From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain
Following piece about recent clouds on Pakistan’s scene was mainly for non-Pakistani audience as many questions/confusions came my way.
This is an attempt to understand the view from barracks although I strongly oppose such moves from military. This is first of two part. Second part will deal with modus operandi.
Political Engineering – View from the Barracks
In July 2017, disqualification of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif by Supreme Court again opened the debate about the role of country’s powerful army. This was one of the most politicized decision of country’s Supreme Court. In April 2017, Supreme Court not only ordered formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) but went ahead and nominated its members. It included a serving Brigadier Kamran Khurshid of Military Intelligence (MI) and a retired Brigadier Nauman Saeed of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Supreme Court disqualified Sharif based on JIT investigation. In the aftermath of Sharif disqualification, many political changes including change of provincial government in Baluchistan achieved by defection of several members, defeat of government’s nominee for Senate chairman position and defection of many politicians from ruling political party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) to rival Pakistan Terek-e-Insaaf (PTI) were alleged to be orchestrated by the army brass.
All available evidence strongly points to direct involvement of senior army brass in political engineering but no one dares to say the obvious. Using a very sophisticated campaign, military has silenced all alternative views. There are whispers and rumors and some limited discussion about the pros and cons of army’s latest experiment of political engineering among officers. There is not much written material about thought process of Pakistan army senior brass as far as involvement in political affairs is concerned.
Like any army, Pakistan army is a conservative institution that instills nationalist ethos among its officer corps. Officer corps is mainly from middle and lower middle class. Majority of officers come from cadet colleges. Retired army officers run these schools on lines of British public schools with discipline, focus on academic excellence as well as active involvement in sports and other clubs. Students usually enroll at the age of twelve or thirteen and groomed for military academy. During military career, there is mutual reinforcing of entrenched views about national security and impact of political course on national security. In every country, army is a large bureaucracy and not known as a soil conducive for alternative views or challenging established ideas and Pakistan army is no exception.
At psychological level, soldier follows an orderly life within an accepted chain of command where orders are followed. Military cantonments and facilities are well organized and clean when compared to civilian populations with crumbling infrastructure and a disorderly life. In Pakistan, army generally enjoys a very high level of respect and public adulation for its professional work. This sometime generates a self-righteous attitude among officers where they feel they have monopoly over patriotism and everybody else is suspect. Deep mistrust between civilian and military leaders ensures a permanent dysfunctional state.
Pakistan has more than its fair share of normal political activity with not only different views but significant polarization on various issues. Political leaders behaving like mortal enemies is seen by army officers as a serious threat to national unity. Corruption at highest levels and involvement of some elements of political parties in Mafiosi like criminal activities reinforces the view of the officer that he is the only one standing between order and chaos. It is with this background that army brass moves out of its own lane and intervenes in internal political affairs. The type of intervention depends on the situation ranging from direct control of the state and running the show completely with uniformed officers to behind the scenes maneuvers and using political pawns willing to play second fiddle to generals.
Unresolved issues with Pakistan’s larger neighbor India is the central piece of army’s national security doctrine. In some cases, a genuine national security issue is enlarged to encompass everything including direct political interference. Army’s intervention is not solely from altruistic purpose but institutional and personal interests as well as personal ambitions of senior officers are also at play. In addition, personality of army chief and institutional pressure from below can also determine the course. Army considers itself as the custodian of national security therefore it wants monopoly of formulating and implementing security policy. They consider civilians as neither qualified nor sufficiently committed to take charge of national security policy. This is the major source of friction between civilian and military leaders. In this tussle, each side tries to extract concessions for personal and institutional interests.
The current crisis of break between Nawaz Sharif and military brass has its origins in the same old stumbling block of national security. There were several additional factors that widened the gulf until the sword finally fell on Sharif. Army chief heads a ‘college of cardinals’ of about dozen senior officers consisting of Corps Commanders and Principle Staff Officers (PSOs). They periodically meet to discuss internal and external issues. The nature of discussion depends on the composition of senior brass. When a new Chief takes over, some senior officers are of the same seniority and he can be considered ‘first among the equals’. In such a case, senior officers can be vocal and express views candidly. In cases where many senior officers are superseded or a Chief has a longer than normal three years tenure then significantly junior officers sitting around the table usually defer to Chief and may not express their views candidly if they are contrary to Chief’s views. In some cases, during change of command (especially if newly elevated army Chief is not from the inner core of close confidants of outgoing Chief), some naughty senior officers try to play their own little games.
There was friction between Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif (2013-2016) on some issues (trial of former army Chief General Pervez Mussharraf was a major stumbling block) but a reasonable functional relationship continued. At institutional level, army had launched a major operation against last stronghold of militants in North Waziristan and needed a civilian cover. On personal note, Raheel was looking for an extension of his tenure or elevation to the rank of Field Marshal. Raheel had also opened a front against Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari by arresting many of his close friends involved in corruption as well as eliminating militant wing of Karachi’s urban ethnic political party Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). All these measures required working relations with Nawaz Sharif and Raheel worked hard to convince hawkish senior officers. Army Chief is the sole spokesperson for his institution when interacting with civilian leadership. A vigorous discussion among senior brass provides the Chief the necessary raw material to work with as well as sort out differences.
In November 2016, new army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa took command of the army. He was not from the inner core of outgoing Chief and hence not in the loop of many crucial decisions. In such a case, new Chief needs to learn fast to ascertain details of ongoing projects. He is more mallow in character and was initially inclined to continue this working relationship with civilians. Two hawkish senior officers were superseded when he was elevated therefore he had a good start where he could bring two newly promoted officers to the table. In the beginning, he shuffled the deck removing some senior officers from inner core and sidelining them. This relieved some pressure but the number of hawks clearly outnumbered the doves and in the end institutional pressure forced him to change the course.
The popularity graph of Nawaz Sharif government rapidly declined in the last 2-3 years due to poor governance and allegations of corruption at all levels. Clearing of North Waziristan, winding down of large scale combat operations and marked reduction of violence gave confidence to officer corps. The most common phrase that I heard from number of officers was that ‘it is a total different army. It has gone through cauldron of fire, given enormous sacrifices and officer corps especially mid-level officers will not allow business as usual by civilians’.
The institutional pressure in army comes from three different avenues. First, if the number of senior officers taking a certain position is significant enough then it puts limits on Chief as he cannot sideline six or eight senior officers in a brief period. Junior officers expressing their views in Durbars and groups of retired officers forming WhatsApp groups and advocating tightening the leash on civilians are other avenues. In case of Bajwa, institutional pressure from all three avenues resulted in current showdown.
Officers blame civilians for dragging them into internal affairs. They claim that after thoroughly making a mess of the job, civilians then ask army to pull their chestnuts from fire. Majority of officer’s loath civilian leaders including Nawaz Sharif. In their mind, Sharif is already guilty of all crimes. Now that direct military control is not an option, then they concluded that to get rid of him if any political maneuvering in necessary, there is no harm in it. The problem is that to achieve this objective, they must work with some other unsavory political actors. They justify holding their noses temporarily by suggesting that they will take care of others in due course. This is perfectly in line with military thinking where you open only one front at a time and avoid entangling on multiple fronts. The result is the farce currently unfolding on Pakistan’s political horizon. This time, heavy fire against civilian leadership is coming from activist courts. We will only know the details when a disgruntled retired judge or a superseded retired army officer will enlighten us in due course what was done in the name of that old wretched ‘national interest’.
Acknowledgement: Author thanks dozens of officers of different ranks for candidly sharing their views. All errors, omissions and conclusions are author’s sole responsibility.
May 24, 2018