March Issue 2013

By | Newsbeat | Published 11 years ago

Last month, when Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, got a call from the Army House just before midnight, he did not think it was unusual. The army chief Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani is a bit of a night bird and often reserves odd hours for telephonic consultations. But what the prime minister heard on the line made him sit up, even if for a little while. General Kayani wanted to speak to a large group of journalists the next day, a Sunday.
To make sure that he had heard him right, the prime minister got him to repeat what he had said. “I am meeting a group of journalists tomorrow. It has all been arranged. I thought I should let you know,” said the general in his guttural voice.

“What is it about?” asked the prime minister controlling his instant anxiety and maintaining a formal tone.
“A few things that have been the subject of debate in the media, and since I have not had this kind of talk (with the press) for almost two years, I thought it would be appropriate that I have a face-to-face interaction,” the general persisted with his matter-of-fact tone, giving away nothing.

The predictable happened. Immediately after concluding his conversation with General Kayani, the prime minister made an immediate call to President Asif Ali Zardari who, half-alarmed, rapped the prime minister on the knuckles for not finding out why the general was going public, and with what. President Zardari directed the prime minister to ask the general directly about the subject. In a little under 15 minutes of the first conversation, Premier Ashraf was again on the line with the Chief of Army Staff, wanting to know if the general was holding a press conference and if that was indeed the case, what was he planning to say.

Almost as if he was expecting the second call, the general rattled off a summary of the script he had in store for the next day: Free and fair elections, the war against terrorism, Balochistan and Afghanistan. He also said that this was an off-the-record informal chit-chat. Satisfied that nothing extraordinary was being planned, the prime minister immediately geared himself into the classic mode of a local politician and went for a personal plug. “I want you to kindly let me know the best way the Information Technology University in my constituency can be built, and speedily!” Adjusting to the subject-change swiftly, the general tried to suggest more independent ways to complete the project, but the prime minister’s insistence made him commit to “looking into the matter.” He could not say no — not just because it was the prime minister at the other end, but because the IT university was being built on a piece of land GHQ had allocated from its camping site in the area.

This episode gives an insight into the complex universe of civil-military relations as they have evolved in the last five years of the People’s Party government, whose mandate is ending this month. While relations have remained stable to the extent of not forcing a point-blank military takeover, suspicion, intrigue, second-guessing and endless attempts at outwitting each other have spawned a bizarre situation where the two sides co-exist just to get through tricky situations on a day-to-day basis. The reality is that today, the military has little or no faith in the competence of the civilian leaders to run a country of Pakistan’s size and to sort out its problems. The civilians, for their part, think that the generals are only biding their time and the empire would eventually strike back.

General Kayani’s media briefing did not turn out to be as benign as it had sounded on the phone. The promise of this being an off-the-record, or even deep-background affair, went through the shredder. For the next one week, almost everyone — and there were almost 50 journalists representing almost every shade of opinion — reported, spoke and wrote about the general’s media talk. The pyrotechnics of informed opinions illuminated the sky daily on prime time as each tried to outshine the other in determining the salient points of General Kayani’s detailed wisdom. While most disagreed with the letter of intent, the spirit of the message was not lost on anyone: The country is teetering on the brink of economic collapse as well as total lawlessness, and while the army has done its utmost to stall the decline, extending a helping hand at every tricky turn, a lazy and good-for-nothing civilian set-up continues to sabotage the good samaritans. The top line, however, was the general’s declared dream of seeing a civilian government complete its tenure before he hangs his gloves.

But the haloed image of a mandate-respecting (in a more functioning and performing democracy, an army chief would have lost his job for saying far less), constitution-fearing army high command does not win the army any appreciation in the civilian circles. By and large, politicians remain deeply resentful of what they perceive to be the top-brass’ relentless effort to play the national guardian. “This is also pre-poll rigging, is this not?” fumed a Peoples Party senator when the screaming headlines about General Kayani’s briefings came under discussion at a meeting in Islamabad. “What he is saying is that we (the government) have failed and the last five years have been nothing but a waste of national resources. Is he not trying to influence the minds of the voters through the media?” The prime minister said nothing to the senator. The IT University’s potential political benefits for his re-election easily outweighed any judicious reflection on his part that might have been leaked to the press.

