Sharif in town takes charge
Ashok K Mehta
The anarchy in Islamabad is surreal. Most experts are calling it an army-inspired soft coup to undermine the legitimately elected government. The joint violent protests by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek have spun out of control, breaching the Red Zone, with the Army refusing to intervene to restore calm. While the Supreme Court has offered to mediate, Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, after presiding over the Corps Commanders’ conference, issued a statement that warned the parties to resolve the crisis politically or else… On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a joint session of Parliament to reinforce supremacy of the Constitution. Why did the army allow the protest marchers such a long rope for this amount of time, unless it was to prove a point?
As an infrequent visitor to Pakistan, one is told that the fall of General Pervez Musharraf was the beginning of the end of coup d’etat. The days of coups are over, it was a first generation problem. The military is turning over a new leaf, we are told. The assessment is that while the army’s power to influence decisions has diminished, the corresponding capacity of the civilian government to govern, especially when it comes to security issues, has not improved. Still, the Army is happy to be back in the barracks.
The ‘container coup’ that is currently being spearheaded by PTI’s Imran Khan, who has 34 lawmakers in the National Assembly and whose party leads the Provincial Government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is considered to be a puppet of the Army. Pakistani-Canadic cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who is in support of Khan, has a less known history. He is highly ambitious and devilishly opportunistic. He began as an employee of the Sharif family, hosted a popular television show, contested the national election and lost, and when he crossed the Sharifs’ red line, he was cut to size. He staged a self assassination bid and, finally, disappointed and disgruntled, migrated to Canada.
Qadri came in touch with the Army following his 800-page dissertation on suicide terrorism being anti-Islam. A strategic visitor to Pakistan, he runs religious foundations and schools and is pathologically anti-Sharif. A great orator and a friend of the Army, Qadri is artillery for Khan’s infantry. To understand the colourful cleric, read Tariq Fatah, a Canadian citizen, expelled from Pakistan, who has advised Israel to, “Forget Iran, your enemy is nuclear Pakistan”.
Stories float in Pakistan that after the honeymoon period between the current Prime Minister and Army Chief came to a close, civil-military relations went from bad to worse. This was due to several reasons: The indignity heaped on Gen Musharraf; the mollycoddling of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan; the Sharif regime pressing for improved relations with India; revival of the National Security Council which had been felled in Sharif’s second term; and the spat over Geo TV.
Clearly, the tactical coincidence of Khan and Qadri’s unruly protest marches on one hand and the blatant breach of the Red Zone on the other, when the army was handed over security of Islamabad for three months, has raised suspicions about the strategic congruence of motives. The intent seems clear: To show not just the Sharif Government, which is the historic nemesis of the army, in poor light but also tarring democracy with the same brush. Given that the army first permitted the protesters to cross all red lines and then offered to mediate, it is unclear what the planned end game is. Will Sharif be third time lucky?
Gen Sharif, as Army Chief, has reversed many of his predecessor’s policies. For starters, he launched the much-awaited but selective military offensive in North Waziristan. He has also gone tough on Kashmir, reviving the jugular vein sentiment and turned up the heat along the Line of Control. The Americans have tried desperately to help Pakistan turn into a normal state, subordinating the military to the elected government. On his last visit to Washington, DC, former Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani handed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, a 10-page paper on civil-military relations in Pakistan.
The ‘Army-is-being-put-back-in-its-place’ theory gained ground after Gen Musharraf’s exit. For India, while the Musharraf period is pock-marked with Kargil, the coup and the attack on Parliament, it is also remembered for a new dawn: There were no Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks between 2002 and middle-2008, there was a durable ceasefire on LoC beginning November 2003, a moratorium on ‘internationaling’ Kashmir, and the five-point Kashmir formula which was the crème de la crème. Ironically, from India’s point of view, maximum business gets done with Pakistan when the Army is in the driving seat there.
The Zardari era was tumultuous for civil-military relations when the Army was forced to turn to the Courts to challenge the elected Government. ‘Memogate’ is best heard from the horse’s mouth – in this case, Husain Haqqani, then Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, now with the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. The Army charged the Government with treason and pressed for the restoration of the Defence Secretary, a military man, who, for the first time ever, had been replaced by a civilian.
Still, President Asif Ali Zardari’s Government became the first to complete its term, despite uneasy relations with the Army. Gen Kayani’s two terms as Army chief and Gen Musharraf’s nearly 10 years – together they were in power for nearly 18 years – stagnated many capable Generals.
Most security experts say that the Army is a major impediment to the normalisation of the Pakistani state. Punjab being the predominant province in Pakistan and the Army being largely Punjabi is a double whammy. With the army engaged in essentially a standoff and a selective military offensive in North Waziristan, where one third of its force is deployed, it can ill-afford to run the affairs of the state. Its officers and soldiers will be back to checking water and electricity meters at a time when there is a crippling shortage of both.