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Does the military still control Pakistan?

By Owen Bennett-Jones

Some call it military rule by stealth. Others prefer to describe it as the generals and the politicians working harmoniously in the national interest. But however you look at it, there’s no denying the Pakistan army’s political power is growing.
It all dates back to the Peshawar school attack of 16 December 2014 when the Pakistani Taliban murdered 132 schoolboys. Within days the civilian leadership had formulated a 20-point National Action Plan to confront the militants, curb their hate speeches, control their religious seminaries and cut their finances.
Aware that the civilian courts are generally reluctant to convict Jihadists, the parliament then passed a constitutional amendment to establish military courts. The army then announced new “apex committees” that brought together senior politicians, bureaucrats, intelligence officials and military officers. As many as 50,000 suspected militants have been detained or arrested and in another sign of the state’s resolve, Malik Ishaq, the leader of a formidable sectarian group, Lashkar e Jhangvi, was shot dead by police in what is widely believed to be an extra-judicial killing.
The crackdown has led to sharply reduced levels of militant violence. And with media highlighting the role of the army chief General Raheel Sharif, the army is enjoying a surge of public support. But for all the hopes that the Peshawar School attacks might have marked a significant turning point, some wonder whether the National Action Plan will bring lasting change.
After all, Pakistanis could be forgiven for thinking they have seen it all before. Tens of thousands of suspected militants were detained by General Musharraf’s regime in 2007, only to be released a few months later. Since the state lacks the capacity to investigate the detainees the same could well happen again.
When he announced the National Action Plan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated that Pakistan would no longer distinguish between the “good” Taliban (who fight Pakistan’s enemies) and the “bad” Taliban (who attack targets in Pakistan itself).

Selective targets
But in reality the state is still being selective about which groups it targets. Pakistani-based Jihadist groups with a history of fighting Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir are being left alone. So too are the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan-facing Haqqani Network which stands accused of mounting recent attacks in Kabul.
Image copyrightGetty ImagesImage captionPlans were drawn up to combat militants following the Peshawar school attack. Perhaps most controversially of all Lashkar e Toiba (or as its renamed itself, Jamaat ud Dawa), the group accused of mounting the 2008 Mumbai attacks, has not been confronted. The group’s leader Hafeez Saeed is frequently quoted in the Pakistan press.
And no-one is expecting further legal action against, for example, LSE graduate Omar Sheikh who has been convicted of involvement in the 2002 murder of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl. His appeal has been pending since 2002. Nor is there likely to be any resolution of the case ofMumtaz Qadri who in 2011 killed the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer.
Qadri, who objected to Taseer’s calls for reform of the blasphemy laws, enjoys hero status in Pakistan. Neither the army nor the government will want to risk undermining public support for the National Action Plan by including Qadri in its net.
Privately officials say they have to prioritize militants who attack targets within Pakistan. But even that claim is questionable. Fearing a violent backlash, the state has hesitated to confront militants in their strongholds in Southern Punjab. The risks are real. Within three weeks of Malik Ishaq’s death, for example, Lashkar e Jhangvi hit back with asuicide bomb attack that killed the Home Minster of Punjab, Shuja Khanzada.
There are also questions about the impact of the National Action Plan on Pakistan’s notoriously volatile civil/military relations. Elected representatives both in the national parliament and provincial assemblies complain that they have been cut out of decision-making.

Cult of personality
Some also express fears about an emerging cult of personality around Army Chief General Raheel Sharif.
Posters of him have appeared on billboards throughout Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi. Mysterious websites, which seem to have access to images sourced from the military, praise him to the skies. After decades of very poor PR, the army is now producing emotive, patriotic rock songs to bolster support for the anti-Jihadist campaign.
While Pakistani liberals worry about these developments, they simultaneously concede that if the counter narrative to the Jihadists has a militaristic air, its only because the civilians have failed to come up with an effective information strategy of their own. The contest for public support has had an impact on Pakistan’s previously irrepressible TV news channels.

Many have become so nervous about upsetting the army that they are making use of a 30-second delay on live broadcasts so that the sound can be muted before it’s transmitted. Originally brought in to stop uncritical interviews of Jihadists, the mechanism is now being used to protect the army’s reputation.
One prime time TV host described how her voice was muted as soon as she used the word “military”. The person controlling the mute button did not know if she was going to say something supportive or critical of the men in uniform – so decided to play it safe. The army’s ascendency means that despite his strong electoral mandate Nawaz Sharif is unable to pursue some of his objectives.
His desire to improve relations with India has run up against the army’s insistence that the intractable Kashmir issue should be at the forefront of any talks process.

  • Received his military commission in 1976
  • Studied military leadership in Germany, Canada and Britain
  • Commanded several infantry units, some on the disputed Line of Control in Kashmir
  • His brother, Shabbir Sharif, received two of the country’s highest military awards after he was killed during the 1971 India-Pakistan war
  • Previous appointments include inspector-general of training and evaluation at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and head of the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, Abbottabad.
  • Thought to have played a key role in switching the focus of the army from confronting India to fighting militancy.

Mr. Sharif has also been blocked from pursuing legal action against the man who removed him from power last time round, General Musharraf.
The army is unwilling to see a former chief on trial for treason. For now the government and the army are locked in a wary embrace. They are working together but in part that is because the civilian politicians fear that if they allow a gap to emerge between them and the military there will be another coup. Some wonder how long the current situation can last.
“Let me tell you what I have learnt from history,” said Pakistan’s most prominent human rights lawyer, Asma Jahangir. “Our army doesn’t want power. It wants absolute power.”



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