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War of words breaks out between Pakistan government and its army high command

Some say they are hopeful former premier Nawaz Sharif will be able to highlight many issues the army doesn’t want discussed. Others say this confrontation will help strengthen democracy in the long run.

world Updated: Oct 22, 2017 09:11 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad
Pakistan,former premier Nawaz Sharif,Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif during a PML-N Workers convention in Lahore on October 4, 2017. (AFP)

On Saturday, former premier Nawaz Sharif backed Pakistan’s “missing” anti-establishment bloggers and commented that those “who spoke in favour of democracy should not be punished for it”.

This was the latest salvo fired in an apparent battle between Sharif and the army high command.

It is widely believed the bloggers were picked up by military intelligence services earlier this year as their posts were critical of the army operation in Balochistan. Speaking in their favour is a clear indication of being critical of the intelligence agencies.

With this latest statement, most Pakistanis are wondering who will win this round and what that means for the country. Some say they are hopeful Sharif will be able to highlight many issues the army doesn’t want discussed. Others say this confrontation will help strengthen democracy in the long run.

As things stand, the gloves are off. No effort is being spared in accusations and counter-accusations. Since Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court, a war of words has broken out between the elected government now led by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and the army high command, as well as what the local media calls “the establishment”.

Sharif privately blames the army for his ouster. In several veiled references, he has said it was not the judiciary but other forces that didn’t let him complete his third term as premier.

Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. ( AP File )

In response, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa rejected as “unfounded” the impression that his force was behind Sharif’s ouster and said he is an ardent supporter of democracy. He made the remarks at a parliamentary committee hearing, but few are convinced of Bajwa’s intentions.

Instead of things calming down after a flurry of contacts between the army and the civilian leadership, the confrontation continues as one side blames the other for past wrongs and future mistakes. Leading the charge against the military and its political allies are two key members of the ruling PML-N – interior minister Ahsan Iqbal and foreign minister Khawaja Asif.

Soon after assuming his post in September, Asif acknowledged Pakistan needs to rein in terror groups to avoid “embarrassment” on the global stage. “We need to tell our friends that we have improved our house. We need to bring our house in order to prevent facing embarrassment at the international level,” he told a TV channel, much to the anger of military circles.

The army retaliated with a statement but Asif stuck to his guns, only conceding he “may have spoken a bit too much about Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah when I said he was wined and dined in Washington along with other militants”.

This was followed by Iqbal not being allowed by Pakistan Rangers personnel to enter the anti-graft court where corruption cases against Sharif were being heard. Technically, the paramilitary Rangers come under the interior ministry, so Iqbal was furious when he was barred and ordered an inquiry.

Pakistan interior minister Ahsan Iqbal talks to the media outside an accountability court in Islamabad on October 2, 2017. ( AP )

It transpired that security at the court had been taken over by the military, which was deciding matters without the knowledge of the government. Nothing came of the inquiry, except that Iqbal was able to show how much control the army has on what is essentially in the civilian domain.

In October, Bajwa told a gathering of businessmen in Karachi that Pakistan needs to expand its tax base, bring in fiscal discipline and ensure continuity of economic policies to be able to break the begging bowl.

He said the economy is showing mixed indicators - growth had picked up but debts were sky high. Infrastructure and energy had improved but the current account balance was not in the country’s favour.

Bajwa’s comments were seen as a direct attack on the government. This line was toed by the military’s chief spokesman, who expressed similar sentiments in a TV interview.

In response, interior minister Iqbal said the military spokesman, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, should refrain from commenting on the economic situation. This brought the confrontation out in the open.

In principle, the army has the high moral ground as it attacks the “corruption” of the Sharif family through parties loyal to it, while in the larger frame of things, there is hope of change in the power structure in favour of the civilian government.

“The army has pushed the civilian government too far. Now they are fighting back,” said Abid Hussain, an Islamabad-based journalist.

Others disagree. “It is a battle for survival,” said Ejaz Haider, an analyst on a leading TV channel.

But in what was seen as a setback, former president Asif Zardari broke ranks with the Sharifs and demanded their family be arrested on graft charges.

Ghulam Jamali, a journalist who has covered the Pakistan People’s Party, said Zardari had been made promises by the army for a future political set-up. “It is the same cycle. The same divide and rule that the army has been doing with Pakistan’s corrupt and unprincipled politicians for several years now,” he said.

And yet, others are hopeful Sharif will be able to break the cycle this time round.

Supporters of Pakistan's former premier Nawaz Sharif hold his pictures during his appearance before an accountability court in Islamabad on September 26, 2017. ( Reuters )

“There is great pressure, and talk of a rift between the brothers Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, or a forward bloc in the PML-N. All sorts of news stories are being planted but so far Sharif is seen to be in a strong position,” said an observer.

The former premier’s biggest strength is that he is from Punjab, the most politically important and populous province. “If there is anyone who can challenge the army, it is someone from Punjab,” said the observer.

Many are hopeful that this will go in favour of the civilian government.

First Published: Oct 22, 2017 08:20 IST