Pakistan: Who’s in Actual Control?

 By Col Nilesh Kunwar
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It’s not very often that one hears politicians in Pakistan criticising the Army or questioning the extra-constitutional authority it wields, and Rawalpindi’s consequent interference in internal governance issues as well as the country’s foreign affairs. The reason for this is not hard to find, as all one needs to do is to look into Pakistan’s history which bears testimony to the fact that, antagonising the military in Pakistan can have wide-ranging adverse repercussions. The wages of defying Pakistan’s ‘powerful’ Army can be terrifying— from political harakiri to even losing one’s life— as is evident from the cases of former Prime Ministers─ Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir Bhutto Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.

Zulfikar Bhutto’s first mistake was that, immediately after taking over as President in end 1971, he dared to exercise his constitutional authority to not only reverse the ‘patently vindictive’ capital punishment awarded to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by a military court but also place former military dictator, General Yahya Khan, under house arrest. Then he went on to make several changes in the army’s top brass, which included shunting out the then Army Chief General Gul Hassan and replacing him with General Tikka Khan. Bhutto’s second mistake was placing implicit faith in General Zia ul Haq’s (former President of Pakistan) loyalty and elevating him to the rank of the Army Chief by superseding a record six generals. Gen Zia on the other hand, instead of being grateful, returned Bhutto’s munificence by ousting him in a military coup codenamed ‘Operation Fair Play’ and placing him under month-long detention.

Since Gen Zia had promised to hold elections within three months after usurping power, Bhutto went on an overdrive to consolidate his popularity base immediately after his release, and the public response that he received was overwhelming. Intelligence reports at that time clearly indicated that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] would emerge victorious in the forthcoming elections and this became a cause of great concern to Gen Zia. Having seen how Bhutto had no hesitation in taking errant Generals to the task, the ‘military dictator’ feared that he could end up being tried under Article 6 of Pakistan’s 1973 constitution [promulgated by Bhutto], which made any attempt to abrogate or subvert the constitution tantamount to an act of “high treason”. However, it was Bhutto’s refusal to allow the military to dictate terms that made him the “Damocles sword” personified in Gen Zia’s eyes. Since, he failed to prop up a credible opposition against PPP, therefore, Gen Zia decided to remove what he perceived to be an existential threatthrough the judiciary. In a highly questionable court sentence, Bhutto was sent to the gallows for allegedly having had authorised the murder of a political opponent. This obvious miscarriage of justice has been aptly referred to as a “judicial murder” and even former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark reinforced this view by observing that it was “a mock trial fought in a kangaroo court”!

Benazir Bhutto too paid a heavy price for having antagonised the army’s top brass including the then Army Chief ─General Mirza Aslam Beg and his powerful ISI Chief Major General Hameed Gul— who was an ‘unashamed’ Taliban supporter. Such was Rawalpindi’s desperation to get rid of Ms. Bhutto that, in 1990 the ISI even tried to oust her by bribing and intimidating National Assembly members to prevent them from voting for PPP during an orchestrated no-confidence motion. When this ploy [codenamed ‘Operation Midnight Jackal’] failed, the military staged her government’s removal through the President of Pakistan on grounds of corruption and nepotism.

During her second tenure as Prime Minister [1993 to 1996], Ms. Bhutto did try to get into Rawalpindi’s good books by endorsing the army’s hostile activities in Afghanistan as well as J&K. However, as corruption increased and the law & order situation deteriorated, Ms Bhutto also had a faceoff with President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, and things reached a stage whereby the Army Chief General Jehangir Karamat had to intercede, but on her refusal to acquiescence, the situation became irretrievable. Finally, Ms Bhutto’s government was dismissed by President Leghari on grounds of rampant corruption and incompetence.

