Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif have met after a month of sulking in their respective corners. This calls for comment because it was routine for them to be pictured together every week on one assignment or the other at home or abroad to demonstrate civil-military unity on important national security issues. Therefore tongues are now wagging about acute tensions between them that could shake up the political superstructure.
The first source of tension between them was Mr Sharif’s decision to prosecute General (retd) Pervez Musharraf for treason. The army as an institution cannot countenance a former chief in the dock under any circumstances. On top of that, General Sharif owes General Musharraf for advancing his career. The twists and turns in the case have frustrated both sides and led to misunderstandings.
The second source of tension was Mr Sharif’s decision in Spring 2014 to opt for endless rounds of futile talks with the Pakistani Taliban when General Sharif was primed to go into Waziristan all guns blazing. That gave the Taliban an opportunity to slip away and regroup, making General Sharif’s task more difficult when the green light for Zarb-e-Azb finally came in June 2014 following a string of Taliban attacks on security installations and personnel across the country.
The third source of tension sprang from the ISI’s role, two years ago, in directing Imran Khan’s dharna at D Chowk in Islamabad aimed at overthrowing Mr Sharif. Although General Sharif was not fully on board the agency’s covert operation and refrained from taking any precipitous step, Mr Sharif’s trust and confidence in his army chief was definitely eroded.
The fourth source of tension arose from Mr Sharif’s desire to mend fences with India so that he can extract a political and economic “peace dividend”. But the military is institutionally opposed to any such strategic move. Therefore it was irked when Mr Sharif attended Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony in 2014 and later agreed to hold secretary-level talks with India on the subject of terrorism without any quid pro quo on Kashmir. Recently, the military was annoyed when Mr Sharif ordered the registration of an FIR against the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack and when the PMLN government failed to adequately propagate, internationally, the capture of an Indian spy.
The fifth source of tension arose from the military’s intent to conduct a “clean-up operation” against terrorism in Punjab similar to the one in Karachi. But Mr Sharif is opposed to this because he doesn’t want the military to stand down his showcase “good-governance” in Punjab like it did the PPP government in Sindh.
The sixth source of tension is the military’s bid to link terrorism with corruption and run down civilian administrations. Mr Sharif is particularly annoyed by General Sharif’s statement for “across the board” accountability following Panamaleaks and the ISPR’s attempt to demonstrate that the military has initiated such accountability from “home” by sacking some generals accused of graft. The timing of this “leak” lends credibility to Mr Sharif’s suspicions that General Sharif means to show him up and do him in.
There are other issues too. The military wants a slice of the cake of building CPEC but the government is keeping it at arms length. It doesn’t like the beefing up of the Intelligence Bureau as a political counterweight to the ISI. The brass wants more funds for IDP rehabilitation in Waziristan to consolidate law and order. It is frustrated that the Foreign Office couldn’t clinch the F-16 deal in Washington. Last but not least, the prime minister isn’t happy at the ISPR’s attempt to propagate General Raheel Sharif as some sort of “messiah-in-waiting” in counter distinction to the perception of Mr Sharif as a “corrupt and incompetent” prime minister.
In view of this situation, the hot topic of the day is whether the meeting last Monday will serve to stabilise civil-military relations and enable Mr Sharif to weather the Panamaleaks storm by “neutralizing” the military’s political ambitions.
To be sure, one meeting isn’t going to melt the glacier of institutional distrust on both sides. But there are three factors in favour of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. First, the opposition is divided and no one, except for the PTI, wants a military intervention. Second, General Sharif’s “window of opportunity” will end in three months when a new army chief is announced and he becomes a lame duck. Third, any coup-making general will have to contend with seriously adverse consequences of his action. Except for the PTI, all major political parties, civil society, judiciary and the powerful media will unite against a military dictatorship that inevitably curtails their freedom. The international community will sanction Pakistan and India and Afghanistan will destabilize the country. Soon thereafter, the coup-maker will realize he is riding a tiger that will maul him like his adventurous predecessors.
Given the pros and cons, therefore, we should expect turbulence but no crash in the hot summer months ahead.