Pakistan’s defense minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif took umbrage last week at a Canadian lawmaker’s criticism of Pakistan’s army chief. The lawmaker was very explicit in his view that General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, had been responsible for sending two governments packing in Islamabad in the last few years.
The implication was obvious. The general had first seen to it that the Nawaz Sharif government was shrewdly turfed out of power and a new one led by Imran Khan was installed. And then this year, he was instrumental in bringing down Imran Khan and making sure that the Sharif family, in alliance with the Bhutto-Zardaris, took charge.
Khwaja Asif should have stayed quiet. That he did not goes to show how politicians in Pakistan remain beholden to the army and must always sing its praises. Speak to any Pakistani and ask him about the future of politics in his country. Raise the question of elections. The likely response you will get is one: Whoever the military thinks should be placed in power will be in power, for the military will determine the outcome of elections.
And that takes you back to the long litany of Pakistan’s soldiers coming in the way of a proper evolution of politics in the country, all the way from the late 1950s and till this point in time.
Of course, the argument is there that since the departure of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, the army has not seized power. It has not, but it has certainly had its grip on the levers of power. A coup these days is looked upon with disdain by the world and so Bajwa will have little inclination of seizing Pakistan as its newest chief martial law administrator.
But go back to the tortured history of Pakistani politics. It was in this month of July in 1977 that the elected government (by default, given the crisis of 1971) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a coup d’etat by his army chief Ziaul Haq.
There was rich irony in that coup, for Zia had superseded six other generals to take over as chief of staff. The credit goes to Bhutto, who did not imagine in his wildest dreams that the ingratiating Zia would someday bring an end to his People’s Party government and then put an end to his life.
It would be wrong to forget, though, that the tragedy of ZA Bhutto was largely of his own making. He came into government courtesy of the power-hungry General Iskandar Mirza and, after Mirza’s fall, stayed on in the regime of General Ayub Khan for eight years. Bhutto’s political trajectory was defined by his camaraderie with the army.
In 1971, his obduracy in refusing to have power transferred to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority Awami League, rested on the strength of his relations with the army. There is not a single statement of his on record to show that he condemned the Pakistan army’s atrocities in occupied Bangladesh.
Bhutto, in his years in power, used the army in a brutal suppression of Balochi nationalists. The refrain was the same for him — the military was at the centre of the action. Perhaps a poignant epitaph on Bhutto the political leader could well be that he was raised by the army, sustained by the army, and then destroyed by the army.
Nine years after his execution, the army, led by General Aslam Beg, did all it could to prevent the ascension of his daughter Benazir to power after the elections in 1988. When eventually Beg, in league with the wily Ghulam Ishaq Khan, consented to have Benazir Bhutto take over as prime minister, he made sure that her wings were first clipped. Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, a Zia holdover, was imposed on her as foreign minister; and she was given no authority over defense or Afghan policy.
Benazir Bhutto was twice prime minister and was twice dismissed from office with the connivance of the military. Her successor, both times, did not fare any better. Nawaz Sharif was twice placed in power, again courtesy of the army, and twice overthrown, the second time by Pervez Musharraf, who literally came down from the skies in October 1999 to commandeer the country.
The truth cannot be overlooked, which is that the Pakistan army happens to be the principal political party in Pakistan. Every other political party lives but by its leave. Those who have not acquiesced to military dominance of politics have fallen by the wayside. Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Air Marshal Asghar Khan are two of the many examples one can cite today.
In pre-1971 Pakistan, the emergence of the Awami League as the party poised to take power in Islamabad unnerved the army. It reacted in the only way it could, by repudiating the results of the 1970 general elections and presiding over, through a systematic genocide of Bengalis, the break-up of Pakistan.
The army has been the supreme, unchallenged political formation in Pakistan. Pakistanis have adopted the term “the establishment” to refer to its looming presence over all sectors of society. A recent directive on a vetting of civil officials and all appointments to the judiciary by the army has caused outrage among Pakistan’s minuscule liberal circles, but it has not caused any worry at GHQ in Rawalpindi.
The military will not permit civilians to exercise authority over matters of defense, and security and defense minister Khwaja Asif knows it. It matters little that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Hina Rabbani Khar, both articulate and smart, are putatively in charge of diplomacy, for foreign policy is what the soldiers think it ought to be, on their formulation.
Pakistan’s prime ministers after ZA Bhutto have all been in office but have never been in power. Be it Mohammad Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, or Shehbaz Sharif, the trappings of power have glorified them. But power per se has remained in the tight grip of the army.
The Pakistan army, through Ayub Khan’s seizure of the state in October 1958, put paid to the general elections expected in early 1959. The soldiers cheerfully abrogated the 1956 constitution and replaced it with an oddity called Basic Democracy. As he fell a decade later, Ayub Khan did not hand over power to Abdul Jabbar Khan, his loyalist speaker of the national assembly, but to General Yahya Khan.
The Pakistan army is well-entrenched in Pakistani society. It is of little consequence that Imran Khan, having been ejected from power by a convergence of interests of the military and his political opposition, attempts to provoke Pakistanis into revolt, in the belief that they will take him back to power.
If the army has its way — and it will — Khan will not be back. In Pakistan, politicians who turn their backs on the army or badmouth it only burn their boats.
In Imran Khan, the army had a selected prime minister. His political rivals were not too far wrong in their assessment. Today, when Khan and his party refer to the Muslim League-People’s Party coalition as an imported government, he has a point.
But does the Pakistan army care?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.