Need for a reset

While former dictator and COAS Pervez Musharraf seeks a permanent constitutional role for the army in politics, during the past year the military’s role in national affairs has perceptibly increased. Hence it is no coincidence that while meeting General Raheel Sharif last week in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry described Pakistan armed forces as ‘a binding force.’

Without doubt, unlike his predecessor General (r) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, General Sharif has emerged as a no nonsense soldier who delivers. Military putsch against terrorists holed up in our badlands in the form of Zarb e Azb — started earlier during the year — is being viewed as a watershed in Pakistan’s war against terrorism.

This has, unfortunately, coincided with weakening of civilian institutions within the country. The beleaguered PML-N government’s poor grip on governance has been laid bare by Imran Khan’s consistent dharnas and public meetings, now in their fourth month.

True to his past record, Sharif started falling out with his handpicked military chief only few months after appointing him. Procrastination in the name of building a consensus on starting negotiations with the TTP, while the military had made up its mind to launch an operation, initially soured relations.

Coupled with it, the decision to try Pervez Musharraf for treason and the role of the government in the spat of the then ISI chief, Lt-General Zaheer-ul-Isalm, with GEO TV, did not endear the two Sharifs with each other. The prime minister’s sojourn to New Delhi in May, to attend the oath taking ceremony of newly elected Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, where he even failed to mention the Kashmir issue or meet the Hurriyat leadership, proved to be the proverbial last straw.

When Imran Khan embarked on his dharna in mid August and started calling for the third umpire to intervene, there was no doubt that the government was being boxed into a corner

The manner in which pro-ISI demonstrations were orchestrated left little to the imagination as who was behind them. Obviously there was a pervasive feeling that the government did not defend its own ISI chief from attacks by a media group.

Nawaz Sharif chose to visit Hamid Mir, the controversial GEO anchor behind the spat with the ISI, immediately after he was attacked by yet to be identified gunmen in Karachi. The army chief the very next morning, in a tit for tat move, made a high profile visit to the ISI headquarters.

In this context when Imran Khan embarked on his dharna in mid August and started calling for the third umpire to intervene, there was no doubt that the government was being boxed into a corner. Sharif and some of his hawkish ministers at the time started privately complaining to their confidants that the noose was being tightened around their neck by the establishment.

Nonetheless there was also a belated realisation in the corridors of power that relations with the military needed an immediate reset. The process started with Nawaz Sharif enthusiastically espousing UN resolutions on Kashmir at the General Assembly session in September.

The optics somewhat improved with retirement of Lt-General Zaheer in October. Sharif increased his interaction with the military chief to the extent of summoning the National Security Council meeting that previously he had always been hesitant to call.

The recent controversial decision of the Special Court to try Musharraf for treason to include former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, amongst others, in the list of defendants has virtually got the former dictator off the hook.

The prime minister has become so cautious lest he annoys the army that against his better instincts he refused to ride in an Indian manufactured car at the recent SAARC summit at Kathmandu and chose to take his own. He was even hesitant to shake hands with the same man with whom he had exchanged saris earlier in the year, lest it ruffled feathers back home.

Although still not on the same page, relations with the military have somewhat improved. But in the process the beleaguered Sharif has been considerably weakened at home and abroad. Kerry meeting the COAS on Thanksgiving holiday is one clear manifestation of the importance being attached to him at the expense of Sharif.

Kerry’s remarks about the Pakistani military being a binding force need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Washington obviously views General Raheel as a soldier who delivers. Perhaps the Americans feel (for good reason) that the Pakistani state is imploding from within and that only the military is binding it together.

Being increasingly viewed as weak and unable to deliver, this is not a good certificate for the civilian government.

At the recently concluded IDEAS conference — a defence sector event — the underlying theme of the panellists was that apart from existential threats and the scourge of terrorism, the modern day challenges were from within. These included lack of water resources, poor outlays on the social sector and a non-performing economy.

The same theme was somewhat amplified by the military chief who said that security does not refer only to external threats but is a concern in terms of politics, human rights, economy, water security, terrorism and insurgency.

It is a healthy sign that the military is also aware of the real challenges facing Pakistan. Nonetheless, it will be unfair to merely blame the Sharif government for the state of affairs.

The recent controversial decision of the Special Court to try Musharraf for treason to include former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, amongst others, in the list of defendants has virtually got the former dictator off the hook

It is a systemic failure of governance for which both the military and successive civilian governments are responsible. The army has overtly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence, with disastrous results. But maladroit and corrupt civilian rulers have also failed to deliver.

The other day Musharraf waxed eloquent about the golden eras of self-proclaimed Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his own. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different.

The late Ayub Khan, during his self-proclaimed decade of reforms, sowed the seeds of ultimate dismemberment of Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq destroyed the very fabric of the country by unabashedly using religion to perpetuate his rule and by nurturing jihadi culture to export as well to play havoc within Pakistan in years to come. Musharraf, the self-proclaimed messiah, failed to build a single infrastructure project during nine years of his ‘true democracy’.

There is need for the civilian government to reconstruct a new concord. That would require consensus building across the political spectrum as well as with the military. Old paradigms including relating to security will have to be shed.

Now that the military itself has acknowledged the need to redefine the external and internal dimensions of threats being faced by Pakistan, it should be a doable task only if it is willing to walk the talk. Our heavy outlays on defence can only be reduced if there is peace in the region. Whether the present government has the capacity and the ability to midwife such a quantum leap is another matter.

But this does not mean that we should wait for the fabled ‘man on horseback’ to step in. Such messiahs have failed in the past. Fortunately, the present military leadership has ostensibly no such intentions.

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