February Issue 2015
Back to the Future
It was January 2008. Pervez Musharraf was still the President of Pakistan, but no longer the army chief. His successor, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani had assumed that office two months earlier.
It was a time that beckoned the curiosity of journalists. Elections, which had been postponed after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, were to be held in February. The army had taken a political hit the previous year, first with the sacking of the country’s chief justice and then with the imposition of emergency on November 3.
I was among a group of journalists and opinion writers General Kayani invited to a briefing at the Army House that January.
General Kayani, normally taciturn, seemed eager to speak his mind even though he still employed short, staccato sentences. He said that he wanted to get the army out of politics and return it to its professional duties. He assured his audience that the army, under his command, would support whoever came to power after the elections next month. He wanted course correction.
There was much back and forth, and skepticism on our part about the army’s thinking and planning. Kayani took the questions patiently, chain-smoking. After nearly four hours, we left, only half-assured.
He did follow through on some of what he had said. The army’s planning improved, as did its fighting performance. In little more than a year, he launched a major operation in Malakand, where the Taliban ran rampant, and followed it up, some months later, with another in the South Waziristan agency, another hotbed of militant activity. Operations were also conducted in other areas. The army created its counterterrorism centres which, among other things, imparted pre-induction training to all units being deployed to the operational areas. Measures were taken to improve the incentive structures for soldiers, including those killed, disabled or injured in action.
But while Kayani initially focused on the army’s professional duties, he did get sucked into politics. In July 2008, six months after his meeting with us, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government issued a five-line memorandum, stating that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and the civilian Intelligence Bureau were to be placed under the Interior Ministry. It was an ill-conceived and ill-timed decision, and there was immediate pushback from the military, forcing the government to backtrack. Later, in November 2008, in another badly-timed move, then President Asif Ali Zardari, speaking via satellite to the Hindustan Times conclave, stated that Pakistan was prepared to reconsider its first-use policy on nuclear weapons and went on to say that, “Personally, I have always been against the very concept of nuclear weapons.” Again, the statement was made without any serious strategic and political thought or policy process within the National Command Authority of which Zardari, as President, was then head. The pushback from the army was palpable.
After the Mumbai attack, during a telephonic conversation with Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly said he was prepared to send the ISI director to India to clear the air and help in any investigations. Once again, no homework was done and a very serious matter was trifled with. In early 2009, and then in the fall of the same year, we saw the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill controversy. It further muddied the waters. It was clear from the bill that at the reconciliation stage, some of the conditions would become problematic. But the government, which could have acted in the spring of 2009 when the bill was introduced, made no effort to lobby for removal of conditions that directly struck at the institutional interests of the military. The military was convinced that some people within the government, most notably the then Pakistan ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, were deliberately working against the military and trying to embarrass it. (Later in 2011, Haqqani would be at the centre of what came to be called the Memogate Scandal. He would lose his job.) Be that as it may, the cumulative impact of these poor moves, combined with the government’s inability to govern with any degree of competence, again provided space to the army to seat itself at the head of the high table. Kayani, while continuing to talk about the army’s support for democracy, nonetheless, became the thin end of the institutional wedge for the army.
Result: by the end of Kayani’s three-year term as army chief in November 2010, the PPP government gave him another full-term extension to secure itself. As poor decisions go, this was probably the worst. The government had thrown in the towel and accepted the army’s lead on security and some of the core aspects of foreign policy. Kayani even led the strategic dialogue with the US de facto, though not de jure. By 2011, despite the Raymond Davis episode, the Abbottabad raid and the Salala attack, the PPP government had lost both the capacity and the will to hold the army accountable. Its lack of grit was obvious when it could not even fire the then DG-ISI, Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, even though in his briefing to parliament Pasha expressly offered to step down if the government so desired.
There was much fanfare when the country went to the polls in May 2013. The event was significant insofar as it was the first time in Pakistan’s history that there was a full transfer of power from one civilian government to another through the ballot. But that was about it. It did not translate into an incline in the capacity of the civilian principals to govern. Nor has it resulted in effective control of the military by the civilians.
