Tempest in Islamabad

Since the start of the year, civil–military relations have taken a nosedive in Pakistan, with no recovery in sight, and with each side threatening serious consequences. What are the chances of a coup?
Farah Jan
10 February 2012

Over the past few weeks, we have been left wondering if Pakistan’s fragile democracy will survive, or once again be defeated by its formidable challenger – the Pakistan army. Since the start of the year, civil–military relations have taken a nosedive, with no recovery in sight, and with each side threatening serious consequences.

The initiation of this cat and mouse chase between the military establishment and the democratically elected government began back in May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the American forces in Abbotabad. The government’s initial response was to condemn the blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but the rupture between the army and the civilian government was already set in place. The recent Memogate scandal/affair is a testament to the army’s ongoing mistrust of the civilian regime, alongside the Supreme Court’s decision to reopen the money-laundering cases that were suspended in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, seems to be the first victim of the Memogate scandal, who is accused of being the author of the so-called memorandum. This scandal is based on a confidential memorandum addressed to Admiral Mike Mullen after the OBL raid seeking American help to avert a military coup in return for nuclear transparency. The memorandum was delivered to Admiral Mullen by a Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, at the behest of Hussain Haqqani. At the height of the Memogate a military coup seemed to be inevitable, but with the Mansoor Ijaz being a no-show at the Supreme Court commission hearing have dissipated the matter. The travel ban on Haqqani was lifted and after being in a state of house arrest at the prime ministers residence, Haqqani was allowed to travel to the U.S. to be with his family. The crux of the matter is, did the May 2011 memo sent to Washington, compromised the security of Pakistan? The events that followed suggest otherwise. As noted by Haqqani himself, the memogate matter should have been put to rest long ago.

Any in-depth analysis here must start with two issues, the prospect of a post-US scenario (2014) in the region, and secondly the rising influence of the red dragon – China. Both factors are crucial for the Pakistan army and its future choices and options. In a post-US region, along with the decline in American supremacy globally, the patron client relationship that Pakistan has maintained with the US is also dwindling. Thus any party, person or group connected with it is also out of the game. The army from the very beginning has perceived the Zardari-Gillani enterprise as an American client, albeit the army would like to play that role itself and traditionally has done so. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is conventionally associated with the west (particularly –US) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif’s (PML-N) link seems to be more with the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia).

Yet both have maintained and respected Pakistan’s ties with China. Sino-Pakistan relations have stayed strong since 1962. Both sides claim that this all-weather friendship has endured political and economic shifts, but their partnership has remained strong.

The emerging player in Pakistani politics is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), who has maintained an anti-American stand, in addition to an anti-foreign aid stance. Nevertheless, Khan has been astute enough not to air anti-China sentiment, instead strengthening the already strong Sino-Pak ties. In recent months, Imran Khan received an unprecedented invitation by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to visit Beijing. Up until now, only elected prime ministers have been granted such honors, and this shows Beijing’s commitment to Pakistan’s future, as well as affirming its own regional position vis-à-vis India.

Hence, for the army establishment it would be bearable to accept someone like Imran Khan, to keep the public content and the army in the barracks and not on the streets. The question is, would Imran Khan be able to keep his promises and contain this army-cum-leviathan, that is immersed in every aspect of the Pakistani society?

What are the chances of a coup?

Historically, the army allows democracy to come into play only to the extent that this pleases its western clients. With the power balance shifting towards the Chinese side, the army is not concerned with western appeasement. The political system of Pakistan that we see today is very different from the period when martial law was declared. The rules of the game have changed, the judiciary and the media both playing a robust role in the political system. Albeit, the army might not care to placate the west, but to play it safe and not face a threat of mass revolt, it would not mount a coup for two reasons. Firstly, it is not prepared for a repeat of anything similar to the Long March of 2008 - 09. More importantly, if it can easily get its way by exploiting institutions like the judiciary and the media, why bother with instating martial law. In addition, General Kiyani seems to be comfortable in being only the Chief of Army Staff, and not interested in being the president or the chief executive.

Pakistan has grappled with three and half (Yahya khan’s regime being the half) military regimes lasting for almost four decades. The military has exploited the India security threat for most of Pakistan’s existence in order to gain full access to all institutions. Thus over the years it has strengthened its reach, and is used to getting rid of any civilian leader by conveniently declaring martial law. But with the recent events in the Middle East, it will play it safe and would not like to start a new wave, or the South Asian version of a winter revolution/uprising.

The army this time is more calculated, and playing one branch of the government off against another. The judiciary seems to be in a head on collision with the executive branch, with the army establishment in the control position. The reopening of NRO cases (corruption cases) is an attempt to purge the society of the old guard and the pursuit of the Memogate scandal takes place at a time when government is already weak and discredited.

The army has always claimed to be the defenders of Pakistan’s borders and the protectors of their motherland, yet their record shows that they have not been the guardians of Pakistan’s constitution or the preservers of democratic institutions. If the army establishment is interested in the future of Pakistan as an economic success story, it needs to back off and let the political process take place. 

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