South Asia

Nawaz Sharif Has Now Gone for the Pakistan Army's Jugular

Nawaz Sharif has a unique insight into the army establishment’s mindset and modus operandi, as he once was their chosen man. Yet, now, he has gone on the offensive like no mainstream politician has before.

Pakistan’s three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has indicted the incumbent Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, current director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (DG ISI) General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, former DG ISI General Zaheer-ul-Islam and the former director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) General Asim Salim Bajwa, for toppling his elected government and installing their puppet Imran Khan as the prime minister, through a stolen election.

That the army rigged many elections before and manipulated the political process for six decades, has never been hidden. But a former premier, let alone one with his power base in Punjab – the home of army brass and soldiery – doing so publicly is unprecedented and unheard of in Pakistan.

No sitting army chief, who was not a dictator, has ever been named and shamed publicly by a mainstream politician before.

And that Sharif addressed, from London via video link, an opposition rally at Gujranwala, merely ten miles from General Qamar Bajwa’s hometown Ghakar Mandi, was truly momentous. The rally was held under the aegis of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a broad coalition of the opposition political parities that had fired its first salvo just a couple of weeks ago.

Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, wave flags as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Gujranwala, on October 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Nawaz Sharif is the only prime minister in Pakistan’s history, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who has actually sacked two sitting service chiefs. Bhutto had fired and put under house arrest, General Gul Hassan Khan and Air Marshal Abdul Rahim Khan, on charges of what he had called their Bonapartism. In his second prime ministerial stint, Sharif got General Jehangir Karamat to step down as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), when the latter a made a public speech calling for the “creation of a military-dominated council that would play a key role in determining government policy”.

And after General Pervez Musharraf engineered and humiliatingly lost the 1999 Kargil War, Sharif had dismissed him, only to be toppled by the army, which stood by its chief, in a coup d’état within hours. Sharif was tried for assorted trumped-up charges, including the hijacking of Musharraf’s plane, jailed and later exiled. He never forgot that. In fact, he had learned it the hard way, even before that.

Nawaz Sharif has unique insight into the army establishment’s mindset and modus operandi, as he once was their chosen man.

He was supported and propped up by the army against the late Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 1980s. But he spent little time in learning not just the political ropes but also the fact that the army’s worldview is simply not compatible with progress and development.

The scion of a business family, Nawaz Sharif saw mega projects, highways, free trade and open borders as the key to prosperity – and political power.

He understood really fast that the army’s zero-sum games lead to an economic dead-end and international isolation. By 1993, he had already proclaimed publicly that he “will not take dictation” from the powers that be. It cost him his first premiership but a lesson was learnt forever.

General Pervez Musharraf addresses the nation on state television on October 17, 1999, announcing the setting up of the National Security Council (NSC), to guide cabinet ministers in running the affairs of the country. He said that army rule would last no longer than necessary but gave no clear timeframe. Photo: Reuters

Sharif’s main political rival

When Nawaz Sharif assumed the high office for the third time in 2013, he let the law take its course against the usurper General Musharraf for the 1999 coup. The army brass under the then COAS General Raheel Sharif wasn’t amused. The sitting generals took umbrage at their former chief being tried for sedition – a first in the country’s history. Sharif was warned but he shrugged it off. The junta went after him with a vengeance.

The army, via ISI, plotted for Imran Khan to mobilise the street against Sharif on the pretext of an alleged rigging in the 2013 elections. Those protests eventually lost steam, but Sharif’s government was weakened to the extent that it allowed the former dictator to leave the country. Sharif was subsequently framed in graft charges and ousted from the office in an army-judiciary pincer move. There has been an undeclared martial law in the country since.

Imran Khan. Photo: Reuters

Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) continued in government, only to be shown the door in an election widely perceived to be heisted for Imran Khan by the army. The army regained all the political ground it had lost since the ouster of General Musharraf in 2008. Later on, General Musharraf was found guilty of high treason and awarded capital punishment by a high court but remains at large.

The Pakistan army’s Imran Khan project, however, has turned out to be a disaster in the governance and economy. Despite being politically hamstrung, thanks to the army’s machinations, PML-N had presided over an era of growth and economic recovery. But every economic indicator went south under the Imran-Bajwa hybrid martial law regime and every constitutional right has since been trampled upon. And therein lies the rub.

Had the army’s most recent experiment in controlled democracy been a success on the economic front, it might have been able to sustain it a little longer. But this venture was dead on arrival. Imran Khan is quite literally the master of disaster. He had zero experience in governance despite his party running the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province since 2013. A cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan is not only an arrogant man but also highly incompetent and shallow. His horrendously superficial understanding of the complexities involved in running an ethno-nationally diverse federation like Pakistan, is rivalled only by his patrons in the army’s general headquarters.

Imran Khan’s 2018 electoral victory was engineered by the army through “herding” the so-called electable politicians into his party. And when that appeared insufficient, by stealing it on the polling day. The praetorian guard’s past attempts at ruling through presidential system, a king’s party, or overtly by imposing martial law, went on for some time, thanks largely to monetary windfall from renting out the army to the United States in the Cold War, anti-Soviet Afghan war, and the post-9/11 War on Terror.

