India Must Watch Out for Pakistan Army’s Response to Politics

Vivek Katju
·7-min read

Events are in the saddle in Pakistan. The opposition is fiercely attacking the ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan. More significantly, it also targeting his patrons, the generals, for interfering in politics.

India has to be wary lest the generals, under pressure, seek to turn the attention of the people towards the permanent enemy, India. The temptation will be substantial for the people are weary of Khan’s misgovernance which has led to food inflation.

Imran Khan has already invoked the India card. He has accused his and the army’s arch enemy former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of aiding India’s agenda of harming Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif has continued his pointed and sharp attack on army chief General Qamar Bajwa and the director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. On Sunday evening at a People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) rally in Quetta, Sharif once again accused them of interfering in Pakistani politics.

File image of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
File image of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Also Read: Will Pakistan’s Army-Politics Nexus be Brought Down by Nawaz?

How Pakistan’s Media is Reporting the Situation

Significantly, the country’s leading and respected newspaper Dawn reported Sharif’s specific charges against the two officers. Earlier, the Pakistani print media had carried only general accounts of Sharif’s and other PDM leaders’ accusations against the army while giving detailed accounts of what they said against Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Indeed, the electronic media has refrained from telecasting Sharif’s charges against the generals and the army. It had, though, extensively reported on the formation of the PDM on 20 September. The Movement’s impressive rallies in Gujranwala on 16 October, in Karachi three days later, and on 25 October in Quetta were extensively reported.

Dawn reported Sharif as saying “General Bajwa, you will have to answer for record rigging in 2018 elections, for horse-trading in Parliament, for making Imran Niazi against peoples wishes [by] tearing apart the constitution and the laws, for pushing people towards poverty and hunger”.

He also accused the ISI chief of “interfering in politics for several years with Impunity” and thereby of violating his oath. Such strong, in fact, incendiary words have never been publicly used during civilian rule against an army chief and the head of the ISI or reported in the main-steam media against holders of these two offices.

Nawaz Attacks Corrupt Army Officers, Not the Institution Itself

Sharif justified his naming of Bajwa and Hameed “because he did not want the army to be defamed”. This attempt at making a fine distinction between the army as an institution and the officers who lead it is not completely tenable. This is because Sharif’s daughter and political heir Maryam Nawaz Safdar and Sharif himself raised the sensitive issue of missing persons in Balochistan.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif (Second from right) with her husband Safdar Awan (second from left) at Quaid’s mausoleum.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif (Second from right) with her husband Safdar Awan (second from left) at Quaid’s mausoleum.

The army’s brutal practice of picking up Baloch men of all ages, particularly the young, who raise their voice against the exploitation of the province and the denial of human rights continues unabated. Thus, the very reference to missing persons was a direct attack on the army.

Certainly, Sharif by taking on the army chief and the director-general of the ISI is signalling that the Movement’s purpose is to erode, if not end, the role of the army in Pakistan’s politics. Sharif has called the army as a “state above the state”. This is true for the army considers itself as the guardian not only of Pakistan’s territory but also its ideology. It does not really allow elected leaders to have the final word in the country’s security and foreign policies. It also intervenes in other areas of governance whenever and wherever it considers appropriate.

Civil-Military Confrontation in Pakistan

The present confrontation has arisen because a major section of the political class is demanding, for the time being at least, that the army confines itself to its constitutional and legal roles. This is unprecedented in Pakistani politics where political leaders have accepted a subordinate status to that of the army.

That the army is unhappy with these developments is clear. Before the PDM was formed the generals had urged the opposition parties not to drag them in their political disputes against Imran Khan. This could hardly be so for there is no doubt that the army had wanted Khan to succeed in the 2018 elections and had helped him from behind the scenes. Hence, the opposition charge that he is a ‘selected’ prime minister is not without foundation.

Imran Khan.
Imran Khan.

Imran Khan claims that the two main opposition parties and nine other parties that constitute the PDM have come together because their leaders want to pressure him to give up his campaign to end corruption.

There is no doubt that the corruption of the Zardari-Bhuttos led Pakistan Peoples Party and of Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League (N) has been substantial. The opposition is unhappy with Imran Khan in targeting it on corruption charges. But this is not the only reason why the PDM was launched.

Pakistan Army Will Respond Sooner Than Later

Imran Khan has taken on Nawaz Sharif. He has accused him of playing into the hands of Pakistan’s enemies. He has of course specifically named India in this context but has latterly also referred to Israel as benefitting from Sharif’s actions. The army has remained largely quiet till now letting Khan take the lead in combatting the PDM.

There are suspicions, though, that the army, or a section of it, has signalled its intent through the action taken against Maryam Nawaz’s husband Captain Safdar in Karachi after the rally. The hotel room Safdar and Maryam were staying in Karachi was broken into by the Sindh police and other security forces at night and Safdar was taken into custody on the charge of illegal actions at Jinnah’s mazar in Karachi.

While the intrusion of a lady’s privacy was deeply offensive, the real story was the virtual abduction of the head of the Sindh police at night from his residence by the federal forces. He was taken to an office and put under pressure to sign orders for Safdar’s arrest. Naturally, the incident has caused a furore and Bajwa was forced to order an enquiry.

Also Read: Nawaz Sharif’s Daughter Says Police Broke Door to Arrest Husband

Sooner rather than later the army is bound to act. It would not like to take on power directly. It may also not find it easy to abandon Imran Khan at least early on. It is aware of the public mood though which is negative because of economic difficulties. It was no easy choices. But it cannot accept these continuing attacks on the prestige and standing of its chief even though his acceptance of a full extension caused some rumblings within.

Notwithstanding all his brave words Imran Khan is aware of uncertainties for he admitted in a TV interview some days ago that he is hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. For him this would be the loss of government and fresh elections.

But, for the present, Sharif is aiming much higher; his target are the men in khaki who are the real rulers of Pakistan.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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