Military Still Pulls Strings in Pakistan

Originally published in Public Service Europe
December 14, 2011

Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani points out a feature to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen during an aerial tour of Northern Pakistan on July 24, 2010. (Department of Defense)

As President Asif Ali Zardari lies in a hospital bed in Dubai, recovering from what his aides are calling a minor heart attack, rumours continue to percolate through Pakistan's chattering classes that the whole episode is really a charade, a thinly veiled excuse for the unpopular leader to escape what some in the media are labeling a 'soft coup' against him by the nation's military establishment.

The charge is, perhaps, overreaching a bit. But coming on the heels of the recent American border strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and the so-called 'memo-gate' scandal involving the Pakistani ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani, it makes plain the Kabuki theatre that is the notion of independent and authoritative civilian rule in Pakistan – at least in relation to Pakistan's foreign policy.

The border strike inflamed domestic opinion and sent the military into a rage. The military-backed media fanned the flames further and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was left little choice but to click his heels smartly, salute, and tell the world in indignant fashion that Pakistan would be blocking supplies to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, expelling the US from a drone base in Pakistan and boycotting the Bonn conference on Afghanistan. With memo-gate, the military found an opportunity to finally knock ambassador Haqqani, the Zardari ally and long-time antagonist of the military, from his perch in Washington. By excising the troublesome diplomat, the military was able to move one step closer to a full course correction on the ship of government; that is to rid itself of influences that think independently from, or worse contrary to, the Army Way.

The influence of the military continues to weigh heavily on domestic politics too. Imran Khan, the cricketing hero-turned-politician, had long been consigned to the backbenches of national politics in Pakistan. Recently, Khan has seen a meteoric rise in popularity. If one asks Pakistani pundits to what they attribute his rapid reversal in political fortunes, chances are they'll allude to Khan receiving the backing of the military. Khan's party stands to make big gains in parts of the Punjab where the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is popular. Sharif, still smarting from the army coup that dethroned him in 1999, is one of the army's biggest political opponents.

The US is not guilt-free when it comes to the status quo of military pre-eminence in Pakistan. Successive US governments have chosen to heavily skew their dealings in Pakistan towards the army. Part of this is a result of the army having officially run Pakistan for nearly half of its 64 year-long history, and part of it is down to the fact that the US correctly recognised that even when the military was not holding political office, it was still the power to be reckoned with. Even today, when American lawmakers and top officials visit Pakistan, they will pay the compliment of briefly visiting the presidency or the prime minister's secretariat, but they all then clamour to meet Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani. There is a natural desire to speak to the man in charge, but this beeline to General Headquarters saps the civilian government of the legitimacy it needs to finally break the cycle of army preeminence in politics.

The army is unlikely to make any overt grabs for power in the near future. General Kayani knows that little could be more destructive for the army's popularity than a repeat of the indignities it suffered during the Musharraf years. In any case, the memories of Musharraf's military rule, and the lawyers' movement that began the army's ouster from politics, will probably be enough to keep the military out of the halls of government for some time to come. The army continues, however, to pull the strings from behind the curtain. If the last few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is that the army is still dominant in the formation of policy in Pakistan, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

It will take the continuation of tenuous civilian rule, some very brave politicians, and a reframing of the way in which other countries, but particularly the US, go about engaging with power brokers in Pakistan, if the influence of the military is eventually to wane. While Zardari's rush to the Gulf may not be the opening moves of a coup against his government, for as long as a bossy political military remains in rude health he should expect to make regular visits to his cardiologist.