trigger for it. The possibility of a JUI (F) brokered truce between the Army and Taliban should not be ruled out. The Army wants to preserve this truce for the present and, therefore, is reluctant to rock the boat by staging a coup at this juncture. It possibly fears that in case it ousts the Zardari government and becomes all powerful, that may have some destabilizing impact on the current truce with the Taliban. Lastly, Kayani and other senior generals may still not be out of the shock they suffered from the violent outbursts of junior officers after the Abbottabad raid. They recognize that the younger lot of Pakistan Army Officers does not come from traditional sections of the society known for its contempt for ‘civilians’ and their ways. These officers are the off-spring of former JCOs/NCOs of the military, as also the urban middle and lower middle classes, and may be harbouring a strong antipathy towards the bourgeois attitudes of their superiors.

    This, however, does not mean that Kayani and company are going to let the Zardari-Gilani combine continue to spite them. Army backed judicial action against the regime is a strong possibility. For the post Zardari period, one may watch the rise of Imran Khan (despite his strong anti-Army and pro-democracy postures) and the planned return of Pervez Musharraf with interest.