As a country where military dictators have ruled overtly for 36 of the 70 years of independence, while virtually none of the 17 prime ministers have completed a full term, Pakistan is no stranger to military spokespersons holding press conferences. The October 5 presser by Major General Asif Ghafoor, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), however, was exceptionally brazen not just for its tone and tenor but also because of the scope of issues discussed.
If there was any doubt before about the army being the actual ruler of the country, the army spokesperson took even that fig leaf off himself.
A bunch of docile reporters lobbed one softball question after another, as if on cue, and the director general of the ISPR fielded it with an unabashed disregard for what is or isn’t the military’s domain. Curiously, the media persons had their questions neatly and conveniently pooled under four broad categories: Pakistan’s political, economic, diplomatic and security state of affairs. It might have been a coincidence but the way General Ghafoor had to say that a particular bunch of questions are political or economic, smacked of some backroom or spur-of-the-moment collating. The whole talk came across as a colonial governor general setting the agenda for his dominion or more recently the late chief martial law administrator General Zia-ul-Haq’s information secretary Lt. General Mujeeb-ur-Rehman listing the dos and don’ts for the media.
Clearly, the director general of ISPR was telling the domestic audience that the army is in charge. But he also appeared to be sending a message abroad that, notwithstanding his lip service to the military being constitutionally under the command and control of the civilian government, they are the ones calling the shots on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. For all practical purposes, it was an announcement that a de facto martial law is in place and the Pakistani civilian leadership has no control over the country’s domestic and foreign policies. What started with tripping the post-2008 democratic setup every step of the way, tacitly egging on judiciary to dismiss two duly elected prime ministers, coercing parliament to allow a parallel judicial system in the form of military courts, has culminated in the praetorian guards’ complete chokehold on all issues, whether they are security-related or not.
Condoning of religious vigilantism
It was disconcerting to see General Ghafoor comment on Pakistan’s economy that “if it isn’t terrible, it isn’t good either” or him not interrupting the reporters who insisted on derogating the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by calling him a “na-ahel wazir-e-azam (disqualified or incompetent PM)”. The most shocking part of the whole charade, however, was when the director general of ISPR took it upon himself to delve into complex religious doctrinal issues.
When asked about a recent change and repeal in an electoral law pertaining to affirmation of the finality of the Prophet Muhammad, instead of deferring the matter to the parliament where it was being discussed, he said: “Neither the armed forces have compromised on Namoos-e-Risalat (dignity of the Prophethood) (SAW), nor would they compromise on it in future [sic]”.
He added that the military and the Muslim Pakistanis are ready to die for the sake of Namoos-e-Risalat. In a country where blasphemy allegations have led to murder of even a sitting governor of the country’s most populous province Punjab, General Ghafoor’s comment was nothing short of legitimising the weaponised anti-blasphemy laws and a tacit condoning of religious vigilantism.
It also indicates that a supposedly professional army is willing to deploy religious dogma as a lethal weapon against its political opponents. The comment had come a day after some politicians considered close to the military smeared the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) for trying to remove the said clause from the election laws.
Support for jihadist outfits
Earlier this year the military is said to have abducted five bloggers running websites critical of the army and charged them with blasphemy. These bloggers were critical not just of the military but also the jihadist outfits it has sired. Ominously, he acknowledged on the record that a process is underway in Pakistan through which the jihadist outfits Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) et al are being formally inducted into the political process. Though he claimed that the (political) government was overseeing that process, the fact the JuD’s political front the Milli Muslim League was launched against the ruling party’s candidate and the former first lady, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif, in a recent by-election, strongly indicates that it is not the current government’s project and the so-called mainstreaming of militants was pushed by the army.
What General Ghafoor’s remarks show clearly is that military is jihadised at the highest level, it has consistently used the street agitation by its religio-political quisling to pressurise successive elected governments over matters ranging from alliance with the US or peace overtures to India and is willing to use the blasphemy smear to stifle dissent.
Days earlier, the army’s paramilitary wing, the Pakistan Rangers, had stopped sitting government ministers from entering a court where Nawaz was to appear. The Rangers, de jure, are the interior ministry’s troops but ended up stopping the federal interior minister professor Ahsan Iqbal as well. When the melee resolved, it appeared the interior ministry or local commissioner had not requisitioned the Rangers’s presence for that particular day.
The interior minister went on to decry that the brigadier in-charge of the troops had gone into hiding and was not taking his calls and he would rather resign his ministry than tolerate a state within the state. Undercutting the interior minister, General Ghafoor complimented the soldiers who stopped him and came up with a bogus excuse that the troops could move without being specifically ordered to do so in every instance. Ironically, he stated that the Rangers, constitutionally, are the interior ministry’s troops but still did not refer the question to the said ministry. He took it upon himself to rationalise the unauthorised action of the paramilitary against their duly elected and appointed civilian boss. A day prior to the presser, the Rangers posted to guard the Pakistani parliament were mysteriously withdrawn from their picket as if to rub it in that army can and will get away with any excesses.
General Bajwa’s visit to Kabul
General Ghafoor dwelled quite a bit on the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent visit to Kabul where he met with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ostensibly to break the stalemate in the bilateral relations. General Ghafoor mentioned a host of topics that the COAS discussed with the Afghan leadership.