The army was wary of Nawaz Sharif. And he did indicate initially that he would like to act as the chief executive. There was a lot of talk and legal action on trying General Musharraf — who had returned to Pakistan before the elections — for various offences, including high treason. It did not sit well with the army. The army felt that a former chief was being humiliated deliberately. While Kayani and the brass weren’t happy to see Musharraf back, the institutional imperative forced their hand into standing behind Musharraf. The situation wasn’t helped by the talk about also trying those who were complicit in Musharraf’s actions. One of them was Kayani, the then sitting army chief!
The generals were concerned that if the trial of Musharraf went any further, it would create a precedent and give a major boost to the civilian enclave which could turn this into a trend. Kayani himself could not stay on as army chief any longer than his second full-term extension. His extension had already created promotion anomalies in the higher ranks. It was even more essential that Sharif be tamed. The army had to ‘convince’ him that trying Musharraf wasn’t, after all, a very good idea.
In this the army was indirectly helped by criticism of Sharif’s performance by the opposition, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). PTI had accused the caretaker government of rigging the elections in Sharif’s favour and it had also restricted Sharif’s space to take some solid decisions on tackling terrorism, the biggest internal security challenge Pakistan faces today. Sharif, in trying to placate PTI, kept delaying taking a clear policy position even as terrorist groups continued to strike at will. The interior minister was tasked to come up with a comprehensive national internal security policy. That document took eight months to finalise and when it was put before parliament, it wasn’t impressive in terms of its recommendations. Even so, no money was allocated for the measures proposed in the budget for FY2014-15. Meanwhile, all the government had was a resolution from an all-party conference which was resoundingly criticised for being completely irresolute. Its net result was a long, mostly useless process of negotiating with the Taliban groups, with the primary group rejecting the entire idea of negotiations short of the government implementing preconditionalities that were clearly meant to be a nonstarter.
Kayani left office on November 29, 2013, succeeded by General Raheel Sharif. Sharif was selected by Prime Minister Sharif out of a list of four officers, two of whom were senior to him while one was junior to him. Some observers, forgetting that the army acts as an institution, considered Sharif to be a safe choice. He also had the distinction of being the younger brother of Major Shabbir Sharif, a war hero who was awarded Pakistan’s highest military honour. The succession, however, did not mean any change in the structures that have hampered the civilians and forced the army to act in the way it has traditionally done, a typical catch 22: the civilians cannot perform because the army doesn’t let them perform, but the army doesn’t give them space to perform because they cannot perform and they must perform if they want to get rid of the tutelary role of the army.
By the summer of 2014, events had gained pace. Negotiations with the Taliban had failed and the army had begun operating against them in North Waziristan in the run-up to Operation Zarb-e-Azb. There was an attack on Hamid Mir, a journalist, which pitted both the government and Geo, the channel Mir worked for, against the army and the ISI. The event brought matters to a head and the army got down to clipping the wings of the government. It used rival channels to launch a vicious attack on Geo and the government. Tahirul Qadri, a Barelvi cleric living in Canada, was galvanised. The PTI also got into the game and together they marched on Islamabad to demand Nawaz Sharif’s resignation. The situation reached a point where the army appeared to be the only sane arbiter and the civilians came across as fractious and selfish at a time of great national crisis while an operation was going on in North Waziristan.
Since then it has been downhill for Nawaz Sharif. While he has survived the Qadri-PTI onslaught for now, he has been neutralised by the army which has also successfully played the media. The three challenges Musharraf faced, a resurgent political process, an activist judiciary and a brash media, have all been quashed. General Sharif appears to be the only man standing and Nawaz Sharif is widely considered to be a weak, irresolute leader concerned more about finishing his term than taking strong decisions, especially in the wake of the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. The army’s public relations directorate has taken the lead on issuing statements and using social media to inform Pakistanis on all aspects of security and foreign policies.
The trajectory seems to suggest that while the army is not in a position to intervene directly, it has mastered the strategy of the indirect approach. It doesn’t need to get into the driver’s seat since it can make the politicians look really bad and irresponsible and has full control of areas that traditionally constitute its core interests. Imran Khan, who seemed to show some promise of leadership, has equally been discredited while the PPP is grappling with its own internal schism and being pulled down because of a remarkable inability to perform.
For some time to come, the country is back in the lap of the army while retaining the faÃ§ade of civilian democratic rule.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.
Ejaz Haider is an executive editor at Indus News and also anchors his show. His twitter handle is @ejazhaider.