And when the US tried to make the financial aid contingent upon civilian democratic oversight, the Pakistani junta leapt firmly into the Chinese lap. But despite several dole outs, China hasn’t turned out to be quite the sugar daddy the US had been for better part of Pakistan’s existence. Despite the economic lifeline thrown to the Imran-Bajwa regime by the American-backed International Monetary Fund, the country’s economy has remained in shambles, with a tumbling GDP, sky-high inflation and exorbitant consumer prices. The public at large is up in arms.

Nawaz Sharif sensed the public sentiment – and has gone for the army’s jugular.

And while Sharif, in his barrage, named the generals and carefully circumvented naming the army, for all practical purposes, chief is the army and army the chief. It is not lost on Sharif that an outfit that has produced one after the other chief fond of venturing into politics, has an institutional flaw, and not merely some individuals at fault. But his tactic is right.

Also read: Pakistan: Is Political Change in the Air?

Pakistan’s military leadership – and the country’s multiple crises

General Qamar Bajwa’s extension as the COAS had not gone well with several in the general staff and officers corps, who also see his overt meddling into politics and even economy as a recipe for inviting further disrepute. Some feel that by exercising the nuclear option, Sharif has burnt his boats but for all practical purposes he has torpedoed General Bajwa’s armada. Politicians have nine lives, but army chiefs have one, unless they opt to rule by martial law. And a martial law has always been imposed in Pakistan without a prior overt feud between the civilians and the army.

Generals Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq had imposed army rule ostensibly to resolve the civilian bickering. And while General Musharraf’s putschist intentions were known within the power circles, there was little if any public talk of it. By going public with his indictment of General Bajwa, Nawaz Sharif has deprived him of stealth and surprise, which have been hallmarks of Pakistani coup d’états.

While a martial law is highly unlikely in Pakistan, even if the army were to commit that blunder, it won’t be able to sustain it. Domestic and international deck is now stacked against military rule. General Bajwa’s options are rather limited. He won’t be able to come swinging at Nawaz Sharif publicly.

He would have to rely on Imran Khan for his defense. And Imran Khan’s rant, a day after the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) rally, clearly shows that. I have always maintained that the Imran-Bajwa duo will sink or swim together. And this time around, barring an earth-shattering event, the double trouble is headed for ouster, sooner rather than later.

File photo of Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Miranshah. Credit: Khyber TV

What Nawaz Sharif has said now, has been said for decades by Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi, Bengali, Urdu-speaking, and indeed Punjabi leaders of Pakistan. But as he rightly pointed out, they were smeared as traitors, or worse, apostates. The army did not even spare Fatima Jinnah, sister of the country’s founder, because she had challenged the junta’s diktat. The army was able to get away with it because its victims came from the numerically smaller nationalities or parties.

In case of the Bengali leaders, the disdain was both ethno-national and geographic. But Nawaz Sharif is none of that.

And none of the past accusations against the dissenters will stick against Nawaz Sharif. He is an austere, practising Muslim from Punjab who has a massive public support in the exact same areas that the majority of army’s rank and file comes from.

In addition, the PDM has Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of the religio-political Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) party, as its president. This instantly deprives the army of its anti-religion, anti-Pakistan card that it has always played against its leftist, nationalist, progressive detractors. The PDM also has in its fold assorted Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties, and the PPP, now led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. This rainbow coalition is all set to give army a run for its money. By taking his fight to General Bajwa’s hometown, Nawaz Sharif has fired a warning shot that from here on out it would get messy, were the army to play dirty.

Also read: Pakistan Army Continues Proxy Wars Across Borders and Plunder at Home

Sharif’s political legacy

Nawaz Sharif has wisely opted to stay in London, where he had gone for medical treatment. Treatment or not, it is much better for him to stay and lead from abroad. There simply is no point in a hot-headed return, only to be thrown back in prison by the Imran-Bajwa regime. He is much more effective via telecommunication and can return when the movement and the moment is ripe.

Nawaz Sharif has taken a stand that was unthinkable, especially from him, a few decades ago. He has eyes on his political legacy. The former prime minister clearly wants to go down in history as a statesman who decisively upended the army’s hegemony over politics and governance in Pakistan. He also intends to pass on the party leadership baton to his daughter Maryam, who in her own right has emerged as a leader more than willing and capable of challenging the army brass for its shenanigans.

Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam sit on a Lahore-bound flight due for departure, at Abu Dhabi International Airport, UAE July 13, 2018. Reuters/ Drazen Jorgic

The father-daughter duo seems to have made a very calculated decision to confront the junta before it is too late. Unlike some of their family and partisans, they have their hand on the voters’ pulse. They read it correctly that people have had enough of the hybrid martial law and are ready for a change.

The PDM has planned a series of rallies eventually evolving into street protests. The timeline seems to be about 90 days to get General Bajwa to doff the uniform. And that would mean an instant wrap up for Imran Khan as well. But what Nawaz Sharif has said in his address has serious implications. He has warned the COAS that he has to answer for subverting a constitutionally and democratically elected government. That means another high treason charge against another army chief.

Is the army brass willing to ease out its chief or is it ready for a showdown that would leave it even more bruised and battered? There is a strong possibility that the army would cut its losses and send Imran-Bajwa packing. But if it does not, the Nawaz Sharif brand has mustered enough popular support that it can force them to.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.