But this dismissal had all the trappings of a military coup i.e. while the Army surrounded the PM’s house and major government offices, the military intelligence took over Intelligence Bureau’s Islamabad Headquarters, even before the announcement of the PPP government’s removal followed by the imposition of President’s rule. Not only were airports temporarily shut down and telephone communications snapped for several hours, but the Army also took over control of radio and TV stations. All this clearly indicates that the Presidential order, dismissing Ms. Bhutto’s government, had Rawalpindi’s tacit approval!

Being ousted twice was an unambiguous warning that the Army wasn’t ‘comfortable’ with Ms. Bhutto, but unfortunately, she paid no heed. So, when she was assassinated in 2007, although everyone was shocked, no one was surprised. She was attacked when she opened the hatch of her bulletproof vehicle to wave at her supporters and the video footage of the incident revealed that there were a massive explosion and sound of firing was also heard. Surprisingly, it still isn’t known for sure whether she died of gunshot wounds or succumbed to bomb blast injuries, and this raises suspicion of the deep state’s involvement. The fact that no autopsy was conducted on Ms. Bhutto as also the UN investigators’ revelation that “The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth”,

The UN investigators also admitted that they were “mystified by the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources” Whereas conventions and courtesies may have prevented investigators from being more forthright, but by attributing this reluctance to the fact that “Given the historical and possibly continuing relationships between intelligence agencies and some radical Islamist groups that engage in extremist violence, the agencies could be compromised in their investigations of crimes possibly carried out by such groups”, puts the Army and its Intelligence Agencies under the scanner.

Coming to more recent times, in former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif one finds a classic example of a leader precipitating his own political extinction by daring to cross the ‘red line’ to demand that Rawalpindi should act against the terrorist groups that it was patronising to avoid international isolation of  Pakistan. That he would have to pay heavily for this gumption was expected and this came to pass when an ISI member of Brigadier rank was included as a member of the Panama leak Joint Investigation Team [JIT] formed to probe the Sharifs. This rather unusual inclusion even invited an adverse observation from none other than Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar who mocked this move by saying that the ISI member was incorporated in the JIT for “spicing it up”!

In July 2017, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from holding public office, and an accountability court on 6 July 2018, sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years imprisonment. Rawalpindi has denied any hand in Sharif’s permanent disqualification and prison sentence citing the same as being the independent decision of the judiciary. But just a fortnight later, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of Islamabad High Court [IHC], while addressing the Rawalpindi Bar Association, openly admitted that “Today the judiciary and media have come in the control of ‘Bandookwala’ [literal translation ‘gunmen’; here a reference to the army]. Judiciary is not independent”.

Justice Siddiqui also revealed that “In different cases, the ISI forms benches of its choice to get desired results”, adding that the army’s spy agency blatantly indulges in “manipulating judicial proceedings as its officials manage to constitute benches at its will and mark cases to selected judges”. Therefore, it is but logical that the army’s claim of non-involvement in Sharif’s case may be taken with a pinch of salt— especially since Justice Siddiqui wasn’t a disgruntled judge who had no future— au contraire, he was, one of the top contenders in the reckoning for elevation as Chief justice of IHC!

However, even if Justice Siddiqui’s claims are dismissed as being motivated or baseless, how does Rawalpindi explain Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent admission on TV that “Why Nawaz Sharif always had a dispute with Army Chiefs, [is] because he was involved in corrupt practices and wanted to control them?”. Because if the current Pakistan Army Chief is so allergic to corruption, then why is he not using ISI to investigate his own namesake [retired Lt Gen Asim Bajwa] to disclose his fortune stashed abroad? How come a tainted officer, suspected of money laundering, heading the          USD 60 billion CPEC project, while Sharif has been convicted for the same offence?

By pointing out that Sharif’s “dispute with Army Chiefs” was because he “wanted to control them”, Khan has let ‘the cat out of the bag’ by unwittingly accepting the reality that the military in Pakistan has never ever subordinated itself to the legislature and it most definitely never will!

So, no prizes for guessing who calls the shots in Pakistan!