Interestingly, the army chief had neither consulted with the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi, nor bothered to take along an elected civilian official – including the minister of defence – on his dash to Kabul in which he promised, as per General Ghafoor, the sun and moon of defence cooperation to the Afghans. The Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate Lt. General Naveed Mukhtar and career diplomats flanked the army chief in Kabul. An utter disregard for the norms of statecraft and diplomacy is not new for the Pakistan army and is its way of declaring to the neighbouring countries that they are the powers that be and no diplomatic breakthrough can be achieved over their heads. More importantly, it signals to the elected government that the Afghan and India policy remain an absolute no-go area for them.
In the aftermath of the COAS Bajwa’s Kabul visit and the Rangers fiasco, the Pakistan army’s corps commanders had convened a conference but curiously did not issue an official press release immediately afterwards. When asked about it, the director general of ISPR, like a B-grade novelist, pronounced that “(their) silence is also an expression”. He went on to proclaim that “saying that there is going be a martial law should not even be talked about. We are busy in doing our duty as stated in the constitution.” The irony was perhaps lost on General Ghafoor that usurping the foreign policy, trampling upon the domestic policy by flouting the federal interior minister, bypassing the prime minister, using highly-charged religious matters to settle scores with dissenters and politicians, passing adverse remarks about the country’s economy, harassing and abducting the dissenters and running a clandestine dirty war in Balochistan is anything but constitutional. If it is run a like a martial law, spoken for like a martial law and is as pervasive as a martial law, it is a martial law, whether or not a takeover at gunpoint has taken place.
And frankly, when the army can have its cake and eat it too, it would be foolish to impose an overt military dictatorship. It has successfully dislodged the country’s foremost politician in a bloodless judicial coup, has muzzled the media and manufactured consent and co-opted opposition politicians, so why would it need to go the whole hog. The answer would depend upon the extent to which the ousted Nawaz is willing to go to undo his disqualification and make a comeback.
History of military rule
The army’s current quest is to regain the space it lost after General Pervez Musharraf was eased out of presidency which he has usurped. Generally, clear-cut political victories or convincing military defeats cut the adventurist armies and their ambitions to size. In Pakistan’s case, the first military ruler General Ayub Khan had massive protests against him but was not exactly toppled. When he handed the baton to General Yahya Khan, The Economist, London, cheekily titled its March 29, 1969 editorial ‘Tweedle Khan takes over’. The 1971 defeat of the army and the independence of Bangladesh buoyed the civilian fortunes in Pakistan and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto consolidated his position vis-à-vis the army and removed the army chief. However, Bhutto revived the military’s fortunes through his own unbridled jingoism and deployment of the army to crush the secular Baloch movement for autonomy. And when Bhutto ended up in a deadlock with the opposition, the COAS Zia wasted no time in toppling and then hanging Bhutto on cooked-up murder charges.
While there was a consistent and rather robust pro-democracy movement against Zia’s dictatorship, it never did succeed in forcing him to relinquish power. An act of god or man took Zia in the clear blue skies, and eventually elections were held three months after his death. What followed was a quasi-democratic dispensation in which, to paraphrase the late PM Bhutto, the civilians were given the government but never the power to rule.
The army maintained an unconstitutional tutelary role and the civilians fell afoul whenever they attempted to question or challenge it. In the 11 years that ensued Zia’s death, military kept encroaching on the civilian space and eventually General Musharraf and his coterie launched an overt coup d’état in 1999. As Samuel Finer has discussed in The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, a military putsch is generally function of and an interplay between an army’s disposition to intervene vis-à-vis the opportunity existing on the ground for such intervention. Pakistan’s history has shown that its army has always maintained a relentless disposition and readiness to intervene. It has capitalised on opportunity when one popped up or manufactured one if there was none on the ground.
All militaries are, however, uniquely ill-trained professionally and psychologically to rule the complex civilian societies, multi-ethnic states and modern governments and invariably fall back on collaborating and coopted civilians. We saw that in Pakistan in every single dictators’ case. After an initial rule purely by the junta, Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf all eventually brought in a coterie of pliant civilians to run the government. Discussing this design flaw in the militaries world over, Finer points out that “politically the armed forces suffer from two crippling weaknesses, which preclude them, save in exceptional cases and for brief periods of time, from running without civilian collaboration and openly in their own name … once weakness is the armed forces’ technical inability to administer any but the most primitive community. The second is their lack of legitimacy: that is to say their lack of moral title to rule”. Again, every single Pakistani dictator resorted to coercing and coopting superior judiciary and some mutation of a parliament to condone his rule.
The showdown between Nawaz and the army, with the latter attempting to clip the former’s political wings permanently, has come to a head. Whether the undeclared martial law will morph into a manifest military rule seems less likely at this stage. Army’s preference would be to keep Nawaz out of the parliament and, possibly politics, with the courts and several opposition politicians closing rank with the brass. If they are able to contain Nawaz and possibly even carve a chunk out of his PMLN party, the army would prefer to maintain the status quo where it rules through informal diktat.
On the other hand, if the army perceives that the former prime minister may be able to harness his mass support into an electoral victory in the 2018 elections, they could change tack and induce some form of an interim political setup approved by the judiciary to create a façade of legitimacy. As for Nawaz, he seems to know that without a formal political confrontation with the army, the civilians would never be able to gain the space that is constitutionally and rightfully theirs. Indications are that he still has enough fight left him for that but whether sections of his own party are ready for it is not that clear.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.