Sharif Don’t Like It

Rocking the Civil-Military Casbah in Pakistan.

As the world watches on, Islamabad continues to be besieged by protests that have brought the government to a standstill. The Azadi and Inqilab marches, led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tahir ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) are demanding, among other things, the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, dissolution of the Sharif government and fresh polls under the supervision of a caretaker government.


It is no small irony that Pakistan’s democratically-elected government was being held hostage by a rabble of protesters even as the country celebrated its 68th independence day.  The bizarre spectacle of Mr Khan and Mr Qadri goading their followers from atop shipping containers to breach security barricades outside the parliament and PM House made for interesting television, but the script was lacking in originality. Indeed, it was as recently as January 2013 that the PAT faithful – egged on by Mr Qadri from the comfort of his bullet-proof container – took their “Long March” to Islamabad, where they laid siege to the parliament and demanded that the then PPP-led government call for early elections.

That Messrs Khan and Qadri operate with the support of the army is perhaps Pakistan’s worst-kept secret. The Pakistani Army’s attempt to coerce the Sharif government into towing the line on a number of issues is being referred to as a “soft coup” or a “coup by other means”.  But neither term does justice to describing the situation at hand in Pakistan. A ‘coup’ presupposes the existence of a time when civilian governments in Pakistan exercised full executive authority as enshrined in the country’s constitution.

However, the Pakistani army, which sees itself as “the only institution capable of protecting Pakistan,” has had monopoly over national security and key foreign policy decisions since Gen. Ayub Khan’s coup d’etat in October 1958. Civilian governments in Pakistan have historically had little input or control over formulation and execution of key policy priorities, including those relating to Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the U.S., as well as on matters of national security.

Civil-military relations in Pakistan are always in a state of crisis.  When the army perceived a civilian government’s position as being untenable, it sought to either oust democratically-elected leaders through available political or judicial channels, or in more extreme cases, overthrew the government, justifying the action as being needed to secure Pakistan’s national interests. Gen. Musharraf, for example, attempted to rationalise his decision to overthrow the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999 by suggesting that he had a choice between “saving the body – that is the nation, at the cost of losing a limb – which is the Constitution, or saving the limb and losing the whole body… I chose to save the nation.”

Pakistan watchers sometimes point to a strong and independent judiciary and media as factors that limit the army’s ability to launch direct military coups. While there is some merit to this argument, both the judiciary and the media have been utilised to promote and validate the army’s actions in the recent past.  Military usurpers themselves have been sworn into office by Chief Justices and pro-establishment factions and personalities in the media can always be counted on to tow the army’s line. Ultimately, as Aqil Shah observed in The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, “military coups happen when armed men want them to happen. Armies retract from power when they want to.”  The existence of an independent judiciary and media, therefore, is not a sufficient condition to ensure that Pakistan has seen its last overt military coup.

But since Gen. Musharraf’s resignation as president in 2008, army leadership appears to be more inclined towards more indirect forms of coercion to achieve objectives and keep civilian governments in check.  A review of civil-military relations in Pakistan during the tenure of the PPP-led government from 2008-2013 indicates that the Pakistani military establishment was able to rein in the civilian government very effectively through the use of a variety of coercive tools including proxy actors and subtle threats of force.

The PPP-led government came to power in Pakistan following the 2008 general elections, promising (among other things) to improve relations with India.  However, tensions between the newly-elected government and the army surfaced soon after it came to power.  When terrorists from Pakistan attacked multiple high-profile targets in Mumbai in November 2008, PPP president Asif Ali Zardari offered to send the chief of the Directorate for Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) to India for consultations. The army scoffed at the idea of a Director General of the ISI being sent to India to be subjected to questioning about a terror attack; the decision was quickly ‘vetoed‘.

Mr Zardari’s further attempts to bring the ISI under civilian authority made matters worse, culminating in prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani having to reverse his decision to place the ISI under his government’s Interior Ministry within hours of issuing the order. Mr Gillani himself paid the price for refusing a Supreme Court order to write to authorities in Switzerland and re-open money laundering cases against Mr Zardari; he was held in contempt of court and dismissed as prime minister. Incidentally, Mr Gillani’s unceremonious removal from office was also described as a “soft coup” at the time.  A similar fate awaited the PPP’s next prime minister, Raja Parvaiz Ashraf, whose arrest on charges of corruption was ordered by the Supreme Court while he was still in office.

In both instances, there did not appear to be overt collusion between the military and the judiciary; however, as Christine Fair noted in her piece The Pakistani Military’s New Coup Playbook, these instances of judicial activism peaked when the army appeared to have a viable alternative against the ruling government.

Civil-military relations during PPP’s rule ultimately hit rock bottom during the ‘memogate’ incident in 2011. In that particular instance, a memo allegedly delivered on behalf of Mr Zardari to the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Advisor, sought US assistance in averting a military coup in Pakistan and establishing civilian supremacy over the military-intelligence establishment.  The incident sparked outrage in Pakistan, with unnamed military sources then claiming to be “fed up” with Mr Zardari.

Even though Pakistan’s electorate voted out the unpopular PPP government and delivered a decisive mandate to the PML(N) in the 2013 general elections, the army’s desire and ability to curtail the powers of elected governments in Pakistan remains undiminished. Three main issues of contention between the Nawaz Sharif government and the Pakistani army have led to the current impasse: peace talks with the TTP, treason charges against Pervez Musharraf and relations with India.

Mr Sharif was forced to acquiesce to the army’s desire for counter-insurgency operations against the TTP in North Waziristan even as his attempts at “peaceful negotiations” with the TTP stalled. Mr Sharif has resisted repeated attempts by the army to facilitate an exit for Gen. Musharraf, the man who overthrew and exiled him to Saudi Arabia in 1999. But the army will not simply stand idly by while a former army chief is forced to stand trial on charges of treason. Relations between Mr. Sharif and the army are also strained on matters relating to India. Mr Sharif favours liberalising trade and granting Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India, while the army wants the civilian government to prioritise negotiations with India on what it considers to be outstanding disputes, primarily Siachen and Sir Creek.

While Mr Sharif has so far avoided total capitulation, he is expected to emerge from the current fracas a diminished figure.  He may find himself fighting new fires should he not accede to the army on areas of contention, particularly with regard to the Musharraf trial.  Indeed, a source close to the army reportedly opined that Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri were giving the Sharif government sleepless nights today, but a different crisis could just as easily come to a head tomorrow.  Should this veiled threat materialise, it would not be out of the ordinary, given the history of civil-military relations in Pakistan, but rather business-as-usual.

Photo: Mustafa Mohsin