Something’s got to give in Islamabad

By removing 13 of his officers, the army chief has all but asked the Prime Minister to quit — and the oligarchic warfare in Pakistan has turned more complex than ever before

So is Pakistan’s military getting ready to take over the government for a fifth time in its 69 years of existence to play its self-acquired additional role of defending national integrity? The country’s all-powerful army chief seems to have implicitly asked the third-time elected prime minister to quit. After names of some members of >Nawaz Sharif’s family appeared in the recent >Panama Papers leak, General Raheel Sharif made a pitch asking the Prime Minister to offer himself for an above-the-board accountability, which basically means to resign. The general is now joined by the GHQ’s new political creations, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Mustafa Kamal’s Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). Mr. Sharif snapped back by giving a televised speech in which he questioned the moral authority of the military to question him. Given excessive publicity since he took over as army chief, General Sharif seems to have greater moral authority to poke Mr. Sharif where it hurts. The television speech did not earn the political Sharif kudos, but it did indicate his intent to fight back.

The grapevine in Islamabad suggests four possibilities. First, the government is forced to resign under some imagined public pressure and elections are held again. Second, the government goes but is replaced with a broad-based national government. Third, the Prime Minister resigns but Pakistan Muslim League-N continues under another party leader. Finally, the least likely possibility at the moment, the military steps in.

Just like 1999?

The situation is a reminder of the friction between the heads of government and army after the Kargil operation in 1999. Even then, the main charge for removing the Sharif government was corruption. The then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, seemingly made appropriate laws and organisation to fight corruption. The National Accountability Ordinance (NAO, 1999) was framed as a draconian law to pursue the corrupt, track looted money and bring it back where it belonged.

But available evidence suggests that he gave up his overzealous pursuit of corruption within months of taking over. He was advised against scaring men with money out of the country at a critical time for the economy. Moreover, he needed civilian partners to bolster his own political career, due to which he brought on board numerous tainted politicians. Instead of recovering looted money from the Sharifs, as was claimed, General Musharraf cut a deal and sent the family in exile. Later, he withdrew a critical case being pursued in Swiss courts against Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari as part of the NRO deal. The situation is not likely to be any different now despite General Sharif making a linkage between terrorism and corruption. He appears to have even got the endorsement for this linkage from the Americans. But it still seems he will wait for Mr. Sharif’s boat to capsize under the burden of excessive criticism.

The real similarity, however, between 2016 and 1999 is that the real reason for the army’s need to remove the Prime Minister may not necessarily be corruption. Many believe that the army chief’s source of anxiety is with Mr. Sharif’s desire to challenge the military’s power through a permanent regional policy change and buying into the senior officer cadre. Every time he is in power, Mr. Sharif tends to divide the echelons. The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a battle between oligarchs. The army is the most organised and powerful oligarch which is also responsible for creating other oligarchs. Starting from the late 1960s, the army midwifed most political leaders. But that does not mean that they will not evolve and try to come into their own. In fact, the problem is that the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have rebelled in their own way, especially when they signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006. Mr. Sharif also seems to have divided the judiciary, which was subservient to the GHQ for a long time. Though it is not entirely free of the military’s influence, there are members who have cosied up to Mr. Sharif as a way to gain freedom from the military. According to the British legal expert Martin Lau, traditionally Pakistan’s judiciary engaged in Islamic judicial activism in order to gain ascendency over the military. Now they have a partner. This leaves the army with its under-construction oligarchs such as the PTI and PSP or its older partners such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Even the Jaish-e-Mohammed has become increasingly critical of Mr. Sharif’s ‘liberalism’ and ‘corruption’.

Uncertain consequences

Certainly, the oligarchic warfare in Pakistan has turned more complex and interesting than ever before. The consequences are not as predictable as they used to be. The generals continue to turn on the heat, which is very obvious from the manner in which news of the army chief removing 13 of his officers, including a lieutenant general, a major general and five brigadiers, was publicised. General Sharif can’t be bothered about creating the impression that he is on the same page as the government. In fact, such a notion has proved to be a total farce. We know that the military and civil leaderships were never on the same page. Even when it seemed to be the case, they were reading different lines. Now, the general wants to test his credibility to take on a prime minister. He is trying to convince the people and the world at large that he is more credible than the civilian dispensation. If he can sack his officers for corruption, then why can’t the political government go?

But it is not the first time that senior officers have been sacked. General Waheed Kakar also removed a couple of lieutenant generals. Nonetheless, it is the first time that the Director General (DG) of Inter Services Public Relations, Lt. General Asim Bajwa, leaked the news. This creates the impression that if the army, considered like Caesar’s wife — above questioning — can put itself through the accountability mechanism, then why not the civilians? Furthermore, there is systematic image-building of the chief. Thus far, General Sharif doesn’t seem to have any skeletons in his cupboard, but that itself does not say much about the accountability of his institution, which tends to manipulate laws to exploit state resources and label it as legal. After all, the general did make choices. He was instrumental in General Musharraf’s latest escape from accountability.

It is almost like watching the Turkish soap on the Ottoman empire that is very popular in Pakistan. There are incessant intrigues and conspiracies to protect individual power. Sadly, there is little hope for a positive outcome whichever way the battle turns. While General Sharif’s victory is bad for the country, the likelihood of great gains from Mr. Sharif’s would be equally dismal. The stakes are so high that it is not likely that they will learn the fundamental lesson that accountability and transparency are necessary for survival of both state and society.

Note: This article originally published here.