Feisal Naqvi

The turtle and the hare

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2015 at 6:24 am

Nawaz Sharif’s recent trip to the United States was supposed to be a triumph. After all, what more can a Pakistani leader do than return with the promise of more F-16s and refuse limits on our nuclear programme?

Unfortunately for the prime minister, his foray to Washington coincided with a series of unfortunate events that analysts interpreted unfavourably.

First, the PM was preceded in Washington by the head of the ISI and then followed by Gen Sharif himself – a sequence which some read as chaperoning. Second, there was the appointment of the very recently retired Lt-Gen Nasir Janjua as the national security adviser. Then there was a minor spat with the faujis precipitated by the corps commanders – in effect – asking the civilians to ‘do more’ and the civilians politely reminding the faujis that governance was a responsibility shared by all institutions.

All of this, of course, followed months of favourable, if not fawning, coverage in domestic and international media hailing Gen Sharif as the saviour of Pakistan for leading the charge against terrorism and for cleaning up Karachi. As a businessman interviewed by the Wall Street Journal put it, “There is God in the sky, and here on the ground there is Raheel Sharif.”

Many veteran Pakistan watchers saw these events as a signal from the army that the retreat to the barracks caused by the 2008 ouster of Gen Musharraf was now perhaps proving a bit confining.

Those analysts (and cheerleaders for military intervention) are mistaken. The Pakistan of 2015 is a far cry from the Pakistan of the 1990s. Yes, it is still all about Nawaz Sharif and the army. But it is a different Nawaz Sharif. And it is a different army.

The Nawaz Sharif of the 1990s was a callow politician who owed his position to army patronage. He had first been picked up as a provincial minister in 1982 and then made the chief minister of Punjab province, presumably for his ability to follow orders. After he was propelled to the prime minister’s post in 1990, his subsequent refusal to follow what he called “dictation” from the establishment was seen more as a case of insubordination than of a commitment to democracy. Accordingly, the Musharraf era saw a fairly determined attempt by the military to wipe out the PML-N, not only by exiling the Sharifs but by extending full support to the Chaudhrys of Gujrat.

That attempt failed. Despite nine years of relative economic progress, the 2008 elections saw the rejection of political forces associated with Gen Musharraf and the triumphant return to power of the Sharifs.

More importantly, the 2008 elections did not see a return to the zero-sum mode of the 1990s in which the military and the establishment played off the political parties against each other. Instead, despite occasional bouts of bad behaviour, both the PPP and the PML-N decided to respect each other’s mandate. And the result was that the general elections of 2013 marked the first time a democratically elected Pakistani government handed over power to another democratically elected government.

The point of recounting all this history is that, while Pakistani politics in the 1990s resembled a Punch and Judy show with the army pulling the strings, politics in 2015 is very different. Today’s army knows that it has to work with the civilians, not just through them.

To begin with, there is a popular commitment to democracy that did not exist earlier. There are also additional factors in the form of the judiciary and an independent media, both of whose legitimacy also rests, at least to some degree, on their commitment to democracy. The 111 Brigade could still physically take over Islamabad tomorrow. But this time the Supreme Court will not validate a coup. And the media may not be applauding either.

Those who see the appointment of Gen Janjua as marking a soft coup are also overstating their argument. In practical terms, the appointment of the general as the national security adviser does not change anything. The army was in charge of framing national security policy even prior to his appointment, and his appointment only underlines that fact.

At the same time, the quasi-public assumption by the army of a civilian role comes with its own set of consequences. Prior to the appointment of Gen Janjua, the army did not need to defend its security policies because that work was being done for it by Nawaz Sharif’s government. Now, Gen Janjua will be in the spotlight. He will have to appear in public. He will have to answer questions. And he will be held accountable for his performance.

In that sense, the appointment of Gen Janjua is comparable to the introduction of military courts. By amending the constitution to permit military courts, the often shadowy world of military justice and ‘disappeared’ suspects has been opened up to public scrutiny. Military courts are often rough and ready, but they are certainly better than being pushed out of a helicopter. Similarly, no one disputes that national security policy is the domain of an elected government, not the armed forces. But the political reality in Pakistan is very different from civil-military relations in an ideal world.

What the appointment also highlights is the army’s approach towards the role of the national security adviser. As the former head of the Southern Command in Balochistan, where Pakistan has been battling a separatist insurgency, Gen Janjua is well regarded for his efforts to bring peace there. His new appointment thus shows the seriousness with which the army regards the Balochistan problem.

Given the army’s conviction that the insurgency is being aided by India, Gen Janjua’s experience in Quetta also qualifies him to talk bluntly to his Indian counterpart, if and when he meets him. Finally, as the former head of the National Defence University in Islamabad, the general is clearly seen as somebody with the intellect to take on Ajit Doval, the former intelligence officer who is India’s national security adviser.

To conclude, pundits should beware of interpreting current events to confirm their view of Pakistan as a military-dominated state. Pakistan has always been a state with a dominant army. Currently, it is also a state with a very active army. In addition to its traditional defensive posture versus India, the Pakistan Army is now engaged in a massive counterinsurgency effort in Waziristan and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an equally ambitious effort to bring peace and prosperity to Balochistan, and finally, an even more ambitious effort to reduce armed violence and corruption in Karachi. If #ThankYouRaheelSharif has become the hashtag du jour, then there is more than some rational basis for the citizenry’s gratitude.

The clock is also ticking on Gen Sharif. Given his army pedigree and given the consensus within military circles that Gen Kayani fatally compromised himself by accepting an extension to his term, the odds are that Gen Sharif will be retiring when his tenure expires in November 2016. Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, is going nowhere until 2018. He has already withstood one attempt by the army to exterminate his political career. And even now, current indications are that the PML-N will be returned to power.

What the Janjua appointment thus signifies is a period of open cohabitation between the army and the civilians. Both of them are now aware that they are in a long-term relationship. And both of them realise the importance of open communication. So far as the apparent competition between Nawaz Sharif and Gen Sharif is concerned, the short answer is that there is none. But to the extent it does exist, it is a race between a turtle and a hare. And we all know how that turned out.

This column appeared in The News on 28 November 2015.

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