Challenging the Pakistan army - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 12 November 2012

Challenging the Pakistan army

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Nov 12

The Pakistan Army’s overlordship of that country’s national security decision-making has scarred New Delhi’s engagement with Islamabad, undermining the dialogue between the two countries. In any discussions, India’s Team A only meets Pakistan’s Team B. After they finish talking, Pakistan’s Team A --- viz. the Pakistan Army, which wields a veto over everything the diplomats and bureaucrats have discussed --- rules on the outcome from General Headquarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi.

But that stranglehold is being challenged within Pakistan in tentative but unmistakable ways. Following President Asif Ali Zardari’s extended confrontations with the generals, now the judiciary has fired a broadside across the military’s bows. On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued its detailed verdict in the Air Chief Marshal (Retired) Asghar Khan case, in which it has ordered action against former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, and his spymaster, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, for funnelling Rs 14 crore to various political parties to rig the outcome of the 1990 elections.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the battle-scarred campaigner who was instrumental in unseating President Pervez Musharraf, threw his full weight behind that verdict. After some TV news channels (a match in inanity for our own) reported that the Court Registrar had authored the judgment, the Supreme Court officially clarified that a three-judge bench headed by the chief justice himself had delivered it.

In its judgment on the case, which had remained a judicial hot potato since 1996, Justice Chaudhry enjoined soldiers to uphold the Constitution, even if he received orders from his seniors ordering otherwise. For the military, this must have sounded like, “Tell the general you’re not available for the coup.”

Such judicial strictures could not but provoke a military that is already under pressure from the media and from President Asif Ali Zardari. The president from the traditionally anti-military Pakistan People’s Party has repeatedly taken on the khakis (as Pakistani liberals disparagingly call the military), denting the army’s aura of omnipotence. Since 2008, when the Zardari government was forced to quickly withdraw a notification placing the ISI under the Interior Ministry, Zardari has grown steadily bolder. Last year he refused to back down in the so-called Memogate affair, when the military effectively accused Zardari of asking Washington for protection against a possible coup after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad. This after a fleeting moment of legislative oversight, when the military was forced to explain to parliament why it could not prevent US Special Forces from mounting a military operation in the Pakistani heartland.

Today the Pakistan military needs political cover from the government for military operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The conservative opposition parties steadfastly refuse to back those operations. All this boosts Zardari’s confidence, already high after remaining in power for what could be an unprecedented five-year term, despite massed resistance from the judiciary, the military, his political foes and the jihadis.

Rattled by these potentially adverse political winds, the generals have warned all concerned to back off. On Nov 5, army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani issued a statement through the Inter-Services Public Relations directorate, the military’s own PR agency, warning that, “All systems in Pakistan appear to be in a haste to achieve something, which can have both positive and negative implications. Let us take a pause and examine the two fundamental questions; One, are we promoting the rule of law and the Constitution? Two, are we strengthening or weakening the institutions? In the ultimate analysis, all of us would have served Pakistan better if history and our future generations judge us positively.”

For a country that understands well their military’s praetorian lexicon, the meaning of this profundity is clear: “Hold it, chums. We love democracy like you all do. But democracy does not mean that the institutions (the army) can be weakened. So back off!”

For the first sixty years of Pakistan’s history, such a statement from GHQ would have had every institution stepping back and issuing pro forma statements about the need to remain united to safeguard national security. But, in yet another sign of change, the Supreme Court’s retaliatory salvo came within three days, in the form of the detailed judgment.

This changing civil-military dynamic, which only the ideologically blinkered can fail to perceive, has not yet translated into any loosening of the Pakistani military’s absolute stranglehold over policy in four areas --- Kashmir, America, Afghanistan and China. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s polity, judiciary, civil society, clergy and jehadis are all increasingly willing to challenge the khakis. Nobody yet knows how this fascinating contest will play out as one side, then another, pushes back and flexes its muscles. But New Delhi must watch this power play carefully, keeping a safe distance from the participants it favours, because India’s approval is still the kiss of death in Pakistan.

India provides the generals with a useful raison d’etre. But for most Pakistanis America has long supplanted India as the top hate. As more Pakistani troops are diverted from the relatively peaceful border with India to the roiling badlands of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistani soldier will also wonder where the real enemy lies. Now the structural trends in Pakistan raise the interesting possibility that the army’s opinions may increasingly have to parallel, not shape, the public’s.


  1. Very incisive. The changing dynamics between political and military leaderships has been accurately analyzed as well as the implications on India.

  2. "praetorian lexicon" - You are probably the first person in the world to use that phrase.

    Care to explain what it means ?

  3. Kudos to some wonderful analysis. Keep up the good work.

  4. simple... the persians do it to the hilt... brinkmanship... hezbollah... gazans... baharain... syria... israel embassy vehicle attack in delhi/georgia/thailan... all else... nukes... same with sunnis... haqanni... al qaeda world wide... ttp... dawood... isi... china card... cia card... north korea... iran... else leak the nukes to all... and tie down all... so they can do their bit peacefully... watch out world...

  5. @ Jaffa

    praetorian: drawn from the Roman praetorian guard, which gradually assumed an overtly political role in running the Roman empire, praetorianism has come to mean (for students of civil military relations) a military's tendency to take on a political role.

    lexicon: the vocabulary of a particular language

    My use of "praetorian lexicon" in this article: the phrases and terms that have emerged from the Pakistan Army's overt role in Pakistani politics.

  6. A good article.
    That Zardari is growing bolder shall probably not last long. The corruption cases against Zardari which were closed with the National Reconciliation Ordinance during Musharaf's time are side by side nearing towards a full and proper investigation and may lead him to prison. Zardari was notoriously known as Mr Ten percent (possibly his going rate of commission in projects requiring govt sanction) during Benazir's tenure as PM. He spent time in prison too during Musharaf's reign and he may well do so now if he becomes too inconvenient for the military. I also think Zardari has an acute sense of self preservation. I therefore don't think he has the gumption to fight against the military too strongly. Iftikhar Chaudhry may be better placed to oppose the military but he is not a political entity.Imran Khan is never going to say anything which will spoil his chances of becoming the PM. US is undeniably a stakeholder in the future of Pakistan and probably would be better off with a military influenced polity for the present.

  7. It is very hard to say what the A team is really thinking.

    Take Siachen for instance - after all the thai soup and prawn curry - I feel we are collectively still in the dark about their intentions at Ghyari.

    Are they going to rebuild the base?

    Where will the money come from?

    What is the held view in the A team on the international experts report about the avalanche? do they accept David Petlay's characterization of the event or are there independent theories of the avalanche in the A team that no real expert has been allowed to examine?

    Do the A Team accept the view that construction on (or near) an unstable ice and rock accumulation in a terminal moraine is beyond ordinarily dangerous?

    Or do they cling to the idea that this kind of diagnosis is simply meant to discourage Pakistan's presence on the Bilafond and Grahmalumba glaciers?

    Are those "59 engineering plants" going to sit around (hopefully appropriately winterised) waiting for warmer weather to attempt some engineering miracle?

    If they are moved back will the plants be moved back to Goma or will they go back to their "peacetime" stations around the KKH?

    Are they going to keep dumping supplies at Shabbir base? and if so which will get priority - food/fuel/artillery shells?


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