August Issue 2014

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 3 years ago

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is unique in at least one significant respect from the rest: Every now and then he pursues a political death-wish, and then when it is close to coming true, mounts a zealous effort to avert its consequences. It’s no wonder then that the Sharif government continues to garner an image of an administration hanging on by the skin of its teeth. This, despite the fact that it has always claimed to be the country’s most qualified and competent force to comprehend and handle political complexities and challenges.

The latest chapter in the saga of the Sharif government’s future is connected with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)’s march on Islamabad, scheduled to take place on August 14. The PTI is clearly fired up. According to party sources, Imran Khan, the chairman, is determined to gather arguably the largest crowd witnessed in recent history and make a forceful and emphatic pitch for a full vote recount of the last election. This strategy, sources maintain, would be the beginning of a do-or-die political assault on the Sharif government’s defiant attitude towards the repeated accusations that the last election was stolen through systematic fraud. The PTI is pouring in all its resources and pressing every button in the organisation to choke the capital with protestors who will nail the ‘Emperor’ to the cross – a title Imran Khan borrowed from former President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent swipe at the prime minister.

This determination on the part of the PTI has caused consternation in Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) circles. While their stalwarts keep a brave face and persistently predict that the PTI’s march will end with a whimper rather than a bang, the party leadership is genuinely concerned that this might become an event to upend the government and pave the way for a nation-wide call for mid-term elections. However, the PML-N continues to treat the issue as more of an administrative nightmare as opposed to a gathering political storm.

“We cannot let them invade the capital and hold it hostage, making the federal government look like a dysfunctional entity,” said a key party source. “Nor can we afford the traditional ways of stopping them through erecting barriers and using force. Especially after the Model Town incident (in which nearly a dozen Pakistan Awami Tehrik workers were killed, and more than 100 were injured as they resisted the Punjab government’s attempt to remove the decade-old barriers around the residence of their leader – and a vicious critic of the Sharifs – Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri). We want to defuse it, but honestly, any measure we adopt will have consequences.”

He followed up the statement with a description of the side-plan the PML-N have to neutralise the challenge.

“We have turned the PTI demand to improve the electoral system into a national cause (for which the speaker of the National Assembly has already formed a bi-cameral committee); we have launched an effective campaign to show that the PTI’s protest is anti-democratic; we are unfolding a calendar of celebratory activity to mark Independence Day in an unprecedented fashion. The key focus is on the fight against terrorists in North Waziristan, from which Mr Khan is diverting national attention through his ill-timed agitational politics. This would also stabilise our relationship with the armed forces, which has seen some ups and downs lately.”

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The last part of this plan is actually the key to the entire counter-PTI strategy. If the army stands firmly behind the Sharif government, Imran Khan’s effort to gridlock the whole system and force the generals to mediate a middle way out of the impasse would simply fall apart. Some in the Sharif government’s inner sanctum continue to harbour the apprehension that Khan is the army’s Trojan horse, meant to burn their citadel down.

Members as senior as Ahsan Iqbal, who is heading the Planning Commission, have said that their government is “suffering because of its insistence on trying General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf” – a thinly-veiled reference to the army’s demand that the former military ruler and chief of army staff should not be put on the legal cross for imposing emergency in the country in November 2007.

Other senior members of the Sharif cabinet do not endorse this point of view, but believe that the army is in a position to stave off the PTI’s march on the capital by simply asking Khan to behave.

This may be an overly-simplistic and factually inaccurate reading of what is motivating the PTI’s chairman to plan a siege on the capital, but it does indicate how central the army has become to the course that political events might take in the coming weeks.

A glimpse of the army’s keystone role in a fluid situation came last month when the interior ministry invoked Article 245 of the Constitution of Pakistan to hand over Islamabad’s security to the armed forces. Even though used on numerous occasions previously, the said clause is known to be one of the most extreme and fraught parts of the Constitution.

Under the heading of Functions of Armed Forces:

1[(1)] The Armed Forces shall, under the directions of the Federal Government, defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and, subject to law, act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so.

(2) The validity of any direction issued by the Federal Government under clause (1), shall not be called into question in any Court.

(3) A High Court shall not exercise any jurisdiction under Article 199 in relation to any area in which the Armed Forces of Pakistan are, for the time being, acting in aid of civil power in pursuance of Article 245:

Provided that this clause shall not be deemed to affect the jurisdiction of the High Court in respect of any proceeding pending immediately before the day on which the Armed Forces start acting in aid of civil power.

(4) Any proceeding in relation to an area referred to in clause (3) instituted on or after the day the Armed Forces start acting in aid of civil power and pending in any High Court shall remain suspended for the period during which the Armed Forces are so acting.

The invocation of the article has unleashed a storm of protests, and assessments that the government is on its way out.

Ayaz Amir, a former member of the National Assembly and once a party stalwart, has equated this step with inviting the army to take over.

“As far as anyone can tell, no one has planned this outcome. It is the playing out of no strategic configuration. No one has ever accused General Headquarters (GHQ) of such subtlety before, and this is a subtle drama we are witnessing: almost a creeping coup, a coup by stealth, Pakistan’s first ‘soft’ coup. No “meray aziz humwatnon” – my dear countrymen, the familiar invocation heralding Pakistani coups – no seven-point national agenda á la Musharraf.

