Though the May 2013 elections marked a significant watershed, bringing in a successful civilian transition, civil-military relations in Pakistan remained fraught during the last year and are likely to remain troubled in the foreseeable future.
The State in Pakistan, as a modern institution suffered a long-term downward spiral, moving from a reasonably modernist leadership (Jinnah) to an arch-traditionalist one (under Zia). In a parallel transition, instead of separating religion and politics, and promised religious tolerance, Pakistan has moved towards Sunni majoritarian nationalism and concomitant persistent sectarian strife.
In a sense, the 2013 electoral verdict was pleasing for conservative forces in the Pakistani Establishment, both within the Military and the civilian bureaucracy as left of centre or centrist parties like the PPP, ANP and MQM(A) could neither canvass forcefully, nor did well except in Sindh. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) won 118 of its 129 National Assembly seats from Punjab alone, accentuating ethnic regionalisation of mainstream national parties.
Just before the May 2013 elections, briefing selected journalists informally, Army Chief Gen Kayani listed civilian failures which read almost like a charge sheet against politicians. Though opining in favour of free and fair elections, he indicated that the Army would not be averse to intervene in difficult internal situations like in FATA and Balochistan if asked to do so by the political leadership. He supported talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) but cautioned that these would have to be within the ambit of the Constitution. Issues like laying down of arms and a ceasefire could be discussed by the civilians but no agreement could be concluded without taking the military on board.
It became quite clear to political analysts present at this meeting that Kayani did not want to share the blame for civilian mismanagement. He was deliberately creating doubts about their capacity and in a larger sense, the very efficacy of democracy as a system. It seemed as if he was not really in the mood to let the Army continue taking a back seat or create adequate space for the democratic process to settle in. The impression conveyed was that only Army Generals have the sagacity and vision to lead the country. What Kayani perhaps left implicit or unsaid in this interaction was that may be, at a later date, military rule could again become more acceptable.
In this backdrop, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to carefully finesse the process of appointing the new Army Chief in November 2013 . Gen Khalid Shamim Wyne was allowed to retire as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in October 2013 without his replacement being announced immediately. Instead, Kayani’s favoured successor, Lt Gen Rashad Mehmood, Chief of General Staff was elevated upwards to this ceremonial slot just one day before Kayani’s retirement (29 November). Raheel Sharif, third in the order was chosen as the Army Chief ahead of his seniors, Haroon Aslam and Rashad Mahmood.
While Nawaz Sharif may have intended to convey a message that as Prime Minister, he wanted to remain his own man, this may not cut much ice with the Army leadership. Raheel Sharif has already shown that conventional consensus of the Army Collegiate leadership counts for more in top Army appointments than other political considerations. As Army Chief, he may not rock the boat too soon, his next phase of consolidation would involve placing officers of his own choice in key positions, especially Corps Commanders and in ISI.
Though the Nawaz government may have been forced by the Judiciary to take up treason proceedings against Musharraf, this case has the potential to destabilize civil-military relations in the future. Interestingly, Musharraf has claimed that he has the backing of the Army and he was surprised why Kayani did not take a stand against what seemed a clear case of vendetta by one or two persons (read Iftikhar Chaudhry & Nawaz Sharif). For the Army, while the person of Musharraf may be secondary, this is an institutional issue. If the army lets him to be tried and punished, a dangerous precedent will be set about the powerful office of the army chief. The disquieting silence of the army following Musharraf’s statement would seem to be a timely warning Nawaz Sharif would do well to heed.
Though the Interior Minister has claimed talks with the TTP have begun, facts on ground belie this claim and a sense of confusion prevails on counter-terrorism policy. Formation of a new anti- terror outfit comprising mainly crack military commandos on deputation has been announced but the Punjab Police has expressed unhappiness at being outflanked.
While the army’s capacity to influence decisions may have reduced, it still retains enough muscle to bend the politicians to its will on matters involving its core interests. In the long run, Raheel Sharif would inevitably grow into the Army Chief’s persona and start calling the shots regarding vital strategic decisions on India policy, Afghanistan, nuclear issues and relations with United States. If Nawaz Sharif tries to chart a course at variance with the Army consensus, he could be treading on thin ice.