SEEMA MUSTAFA | 31 AUGUST, 2014
Roles irreversibly reversed, Pakistan Army Chief in Command
NEW DELHI: The Pakistan Army has, as expected (see The Citizen South Asia), emerged once again from the closet that it tends to go back into every now and again to resolve the political impasse between the government and the opposition. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was unable to reach any agreement in talks with Pakistan opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri is now being bailed out by Army Chief Raheel Sharif who has directly stepped in to end the controversy.
General Sharif has met the Prime Minister twice, and the two opposition leaders. The Army has clearly worked out a deal that Qadri told his supporters would address their demands and be in the form of a ‘reform package’. Khan said that everything had been worked out, the only pending item being Sharif’s resignation. “We have got very close to our goals,” Khan is reported in the Pakistan media as saying, “the only thing left is Nawaz Sharif’s resignation.” Clearly this will be the one point not conceded in return for the package that seems to have met with the approval of the opposition leaders judging from their responses.
It is apparent to even those who were dismissing the protests as ‘cosmetic’ in the initial stages that PM Sharif has been considerably weakened in the process, and his inability to persuade the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf and Pakistani Awami Tehreek to end the blockade in Islamabad was demonstrative of his waning support. More so, as the numbers supporting Khan and Qadri increased, with the crowds making it clear that they supported the demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister.
General Shareef, handpicked by the PM for the job, is clearly not keen to stage a coup and march into the Presidents House as had happened in PM Nawaz Sharif’s earlier tenure when his Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf had seized power. Interestingly, no one in Pakistan this time around is even expecting a military coup, a commentary really on how over the last few years the Army seniors have been able to convince the people of their disinterest in running the civilian side of the government. A senior retired general had told The Citizen earlier that the Army had come to realise, particularly after Musharraf’s inglorious exit that is still not really resolved, that “it is a thankless job and just not worth it.” As he pointed out the Army was in control on national security and the strategic part of foreign policy, and did not need to be in the civilian chair to exercise authority.
General Sharif who has developed differences with the Prime Minister over the latters resistance to allowing the Army free play in the areas it regards as its own fiefdom, has been able to use this particular episode to ensure that the military word remained the final word when it so chose to exercise it. PM Sharif for instance had been advised by the Army, or so it is the perception in sections of the Pakistani establishment, not to visit N ew Delhi on the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He had, however, resisted the advise and attended the oath taking ceremony that in the military assessment did not not add to the weight of the Pakistani side of the scales. The recent decision to call off the foreign secretary level talks by India, has added more grist to the Pakistan military’s mill with Sharif unable to weather the consequences.
Predictions in Pakistan are now placing a time limit on Sharif’s tenure as the Prime Minister, insistent that he will not complete five years in office. After winning the elections Sharif had made it very apparent that his government was in charge, and that the Army would report to him. He had ignored recommendations made by the then Army Chief, and instead brought in his own choice of officer to take over the job, making it clear at every opportunity that Pakistan was a democratic country run by a civilian government with the Army subordinate to the civilian and democratic will as it ought to be. No one really believed this assertion, but there was some applause from those who were optimistic that good governance could actually relegate the powerful Pakistani army to the barracks, if not immediately then with time.
Relations were further strained with Sharif’s decision to put former Army chief Musharraf on trial, despite the Army’s complete opposition to the move. The Army was categorical that a former chief should not be treated in this fashion and had tried to negotiate his safe exit to Saudi Arabia. The PM appeared to agree, but his government cashed in on the public animosity to keep Musharraf on trial and a prisoner in the country with an uncertain future.
Relations between the civilian government and the military remained frayed, with even now PML-N leaders reportedly letting it be known in selective leaks that the current demonstrations by Khan and Qadri had been ‘organised’ by the Army and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Interestingly one of the first names to be mentioned in this regard was of a former ISI Chief followed by finger pointing at the existing military structure.
The Army ‘formula’ as Qadri referred to is thus expected to address three basic points. One, it will allow a visibly weakened Sharif to continue in office with the Damocles sword hanging over his head; two, it will give more than a face saver to Khan and Qadri by conceding many of their demands short of the resignation of Sharif; and most important from the Army point of view it will firmly establish it in the drivers seat insofar as foreign policy, national security --all of which includes talks and relations with India---are concerned.