There is a popular saying that a prime minister can run a complex country like Pakistan with the help of three As: America, Army and Allah. However, what does one do when all these elements change their nature? America is increasingly becoming peripheral and the Army doesn’t know which segment to engage with. As for Allah—well, divinity gets hijacked all the time.
Setting aside the external and ephemeral forces, domestically the most critical institution remains the military. Therefore, it is important for any prime minister to vie for an army chief best suited for the survival of civilian governments. The horror of the 1990s would still be fresh in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s mind as it was he who was turned out twice from government due to the role played by the COAS. Indeed, Benazir Bhutto’s two governments were similarly sacked. After 1988, each government served two terms for an average period of two years until finally the military walked back into the corridors of power in October 1999.
It is important to note that Nawaz Sharif probably hopes to have an army chief of his choice so he can give confidence to some other generals who he might have won over by drawing them away from the ultra-hawks in the institution. This is one factor that tends to make the military nervous about Nawaz Sharif
The decade of the 1990s was a lesson for both the PPP and the PML-N after which they seem to have drawn a similar conclusion—strengthen the political system through prolongation of rule and thwart any stab at a military takeover. How far prolongation of rule strengthened democracy is a moot point, but this appears to be one of the aims of the political government, an objective that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wants to achieve by appointing a friendly army chief. It must be explained that a ‘friendly chief’ does not mean someone who will compromise on core interests of the armed forces, but he will be someone who will at least not have a trigger-happy attitude towards a political dispensation. There is a huge divide between the army and civilian perception of politics and governance—not that a gentle army chief will deviate from core policies but at least he will be less eager to punish every blunder or mistake made by a civilian government. This is why premier Sharif is afraid of extending General Raheel Sharif’s tenure. Although the current PML-N government appointed the COAS, it did not probably realize that a coterie of hawkish generals would maneuver the army chief towards a more aggressive stance.
The present government clearly does not intend to give an extension to General Raheel Sharif, especially after he gave it a run for its money. Blatant publicity elevated the army chief higher than the prime minister and made the government unstable. Similarly, Nawaz Sharif is not keen on people such as Lt Gen. Zubair Hayat, who comes from a strong military background. With two of his other brothers also serving as generals, one a two-star and another three-star, he sounds too over-confident and aggressive to become the choice for any prime minister. The other officer in the run is Lt Gen. Ishfaq Nadeem, who is viewed favorably by the military. According to hearsay, both these generals are favored by the incumbent, which is just another reason for Prime Minister Sharif to be double-minded about these names.
Allegedly, his choices are Lt Gen. Javed Iqbal Ramday and/or Lt Gen. Qamar Bajwa. It is also believed that Gen. Bajwa has replaced Gen. Ramday as Nawaz Sharif’s first choice. Both are considered relatively lenient vis-à-vis civilian dispensations. To get an idea of the Ramday/Qamar type, consider them of the same ilk as the current National Security Council advisor, Lt Gen. (retd) Naseer Janjua, who is currently onboard with Nawaz Sharif in pursuing peace with India. This runs contrary to the institutional memory of the armed forces. This is not to argue that if selected Ramday or Bajwa would overturn the army’s traditional policy regarding our neighbour. However, these generals could show a bit more patience than the others.
It is important to note that Nawaz Sharif probably hopes to have an army chief of his choice so he can give confidence to some other generals who he might have won over by drawing them away from the ultra-hawks in the institution. This is one factor that tends to make the military nervous about Nawaz Sharif—his ability to create a rift among generals, weakening their cohesion. Let’s not forget that in 1999 not all corps commanders had initially rebelled against the appointment of Gen. Ziauddin Butt as army chief. Even from the military’s perspective, the decision of who will head the organization is critical for sustaining the military’s political clout in the long-term. A politically hawkish general helps play a long innings even though the military has consciously shifted from government to governance.
This sounds complex, which it is since it is a matter of long-term stakes for both the civil set-up and the military. The shift from government to governance makes things murkier mainly due to the fact that most civilians are used to the military taking over direct control and the absence of this is considered weakness. It is not that they think that democracy has strengthened; the reality is that no one is interested in beefing up democratic rule, they just want to have enough breathing space to remain alive and negotiate with the generals. Negotiation, in turn, means that some generals can be engaged in a conversation, some bought over, and some ignored.
The choice should have been made by now. The fact that it is delayed indicates that the battle continues and a consensus has not been reached. Politically, for the civilian government this means tough or even tougher days ahead. Imran Khan has already announced his intention to lock down Islamabad. Apparently, the plan is to block the capital city at nine points. The threat appears dangerous and nasty and is a reminder of the days when Khan was allegedly supported by Lt Gen. (retd) Zaheer-ul Islam. But even then, the former-cricketer-turned-politician had not talked about blocking the city. It was the government which spoke about closing roads to deny the PTI demonstrators access to D-chowk. On the other hand we have the young Bilawal Zardari whose rhetoric sounds very conservative and of the nature that will make GHQ Rawalpindi happy and interested in him. His key men in Punjab, who also have the support of the army, have a personal interest in resurrecting the PPP by hook or by crook in the largest province or else their game is over.
It could possibly be that the dharna-cum-lockdown will come to nothing. However, what is for sure is that there are tough days ahead for Nawaz Sharif and his government. His weakest link in all of this may be his own party that is showing signs of light fracture. The divide between Maryam versus Hamza could prove costly.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist based in Islamabad and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter