In 2017, Pakistan took a great leap backwards with the country’s army successfully orchestrating the ouster of its nemesis, Nawaz Sharif – the country’s three-time elected prime minister. The army has regained completely what it had lost with the removal of dictator General Pervez Musharraf a full decade ago. Nawaz’s cardinal sin was his attempt to bring General Musharraf to book for subverting democracy in a 1999 coup d’état. The Pakistan army saw General Musharraf’s trial as the touchstone of civil-military balance and was unwilling to see its former chief tried for high treason. Two successive army chiefs – General Raheel Sharif and the incumbent General Qamar Javed Bajwa – leaned on the judicial system, the former to get Musharraf off the hook, as he has claimed himself, and the latter to ensure that the legal proceedings against him remain stalled. Nawaz’s lesser faults, in the eyes of the army, were his soft approaches to India and Afghanistan. But even his tepid quest to normalise relations with the region at large has been unacceptable to the brass.
Ironically, the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Nawaz in July 2017 for not disclosing a resident’s permit for the UAE and not declaring a paltry salary, which he was entitled to but had not received, as his asset. The decision was widely perceived as the judiciary doing a hatchet job on behalf of the army. Nawaz was roped in when the so-called Panama Papers surfaced in 2016 in which his family, but not him, were implicated in offshore capital holdings. Though the Panama Papers disclosures had nothing to do with the army, the army-friendly media and politicians smelled blood off the bat and wasted no time in piling up on Nawaz. At the very least, the Supreme Court pandered to the army and the rabble-rousing anti-Nawaz politicians, and sent him packing. After failing to topple Nawaz through the ISI-orchestrated street protests in 2014, the army had exacted its pound of flesh. While the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had been consistently ceding political space first to General Raheel and then to General Bajwa, with the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz, the civil-military balance thus tilted firmly in favour of the army.
An unrelenting shakedown
The army, however, did not relent in its attempt to shakedown the PML-N government, seemingly to make an example out of it. This time around it deployed religious outfits, first to gnaw away at Nawaz’s conservative vote bank and then to browbeat his party’s government through yet more street protests. As soon as the former prime minister’s national assembly seat fell vacant, two groups announced they would contest against his wife, who was his proxy candidate. The first one, Milli Muslim League (MML), which is the political fig leaf for the Salafi terrorist group Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), polled just under 6,000 votes and the other one, Tehrik-e-Labayk-Ya-Rasoolallah (TLYR), a band of radical Barelvi zealots, bagged 7,000+ votes. About 30 years ago, the army had put together an electoral alliance of disparate right-wing religious and political groups around its then favourite Nawaz to counter the left-of-centre Benazir Bhutto. Now the same army was formally “mainstreaming” jihadist terrorists and zealots to neutralise a now-centrist Nawaz who – after gaining political maturity and popular support over the years – had tried to buck its dictates.
This election bid by the religious radicals was not the end of it. In early November, Sunni extremists of Barelvi denomination, under the aegis of TLYR, staged a blockade of a major road intersection between the federal capital Islamabad and Rawalpindi for several days. They were ostensibly protesting watering down of the wording of an oath pertaining to the “Finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad” in a recent legislative revision. They demanded that the federal law minister should resign. The poor minister had to broadcast a proclamation of his faith in the “Finality of the Prophethood” via social media, but the zealots could not be placated.
When the government, under instructions from the high court, tried to dislodge the protestors, they turned violent and six people were killed in the clashes. The army was called to help the civilian administration but it refused to act, in flagrant violation of the constitution that mandates it to aid the civilian power when called upon to do so. It was clear that after prodding on the protestors, the army wanted to further squeeze the PML-N government. Finally, the army intervened to broker an agreement between the government and the protestors, which lauded the army chief. The icing on the cake was a major general caught on camera while distributing cash money to the protestors. On the army’s crutches, a wheelchair-bound cleric and his 5000 goons had successfully crippled an elected government. It was not that the government failed to assert the writ of the state but that the army had wilfully flouted the constitution itself and enabled religious fundamentalists to trample upon state institutions.
Ex-PM Nawaz and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif have tried to rally their cadres against the military-mullah-judiciary combine with relatively good success in the street but face a divided house within the party leadership. The father-daughter duo seems keen to slog their way to the next elections, due in August 2018, while many in the PML-N believe that the army may wrap up the whole democratic dispensation before that. The latter section of the party wishes to roll over and play dead till an important upcoming indirect election for the country’s senate in March 2018.
There seems to be little appetite in most of the PML-N leadership, including ex-prime minster’s brother Shehbaz Sharif, for any campaign that takes the army head-on. Operating within the confines of a judicial bar on his political career, an assertive army and a party with no stomach for protest, the former prime minister seems resigned to taking his chances in the next polls, while murmuring against his unjust dismissal along the way. For all practical purposes, Shehbaz seems set to replace his brother as prime minister should their party score a victory that is looking increasingly difficult at this point. The army, for its part, would like to see a hung parliament in 2018, which makes it easier to manipulate and even topple or change governments in-house, without applying outside pressure. The political engineering of the type witnessed in Nawaz’s constituency is a step to help his opponents, especially the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, to gain an advantage. In an era where election-day rigging is difficult due to omnipresent phone cameras, pre-poll manipulations are heavily relied upon.
What do the happenings of 2017 portend for Pakistan and the region in 2018? It is a safe bet to predict that what’s past is the prologue.
Within Pakistan, a quasi-democratic government structure is expected to continue, though firmly under the army’s heel. Barring a major upheaval, the political parties will plod along in this uneasy relationship where the army chief is seen announcing development projects and inaugurating road tunnels. An army takeover can be ruled out since it can have its cake and eat it too, without imposing an overt martial law. Launching an overt coup and imposing martial law does two things immediately: unite the political forces at home and draw international ire. The army has no need to go through these hassles, when its whim is already treated as command, lowly major generals can repeatedly chastise elected federal ministers and no one dare think about curtailing the military spending and the army’s sprawling business empire. Interestingly, Pakistan’s first coup was launched by General Ayub Khan in 1958 after the cabinet had been considering a no war declaration offer by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and contemplating cutting defense spending. Not much has changed since and is unlikely to do so in 2018.
The shenanigans inside Pakistan also means that the India-oriented jihadists will operate now under the façade of a political party. While they are unlikely to score electoral victories, they would serve as an intense pressure group from outside to constrain the parliament from making even cosmetic changes to Pakistan’s infamous anti-minority laws, vicious blasphemy regulations and any course-correction attempts in the foreign policy arena. In practical terms, jingoism at home and the jihadist venture in Kashmir will continue unabated, leaving little possibility for normalisation in Indo-Pak relations. On the Western frontier, Pakistan is unlikely to change its tack in Afghanistan, as the army’s spokesman has asserted, despite the diplomatic pressure that has been applied by the US in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy. Pakistan continues to count on four things for the success of its Afghanistan misadventure: lethality of its Taliban/Haqqani Network jihadist proxies; inability of a fractured Afghan polity to counter them; the US abandoning Afghanistan; and, above all, Chinese support in case of a sustained US attack.
The US, Afghanistan and India can bet on it that they do not have any effective civilian interlocutor in Pakistan now. Whether Imran Khan becomes the next prime minister or Shehbaz does, they are the political Tweedledum and Tweedledee as far as asserting civilian supremacy against the army goes.
After the gruesome assassination of Benazir Bhutto a decade ago and the 2017 political elimination of Nawaz, the army’s diktat is unchallenged and is likely to remain thus. Unless the US is willing to prosecute Trump’s policy through punitive diplomatic, economic and even military measures, Pakistan will continue to stoke the jihadist pyres in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan is likely to stick to its late military dictator General Zia-ul-Haque’s practice in Afghanistan against Soviet Union: keep the pot simmering but don’t bring it to boil lest the Russians retaliated militarily. The US should not dither where the Soviets did as General Stanley McChrystal pointed out in his recent Foreign Affairs article: “A purely defensive strategy against these threats will never be sufficient; highly focused offensive operations, primarily in Afghanistan but, when necessary, also inside Pakistan, are required.”
The US certainly has the capacity to carry out such operations, as demonstrated in its raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. And the Pakistan army’s sabre-rattling notwithstanding, it has neither the capacity nor the will to respond to effective US action in a meaningful way. After all, the US drone strikes have continued despite the Pakistan Air Force’s chief threatening to shoot them down. Left to its own devices, Pakistan would love to see Afghanistan return to the hands of its Taliban proxies – a scenario which is unacceptable to majority of the Afghan people as well as the US. The US will have to make some tough choices regarding Pakistan. It would do well to continue to support Pakistan’s people and political dispensation while attempting to induce a change in its army’s behaviour.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki