The Pakistan Army and “the history of the stick”

February 27, 2009

In his book on the Pakistan Army, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen quotes a senior lieutenant-general as warning the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against using the military to control political opposition. “If you use a stick too often, the stick will take over,” Cohen quotes the general as saying. “This has always been the history of the stick.”

There’s no sign yet of the Pakistan Army reverting to its usual role of wielding the big stick. But with the police out in force to quell protests in Punjab over a Supreme Court ruling excluding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from office, the obvious question to ask is whether we are about to see a repeat of the old cycle in which security forces are called out to restore order and end up taking over altogether. Indeed, the Pakistan Army’s first involvement in politics is generally dated to the 1953 imposition of martial law in Lahore – where protests erupted on Thursday over the court ruling.  Sharif has blamed President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, for the ruling.

Historical parallels can, of course, be misleading.  Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has made it clear he wants to keep the military out of politics. He is currently visiting the United States, where the administration of President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed its commitment to civilian democracy in Pakistan.

And Zardari, who has imposed governor’s rule in Punjab to replace an administration run by Shabaz Sharif, may yet find an accommodation with the powerful Sharif brothers over the issues that divide them — the restoration of judges sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf along with Zardari’s retention of presidential powers he inherited when Musharraf quit last year. Or we might be set for a long period of political manoeuvring between Pakistan’s bickering politicians which drags on for weeks or months.

Yet you have to wonder how well, and for how long, Kayani’s resolve to keep the army out of politics will survive if unrest in Punjab escalates. Punjab is not only the most populous province in Pakistan and heartland of popular support for the Sharif brothers – it is where the Pakistan Army has its roots.  A Taliban insurgency against the Pakistan government has already spread from the country’s tribal areas on the borders with Afghanistan into its North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Taliban have also been blamed for suicide bombings in Punjab and according to this article in the News could reach further into the province by picking up fresh recruits among the country’s poor.

Pakistan is already on edge after the government agreed a ceasefire with Taliban militants in the Swat valley in NWFP in exchange for promising to introduce sharia law. Now with this political confrontation blowing up between Zardari and the Sharif brothers, events are moving very fast.

“The two parties are going for the kill,” the Daily Times said in an editorial. “As in the past, they might both come a cropper. This time, however, there is real danger that the state they are trampling upon in the process may join the failed ranks of Somalia, Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe.”

To return to the history of the stick, here is what Cohen quoted a Pakistani writer as saying in a book published in 1963:

“The more (the Army) wanted to stand aloof and devote its energies to the real duties of any army, the more it found itself entangled in civil tasks. Hard pressed governments were forced to call for its assistance in times of grave natural and man-made calamities, which became increasingly common in Pakistan.”

Are we heading for a repetition of history? Or do we assume all the players involved have learned from experience?

(Reuters photos: vehicles torched in Lahore and file photo of General Ashfaq Kayani)

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