“No admission of failure could be greater than throwing the capital’s security into the army’s lap … And now when Imran Khan and his PTI threaten to march on Islamabad and Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri threatens a ‘revolution,’ and the Model Town shooting  haunts the PML-N leadership, the leadership doesn’t know what to do. In panic – what else do we call it? – it has now pressed the Article 245 button, a remedy likely to worsen not ease its plight … beemar huwe jiss ke sabab, ussi attar kay launde se dawa lete hain … he [Sharif] is doing everything to hasten his demise.”

Initially, the government claimed this step was intended to secure the capital against terrorist threats that might emanate from the ongoing Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan Agency.

In an informal interaction with Newsline, a member of the Sharif team gave the following long-winded explanation for falling back on the armed forces for protection of the capital.

“The army has been requisitioned in Islamabad under Article 245, read with the Anti Terrorism Act 1997, to pre-empt any possible blow back of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Waziristan,” he said. “The army will be used for rapid response, to manage check posts and intelligence pooling for three months.”

When he was asked why this need had dawned on the government, several weeks after the commencement of the operation, he said: “The army was already in Islamabad performing these duties.”

When he was further asked what made the government issue the notification after it had already called in the army, he said:  “A de facto situation had been given a de jure status.”

His reasoning appeared to be on shakier ground when he claimed that it was “the army that had asked the government to invoke this article so that their duties could be protected under the law.”

When Newsline asked him how the army could ask the government to invoke an (or any) article of the Constitution, he fudged the answer: “There was a debate whether to accede to the request by invoking Article 245 of the Constitution or the Anti-Terrorist Act of the criminal procedure code. The matter was discussed and examined by the ministry of law, interior and defence and then the final decision was taken.”

Similar justifications came from Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who lambasted opponents for making a mountain out of a molehill.

Yet critics continued to take the government to the cleaners on the decision, calling it a total failure and a deadly blow to its credibility as a functioning political entity. The PTI led the charge, threatening to challenge this notification in a court of law and accused the government of pitting the army against the people of Pakistan.

The latter charge hurt the army badly. As a senior army general explained to Newsline, “We don’t want to be dragged into political affairs. We certainly don’t want to be used as bulwark against internal challenges that have little to do with grave se
curity threats. We are a fighting force. When we are deployed at check-posts there had better be a good reason for that because our job and training is to avert onslaughts through shooting and killing. We are not a crowd management force.”

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The government, totally sensitive to the delicate nature of exposing the army to politics, and facing the charges of being manipulative and incompetent, started a rear guard action and immediately clarified its position, both, to the army as well as to the public: The army’s role will be limited to actions again terrorists and will have nothing to do with the PTI’s politics of agitation.

This did not end public speculation; however, it went down well with the army brass. The army did not reject the 245 notification nor did it choose to state its case through the ISPR, its media arm.

Senior party members claim that this friendly understanding shown by the army is incontrovertible proof that their relations with the generals are on the mend. A senior member of the party told Newsline that, “Before the prime minister visited GHQ last July, the interior minister and Punjab Chief minister [Shahbaz Sharif] had detailed rounds of talks with General Raheel Sharif. I cannot give you all the details but I can say with absolute confidence that the army is not going to become a tool in anyone’s hand to destabilise this government.

“There is complete harmony and understanding on issues that the media wrongly
believes would cause GHQ to take sides against the government.

“We have agreed that General Musharraf’s case will be decided by the courts. Even the Geo issue is likely to be settled in the next few months. The army does not want to be on the wrong side of the law and the constitution. It has no desire to come across as vengeful and petty. It has better things to do than to get embroiled in petty spats.”

Interestingly, army sources do not deny the “repairing process.”

“We are looking at a stable system,” said an army commander, who did not wish to be identified by name or rank. “The army is a state organ. The government is in charge here. We follow the law.”

The army’s symbolic moves, too, seem to indicate that the Sharif government’s relationship with the army has improved.

Steering away from his predecessor’s cold and ‘keep-em-at-a-distance’ ways, General Raheel Sharif seems to have adopted a warm-handshake attitude towards the government in power. In an important symbolic move, the present Chief of Army Staff plans to be part of the Independence Day celebrations to take place in front of the Parliament. Government sources say the venue was General Sharif’s choice. This means that for the crucial days of August 13 and14, when the PTI plans to storm the capital with its million-man legion, Islamabad’s security would be in the army’s control.

This makes for a potentially explosive situation. Khan is pushing the political system hard and has drawn what he believes is a hard line between right and wrong, good and evil, Nawaz Sharif and himself. His plans to paralyse the system hinge crucially on the perceived role the army will play in an extended crisis.

So far there are no indications that GHQ is willing to play this role. Khan’s party believes that this would change come D-day. The PML-N believes their opponents are ill-informed and presumptuous. It hard to fathom what the generals are thinking.

While a bloody fight, anarchy, or a terrorist strike during the PTI’s protest march might force the army’s default option – a coup – it is safe to assume that they would want this storm to blow over peacefully. But there’s no doubt that the army’s neutrality will be tested come August 14.

Pakistan is a hard country to govern even in the best of times. And in times like these, it is a nightmare. As things stand at the moment, Nawaz Sharif stands to gain the most should he survive the massive push for a revolution that Imran Khan has planned for Pakistan’s 67th Independence Day.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue as the cover story.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.