x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Pakistan's judiciary, not the army, holds the reins of power

Pakistan's civilian government has only itself to blame for its recent political troubles.

Relations between Pakistan's civilian government and the military have always held to a predictable pattern, but it seems that for the first time this relationship has changed. What happened and why?

Coup rumours are again making the rounds in Pakistan, although the army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani has taken pains to deny them. The irony is that this government is fighting for its survival not because of an impending military takeover, but as a result of its own errors.

Almost from its inception, and certainly since 1954 when Ayub Khan was concurrently defence minister and commander-in-chief, the Pakistan army has been a political force even when it was not at the helm of the state. This was always true except for a brief period during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's term as prime minister when, after its defeat in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the army was firmly under civilian control.

In the periods between military rule when elected governments were in power, the military has still been considered a political force. Even during the term of Gen Jehangir Keramat, perhaps the least politically threatening of the army chiefs, politicians would reach out to him to establish their "GHQ connections". Even though Gen Keramat was sacked by Nawaz Sharif in 1988, Mr Sharif never managed to tame the military and was eventually overthrown by another military dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf.

In her first term as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto also attempted to exert her influence over the military, but was destined to be toppled by the then-president, Ishaq Khan, with the support of the military.

Every civilian government in Pakistan has learnt to live with the army's political role and adjusted to it in different ways.

After Gen Musharraf was deposed in 2008, it seemed that the generals, having witnessed Gen Musharraf's disastrous course, were determined to stay out of politics and resume their constitutionally defined duties. This was a priceless opportunity for the elected government to deliver on good governance and clip the wings of Pakistan's army as a political force.

Far from doing so, the elected government neither governed effectively nor tamed the military. Continuing on a path of corruption, it ceded political space to the military.

Had the elected government wanted to, the US incursion to assassinate Osama bin Laden on May 2 offered a priceless opportunity to sack the army chief and the director general of the ISI. Instead, it seems that President Asif Ali Zardari sought US assistance to keep the military at bay. The "memo-gate" scandal that broke last month involved the former ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, allegedly delivering a letter to the Pentagon asking for US assistance to stave off a military coup. One can only assume that in exchange Mr Zardari's administration was offering its subservience to Washington and control of Pakistan's nuclear assets.

Nato's attack on November 26 on the twin posts at Salala was another opportunity lost by the elected government. Perhaps the government was aware that Gen Kayani, despite his apparent inaction, was the only person in Pakistan who could still stand up to the United States.

The Americans have tried to defuse the situation, with senior military staff making statements to Pakistan's Supreme Court denying that the memo was credible, but the scandal refuses to die. Because the Supreme Court is now reviewing the issue, not only the fate of Mr Zardari's government, but the civilian-military relationship as a whole is under review.

On December 22, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani thundered on the floor of parliament that he would not tolerate "a state within a state", an unambiguous reference to the army. The next day, Gen Kayani did his best to dispel rumours of a coup but the rumour mill keeps churning.

At the heart of this is the possibility of treason charges under Article 6 of the constitution; that trail could lead all the way to Mr Zardari and the presidential office. Having offered up Mr Haqqani as a sacrifice, the government would have liked to forget the scandal, but the Supreme Court has now sought responses from everyone concerned, including the chiefs of the army and the ISI.

Both the army and the ISI submitted affidavits stating that there was enough evidence to implicate Mr Haqqani. The government, in turn, has challenged the Court's jurisdiction in the affair. But the Supreme Court's continued inquiry could very well capsize this government.

The threat, then, posed to the elected government is not from the military but from the judiciary, which has implied that even the issue of presidential immunity is being considered. The most intriguing part of this affair is that, while the military seems fully conscious of the limits of its political power, the elected government's actions in the "memo-gate" affair has forced the military to become more involved. But it will be the decisions of the judiciary, not the military, that will see this government survive or fall.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer