Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
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.
There is a strange dichotomy in Delhi at the moment. If you read the headlines or watch the news on television, India and Pakistan appear headed for confrontation – what form, what shape is obviously hard to tell but the rhetoric is getting more and more menacing each day.
Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani promised a matching response ‘within minutes” were the Indians to carry out precision strikes against camps of militants inside Pakistan, whom it blames for the Mumbai attacks.
In his new book about the Pakistan Army, “War, Coups and Terror”, Brian Cloughley recounts how the British general, the Duke of Wellington, responded to democracy in his first cabinet meeting as prime minister: ”An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”
The story is told as part of an argument about why the Pakistan Army has never been particularly successful at running the country.
Pakistan has replaced the head of its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, following months of questions from the United States about its reliability in the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, formerly head of military operations, will replace Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj.
The change was part of a major overhaul of the military leadership by Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who also replaced the head of the 10 Corps in Rawalpindi, the most powerful corps in the army.
While Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is in the United States discussing U.S. military strikes across Pakistan’s border, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is on a far less publicised trip to China to talk about defence cooperation. The timing may be coincidental, but the potential implications of the United States and China playing competing roles in Pakistan are huge.
Pakistan has always seen China as a much more reliable friend, while support from Washington has waxed and waned in line with U.S. interests (Islamabad has never quite forgiven the United States for using it to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then dropping it when the Russians were driven out in 1989.)
Just two days after a suicide bomb attack on the Marriott killed 53 people in the heart of Islamabad, there were reports of trouble both on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and on the Line of Control with India.
On the Afghan border, Pakistani troops fired on two U.S. helicopters that intruded into Pakistani airspace on Sunday night, forcing them to turn back to Afghanistan, according to a senior Pakistani security official. On the Indian side, Pakistani and Indian troops exchanged fire across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, in the latest breach of a ceasefire agreed in 2003. And as if that was not enough, Afghanistan’s top diplomat was kidnapped in Peshawar.