Pakistani Army tightens the noose

Bhopinder Singh
Irrespective of the official status in Pakistan, the swinging tides of the ongoing tussle of one-upmanship between the hapless politicians and the assertive military men is again weighing heavily in favour of the soldering fraternity. The brief interlude of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reign was perhaps the only time in the Pakistani history when the military men were truly on the defensive (the recent humiliation of the Bangladesh creation was heaped on the reckless Pakistani Generals). However, the wily General Zia-ul-Haq was to soon rewrite and redefine the governance template in Pakistan with either the formal anointment of the Generals in power, or even when bereft of the formal shenanigans (as seen in the last decade with the shadowy presence of first, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and now General Raheel Sharif, who have had the last word in Pakistan even though there is ostensibly a civilian Government in power).
The seeds of the intrigues and the accompanying machinations were exemplified by the famous last-minute comment made by the then Pakistani Army Chief, General Zia-ul-Haq to his trusted Corp Commander of the 10th Corps, Lieutenant General Faiz Ali Chisti, just before the commencement of the military coup (ironically called, “Operation Fair Play”) to topple the civilian President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, “Murshid, marwanadena” (literally, Guru, don’t get us killed). Subsequently, the military man in the presidency, Zia-ul-haq went ahead and conducted a military-like and precise pogrom of legitimising his iron-fisted rule over Pakistan – for doing so, anything was “fair play”, e.g. ushering in the element of religious Sharia laws, suffocating political opposition, making Pakistan the international jihadi transit camp and appointing loyalists or dummy candidates etc., as long as it perpetuated the rule of the uniform, till a mysterious case of exploding mangoes in an military aircraft accounted for General Zia-ul-Haq himself and most of his high command.
Even the ploy to select a pliant and ‘safe’ officer (read, not from the dominating stock of the Punjabis or Pathans, and therefore usually, a Mohajir) never really worked for the politicos – First Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made the fatally wrong decision in superseding many Generals and appointing an ‘apolitical’ Mohajir like Lt Gen Zia-ul-Haq as the Pakistani Army Chief, and  then more than 22 years later the civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would repeat the same mistake of appointing a ‘safe’ and ‘apolitical’ Mohajir, Lt Gen Pervez Musharraf, while superseding many other senior officers. Prior to the Musharraf takeover, Nawaz Sharif had forced the four star General JehangirKaramat into a premature retirement and had a rocky equation with General Abdul WaheedKakar, even prior.
Today, the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is well-ensconced vis-à-vis the political classes and enjoys a clear preference from the countrymen. Some back-moves and whisper campaigns of him taking over as the “Field Marshal” are doing the rounds, as the clock ticks dangerously close towards his supposed retirement in September. Irrespective of the role and rank General Raheel Sharif adorns post-September, the proverbial noose is tightening around the political classes with a spate of retired-Generals positioning themselves in all important government positions. This is crucial development as a ‘invisible-coup’ in the form of Military men taking over civilian/bureaucratic/political positions like the National Security Adviser was first witnessed with the takeover of the position of the National Security Adviser (NSA) by Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua (retd), who replaced Sartaj Aziz in October of last year. That the NSA shadows the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in Islamabad and feeds in crucial policy inputs towards all strategic matters, both internally and externally, is a matter of invaluable succour and tactical comfort for the serving Generals, twenty kilometres away in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
Now, the recent appointment to the highest bureaucratic position in the Pakistani Defence Ministry has yet again gone to a retired-General, much to the consternation of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had to yield to the pressures from the military brass and appoint Lt Gen Zamir Ul Hassan Shah (retd) as the new Defence Secretary. He had retired earlier in the year as the Adjutant General and as the military’s preferred nominee, he has become the latest victor in the ongoing military-civilian battle of wits to crucial positions.
Seeing the competency levels and the clear tilt of power in favour of the Pakistani military, even China has nudged the civilian government in Islamabad to give the control-levers of the ultra-strategic CPEC project ($ 47 billion infrastructure project) to the Pakistani military. The presence and involvement of the Pakistani military guarantees the security cover along the corridor, as indeed ensures the completion of the development imperatives given the no-nonsense availability of civil, mechanical and electrical engineers at the disposal of the Pakistani military. Understandably the politicos fear yet another out-reach of the Pakistani military into the civilian domain – expectedly, the military quickly committed a dedicated division of 15,000 soldiers to defend the strategic corridor. As if that wasn’t enough, even the Chairmanship of the all-important Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) has concurrently been given to Lt Gen Muzamil Hussain (retd) – he replaces the civilian bureaucrat Zafar Mahmood. All these moves signal the military grip beyond the barracks and the borders. The Pakistani military is said to have interests and stakes in various disparate industries like fertilizers, cement, banking, transportation and even cereal factories, besides running educational institutions and infrastructural projects – all in all, as per some reports the Pakistani military is the largest residential property developer in the country and overall, the military owned businesses account for 7 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP.
Even politically, the military is believed to pull strings of rival parties tactically to keep the ruling civilian government in check. From the patronage of the Jamaat-i-Islaami by Zia-ul-Haq, tacit understanding with the MQM during the Pervez Musharraf reign to the current military benevolence on the Imran Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the second-guessing game for the ruling dispensation ensues unabated. The cat and mouse games came to the fore recently when the Pakistani Army summoned the entire Nawaz Sharif cabinet, excluding the Interior Ministry to, “discuss the country’s external and internal security-related policies” – clearly sending a cold signal of the brazen power and influence the Army has in influencing policies, summoning the cabinet and more importantly deciding the quorum for such important meetings. This age-old tussle of the military-civilian divideis acquiring unprecedented dimensions that need to be noted in New Delhi in charting out the future course of action, discussion panel and approach. The writing is clearly on the wall and the Pakistani Army is leaving no stone unturned to establish their writ and tighten the noose, irreversibly.
(The author is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)