By Rajeev Sharma
Pakistan’s democracy has been a fledgling one, at times tentative, for over three years since the current government was installed. At a time when over a dozen countries in Africa, Persian Gulf and even Central Asia are in the grip of pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship agitations, Pakistan has somewhat remained insulated from such jasmine revolutions sweeping across various regions of the world.
There can be various reasons for that, one of them being that Pakistan does not seem to have a history of strong students’ unions or trade unions. But wasn’t it the lawyers’ agitation that led to the exit of Pervez Musharraf who was also the army chief apart from being the president of his country? However, this recent example of people’s power seems to be more of an exception rather than a rule. Musharraf was already besieged and weakened when he bit more than he could chew and took on the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The lawyers’ agitation proved to be the final nail in his coffin.
However, there is one strong reason why jasmine revolution has not travelled to Pakistan and why a constantly faltering civilian government continues to thrive – Pakistan Army. Still no people’s movement can dare to take on the army in Pakistan as people know who is actually calling the shots in Pakistan. The army is still the most powerful and functional organ of Pakistan. It may have lost its respect to a certain extent, but it is still feared, jihadists’ attacks on the army units and its subsidiaries notwithstanding. The army is used to back-seat driving for decades and the contemporary times too are no exception. The civilian government knows its limits and has been cleverly and cautiously respecting this Lakshman Rekha. This article seeks to turn a laser beam focus on the sensitive and tenuous relationship between the civilian government and the army in Pakistan.
The civilian government in Pakistan has found a new way to keep the military happy and away from its doors by happily extending the services of the senior officers who could pose a threat to its tenure in any manner.
The lame duck government of Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gillani and President Asif Ali Zardari, which lost all legitimacy within months of winning the elections in February 2008, has realised that the only way to keep their seats is to keep the Army Generals on their side. Since the army is quite comfortable and keen to continue the charade of democracy, the Generals have allowed the civilians their share of `responsibility` by letting them take the decisions which the GHQ wants.
The latest episode in this incestuous civil-military relationship is the extension given to ISI chief Shuja Pasha. Pasha, needless to say, is a confidant of General Ashfaq Kayani who, himself, had allowed the Prime Minister to decide that his services be extended by three years. Pasha should have retired on March 18, 2011. Kayani, have been working in tandem for quite sometime, since 2008 to be more precise. These extensions have been justified in the name of `continuity` in their joint war on terror with the Americans. The Americans, of course, are happy that they will not have to reinvent the wheel in Rawalpindi; both Kayani and Pasha are known devils, and their extension coincides with Washington’s Exit `Strategy`.
Shuja’s extension in particular has serious implications for the region. The fact that Kayani told Gillani and his ministers that he want Shuja to be given an extension shows his confidence in his ISI chief to carry out his mission objectives. It also shows, without doubt, there are only a few other senior officers who has Kayani’s trust. Shuja’s extension could also be seen as Kayani’s lack of confidence in other Lt. Generals who could have taken over the new ISI chief. This could mean Kayani is not really confident about the support he could draw from his Corps Commanders and other senior officers. This raises serious questions about his support and strength within the charmed circle of half-a-dozen Lt. Generals who run the Army, as well as the country as a default. His statement to a visiting US delegation in January that he deliberately kept away from making a statement on the killing of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer fearing `trouble within` his force. What he meant was he was not really sure of the reactions his statement could have had among the ranks. The radical influence in the ranks and to some extent in the officer corps has been growing over the years.
The extension also erodes professionalism within the armed force which relies on military ethics, traditions and hierarchy to ensure that the Command and Control structure remained robust, a key element in a fighting force. The series of extensions which the army has witnessed in the recent past undermines this process, leaving enough space for dissension and protest. The erosion of Army’s capability to keep the country together then becomes a serious possibility with dire consequences. Ironically, a weakened Army leadership is bound to give rise to the emergence of a strong, radical leader from the officer corps who, with his coterie, might take the matters in hand, rendering the strategic thinking in Washington irrelevant.
Another equally serious implication of this game of extensions is on the nascent democratic process which began early 2008 with the elections. These elections, after the brutal assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto masterminded by a coterie of radical groups and their military handlers, raised high hopes among the people of a period of stability and progress. People were tired of violence, particularly after the disastrous Lal Masjid military operation in July 2007 which provoked a series of suicide attacks across the country. They were fed up of the army also, more so because of Musharraf’s megalomaniac blunders. A large number of people, therefore, had turned out to vote out the army and bring in the civilian leadership. To their misfortune, they voted for a party which promised them moon but neither had the leadership nor vision to give them basic needs. Petty, provincial politics ensured that Pakistan got two leaders who vied with each other in pusillanimity and corruption. Within weeks, it was quite clear that their only goal in reaching the highest political office in Pakistan, is to cling on to the seat for as long as they can and, of course, fill their coffers as quickly as possible.
They began on a more boisterous note; Zardari said being the President he would decide who would succeed Kayani; Gillani said since he was the Prime Minister, he would decide who he would recommend as the ISI chief. One said talk to India, other said ISI should be reined in. This lasted for few days before Kayani told them who was the boss and it took only a few more days for Zardari and Gillani to realise who really called shots in Pakistan. They saw, very quickly, that he was the man whom every foreign leader paid a visit. So when Kayani said he wanted a year’s extension, Gillani went overboard to suggest that it would be in the interest of the country that he remained the chief of army staff for the next three years. No one really bothered how this renewed tenure would impact on the strictly hierarchical Command and Control structure of Pakistan Army. Gillani could not care much as long the Generals off his collar. Kayani thinks that he is the Command and Control.
Whichever way the musical chair of extensions is looked at, it is apparent that even the tiniest of hope there was about the renewal of democratic political process in Pakistan has withered so fast that it went un-noticed in the din of Davis and Drones.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.