By and large, politicians remain deeply resentful of what they perceive to be the top-brass’ relentless effort to play the national guardian. “This is also pre-poll rigging, is this not?” fumed a Peoples Party senator when the screaming headlines about General Kayani’s briefings came under discussion at a meeting in Islamabad. “What he is saying is that we (the government) have failed and the last five years have been nothing but a waste of national resources. Is he not trying to influence the minds of the voters through the media?”

However, the problem is that the army’s assessments of the state of the country are not a hangover from the days when they were fully in charge. Independent analysis bears out the fact that after completion of five years in power, the outgoing government is leaving behind a tale of woe and wide-scale destruction of hope. According to a survey conducted by the British Council’s Next Generation Task Force in March 2013 a sample of the youth’s opinion speaks of an exceptionally low confidence in almost all elected democratic institutions. The government of Pakistan is liked by a mere 14% of those surveyed. Political parties are distrusted by a whopping 69 per cent, while the vote of confidence in the provincial assemblies (just 28 per cent) and the provincial governments (24 per cent) indicates the high degree of the new generation’s alienation from the present-day order. Among the institutions, the media is favourably viewed by 63 per cent, followed by the judiciary at 60 per cent. Religious centres associated with religious parties are trusted by 74 per cent. The highest degree of confidence and affection is still reserved for the army at 77 per cent. Interestingly, the Next Generation Task Force has as its board members some of the army’s staunchest critics. The same survey also reveals that almost 92 per cent of Pakistan’s youth believes that the country is going in the wrong direction.

Ayaz Amir, a well-known columnist and member of the National Assembly from Pakistan Muslim League-N, admits that the civilians have not done anything to write home about and have been singularly lacking in initiative to take charge of the country.

“The army’s earlier derision and contempt for the civilian rule has now been tamed and restrained by their realisation that they can no longer call the shots as before. But politicians need to grasp this opportunity to build democracy on a stronger foundation,” he says.

However, there are not many who are even listening to the argument Ayaz Amir is making. Instead, as elections draw near, the country seems to have been left completely on auto, facing the bleak prospect of an economic implosion and the possibility of a sectarian conflict that would mirror Iraq in its bloodiness. Practically every major city of Pakistan has witnessed nerve-shattering violence and there seems to be no counter to the terror that is stalking the land. Shias want the army to take charge in Karachi and Quetta, two of the most recent venues of sectarian bloodshed.

“This has grave implications for civil-military relations,” says Bilal Mehboob, head of PILDAT, a research organisation dedicated to assessing the growth of democratic institutions. “If this disease (of terrorism) continues, the army’s internal harmony itself can be affected by it. They must be very worried!”, Bilal says ominously. The implications of this assessment is that if the country tanks and violence of the most viscerally sectarian type spreads, the army may end up taking charge openly, despite the fact that General Kayani has ruled out this possibility in public.

“We can only come in aid of civilian power and, that too, to exercise the authority that is bestowed upon us. In Balochistan the FC is only allowed to arrest the culprits and the same is the case with Rangers in Karachi. Any action, without this legal parameter, is martial law,” he told the journalists.

Interestingly, even those among the lot who were all praise for the democratic look and feel of his postulations were eager for a more direct action by the army on a range of issues. One anchor complained that the army chief did not lobby hard enough for getting counter-terrorism legislation passed in time. Another wanted to find out why known terrorists cannot be quietly eliminated. But the more scandalous among the suggestions was the one from an otherwise ardent advocate of pure civilian rule: He said that the ISI should be given unfettered powers (like the CIA which controls drone strikes in Pakistan) to kill terrorists and their operatives. Some even wanted the army chief to work for a more reassuring peace arrangement with Afghanistan besides of course,stabilising the country’s economy and holding free and fair elections.

Interestingly, to all these ‘extra-constitutional plus’ suggestions, it was General Kayani who kept quoting the law and the constitution as barriers to implementing these radical ideas. However, even his announcement to retire from service this year did not quell the demand for the army to do this or that. This showed that the expectation in certain quarters that the generals continue to be centrally relevant to running Pakistan has not gone away. The question is whether the present abysmal situation will make this expectation become the basis for a blunt takeover, or will the generals continue to “support” democracy, as it haltingly moves on the treacherous path towards elections.

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