Civil-military relations in Pakistan have alternated between brutal domination by the military and reluctant power-sharing with civilians. The winds of change brought in through two successive elections and a first-ever full term by a civilian government may have forced the senior army leadership to recognise the changing civil society pulse in Pakistan though it may still be unwilling to relinquish control over three or four vital areas of foreign and security policy — those pertaining to India, Afghanistan, US and nuclear issues.
In a surprisingly scathing indictment, the Abbottabad Commission of Enquiry report, leaked to the media in July, concluded that Pakistan’s military and political leaders ‘collectively displayed a degree of incompetence and irresponsibility which was truly breathtaking’. Depicting the inability to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad as its ‘worst failure since 1971’, it cautioned the army to avoid too pervasive a role in future, suggesting ‘honest, competent and consultative’ leadership instead, to democratically enunciate ‘a national security policy’. It also advocated ‘dismantling of terrorist infrastructure’ which has had deleterious ‘blow back effects’ on the security establishment.
The question now arises whether the civilian political executive would be keen to traverse down this rather hazardous path of trying to bridle the military and how soon or how effectively it would be able to do so.
One of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foremost problems would be how to deal with the Taliban. His main political opponent during the election campaign, Imran Khan talked of extending an olive branch to the militants. His own political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has many ‘closet fundamentalists’ in its ranks who favour talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The All-Party Conference (APC) finally held on September 9 resolved to initiate ‘an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders’ to bring peace to the region. Gen Kayani was quoted saying, “The army will follow whatever decision is taken by the government”. Appreciating this ‘rare civil-military partnership’, political commentators in Pakistan initially commended this approach to ‘talk to reconcilable militants’ but the recent killing of Gen Sanaullah Niazi in Upper Dir forced Gen Kayani to caution that the army’s rectitude should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness or incapacity to respond. The attack on Christians in a Peshawar church and the continuing bomb blasts there do not augur well.
Since it began fighting the Taliban, the army has suffered 12,829 casualties in the war against terror, including 3,097 killed. Total army officers killed were estimated to be 196 — an unusually high ratio of officers, one for every 16 soldiers killed. This dilemma continues to haunt the senior army leadership. On the one hand, it remains conscious of the need to maintain the army’s image as ‘defender of Islam’. On the other hand, it has to address morale issues while taking firm enough action to hit back at fraternal co-religionists when directly confronted.
Because the PML (N) was perceived to be soft on Punjabi sectarian radical groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an impression persists that the civilian leadership, both in Islamabad and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, may be at cross purposes with the security forces. In the recent past, when too much violence has hurt elite sections of society, the State apparatus did lumber into retaliatory mode, only to let up after short lived palliatives. The difficulty is that many discerning analysts in Pakistan detect a spreading reluctance within army ranks to sustainably fight with hardened militants and wonder whether ‘Munich/ Chamberlain style appeasement’ will lead to any different solution this time.
Tackling the Karachi violence and Baloch alienation are equally serious issues that will need deft and mature handling in the long term.
Against this backdrop, Sharif’s choice of the next army chief will be vital. Before the elections, Sharif promised to go by seniority. Lt Gen Haroon Aslam is the senior-most in the batch of eligible Lieutenant Generals. Though he headed the elite Special Services Group (SSG) and took part in anti-terror operations in Swat, he was last moved out by Gen Kayani as Director General, Logistic Staff, considered a backwater post. Sharif may remember he was one of the junior officers sent out by Gen Musharraf to disarm Lt Gen Ziauddin when Sharif was deposed in the October 1999 coup. The next senior-most is Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood, former GOC, IV Corps, Lahore. He seems to be Gen Kayani’s choice, having served as his deputy in the ISI and now brought in as chief of general staff, a key staff position. He served earlier as military secretary to President Rafique Tarar, friend of the late Mian Mohd Sharif. Another senior General of the same batch is Raheel Sharif, brother of a martyred war hero whose case is being pushed by one of Sharif’s ministers, Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch. Gen Kayani moved him as Director General, Inspectorate of Weapons Evaluation & Training (IWET), another sinecure post. The other two Generals in this cohort are Tariq Khan, GOC I Corps, Mangla, highly rated professionally because of his stint as IG, Frontier Corps during the Swat operations in 2009, and Zahirul Islam, current DG, ISI.
Sharif would have to make a choice not only on the basis of consensual perceptions within the army but also among key power brokers, external and internal, about the chosen officer’s views on sensitive issues like Islamic radicalism and civil-military relations. Any discord between the army’s choice and the PM’s political decision could carry the seeds of future trouble.
Rana Banerji is former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat
The views expressed by the author are personal