Pakistan’s general and the warring politicians

March 13, 2009

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is much talked about these days as the one national figure who could lean on Pakistan’s warring politicians to back down from a confrontation threatening the stability of the country. The question is over how he would intervene while maintaining a commitment to keep the army out of politics.

Most analysts have ruled out a coup for now and in an interview with PBS Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed Kayani was committed to a civilian government.

But between a military coup and non-intervention lies a huge grey area in terms of how far Kayani will, or can, go to put pressure on political rivals President Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to back down.

In an editorial in The News, defence analyst Ikram Sehgal says that while negotiators shuttle back and forth between the two parties to try to find a compromise, “the ultimate answer for this political confrontation will probably emanate from Rawalpindi”, the headquarters of the Pakistan Army. “While the Army has no business running the government, will it be responsible and/or patriotic to stand by and see the government and the opposition run the country out of existence?” he asks.

Indeed a meeting between Kayani and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Wednesday raised speculation that the army chief may have already begun to put pressure on the government to find a compromise.

In an editorial in the Daily Times, Ejaz Haider writes that Kayani could try to get Gilani to convince Zardari that his current confrontation with Sharif has to stop.

“The army chief is a worried man, as he should be. His troops are spread thin. He is fighting against an elusive enemy; and he is fighting a war for which there is not much public acceptance,” he writes. “The irreducible minimum he needs is political stability because with stability comes the possibility of a popular buy-in for counter-insurgency.”

While ruling out a coup, he writes that “what Kayani can do is to try and get the prime minister to signal to Zardari that the current confrontation is not sustainable; that some compromise formula needs to be arrived at to defuse the situation. Of course, the ‘or else’ qualifier for greater effect would be welcome.”

The biggest problem will come if the politicians fail to reach a compromise or if violence on the streets triggered by the Long March - the nationwide protest by lawyers and opposition politicians to demand an independent judiciary – reaches such a level that the army has to be called out to maintain order. As discussed in a previous post, that is exactly the kind of situation that has led to military takeovers in the past.

Defence analyst Brian Cloughley says the police and paramilitary forces could end up being overwhelmed by sheer numbers if the march gets out of hand, and demonstrations become violent. “The last resort is the army, which could not stand by and let the country fall deeper into chaos.  Indeed, the Constitution requires this — but of course the army must remain under government control. The problem will be if the government collapses, which is possible,” he wrote an in email. “This may lead to the army simply having to exert some sort of force in order to keep the country stable — or as stable as can be managed.  Kayani would of course prefer to do this through and on the orders of the civil power — but there might not be a civil power to exercise authority.

“In the event of a complete breakdown, Kayani would have to act, which he would do with great reluctance.  He is a constitutional patriot, make no mistake about that, and he would seek advice — probably, and ironically, from senior judges.”

We’re not there yet. But there is a terrible irony in the fact that just over a year after an election meant to restore civilian democracy following then General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, Pakistanis are already looking to the Pakistan Army to restore stability. For now it seems to be limited to an expectation that Kayani will throw his weight around enough behind the scenes (or has already done so) to force the country’s politicians to make peace.  But if this assessment is correct, it suggests that the one person who can prevent a coup and help shore up the country’s fragile democracy is the head of the army. From a constitutional point of view, that does not sit right. But is there an alternative?

(Reuters 2008 file photo of Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani with then president Pervez Musharraf; 2008 file photo of political rivals former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and President Asif Ali Zardari)

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