Is the Military Still in Charge in Pakistan?

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani shakes hands with Adm. Mike Mullen This past summer, WikiLeaks, an on-line source of anonymous whistle-blower revelations, unveiled damning information about the war in Afghanistan and its “official portrayal.” Sidebar revelations also cast doubt on Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, charging Pakistani intelligence agencies with “aiding insurgents.” Pakistan and the United States forcefully denied any chink in their “strategic partnership.” Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy played down the revelations as “based on raw inputs and old documents which did not reflect the policy of the U.S. government.” The New York Times cautioned: “Much of the information … cannot be verified and likely comes from sources aligned with Afghan intelligence, which considers Pakistan an enemy, and paid informants.” Writing for Time, Joe Klein boldly speculated that “…the WikiLeaks trove emanated from Afghan intelligence sources trying to quash a [peace] deal” between the Karzai government and the Taliban.

Yet these revelations resonated with some world leaders. British Prime Minister David Cameron for one, accused Pakistan of “looking both ways” at the war on terror. His statement triggered widespread protests in Pakistan, where he was burned in effigy. Conversely, President Barack Obama, during his visit to India in November, spoke of the battlefield challenges and human costs faced by Pakistan for its participation in the war on terror. He also stressed that “a stable and prosperous Pakistan would be in India’s best interest” for regional stability and that Pakistan was strategically important “not just for the United States but also for the world.”

Just prior to Obama’s visit to India after the U.S. mid-term elections, Pakistan and the United States concluded a third round of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in Washington in late October. These top-level ministerial level meetings primarily focus on security cooperation with Pakistan. In a rare diplomatic gesture, President Obama met with the Pakistani delegation, which included the architect of Pakistan’s military strategy, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. More notably, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, rather than outgoing National Security Advisor Jim Jones, met privately with Kayani to discuss issues of regional peace and security. As former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had worked with Kayani’s predecessor, former Army Chief of Staff and later Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

General Kayani’s larger-than-life role also embodies the checkered history of civil-military relations in Pakistan, which were conditioned by prolonged and repeated military interventions into civic affairs. In the nation’s 63 years of existence, Pakistan averaged one intervention every two days under military rule. The latest bout of military rule (1999-2008) ended with the February 2008 general elections. Since its inauguration in March 2008, the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has struggled to balance civil-military relations. In July 2010, General Kayani’s reappointment severely tested the civilian government’s mettle.

Reappointment of Kayani

For months, Pakistan was abuzz with rumors about whether Kayani would be retained, particularly because of the frosty relationship between him and President Asif Ali Zardari. Defense Minister Choudhry Ahmad Mukhtar had earlier stated that the government would not offer Kayani an extension, nor would he seek one. Yet Prime Minister Syed Yosuf Raza Gilani surprised the country on July 22 when he announced Kayani’s reappointment for a second three-year term in order to “ensure continuity of leadership” in the war against terrorism.

The reappointment itself significantly broke with the past pattern of top military appointments. For just the second time since the 1950s, a civilian government had survived in office long enough to decide on military matters. For decades, army chiefs would oust civilian governments well before they were up for reappointment. Generals Ayub, Yahya, Zia, and Musharraf were all army chiefs who each muscled their way into power.

Pakistan is a nation unaccustomed to, and untrusting of, peacetime military announcements. That’s why religious-conservative observer and TV journalist Shahid Masood speculated that Kayani’s reappointment was forced from the government. On the July 23 edition of the TV talk show Policy Matters, Masood described the atmospherics that surrounded the announcement. First, working Pakistan had already gone to sleep at 10:45 pm (Pakistan Standard Time) when Prime Minister Gilani interrupted the national airwaves to make this special announcement. Second, he looked “disoriented.” Third, his signature necktie was missing and his rarely used prescription glasses were uncomfortably perched half way down the bridge of his nose. Fourth, he haltingly read through his “script,” which appeared to have been handed to him shortly before going on air. Finally, his manner of addressing the nation was a reminder of military-speak: “My Dear Countrymen,” instead of his characteristic salutations: “My Dear Brothers and Sisters.”

Reaction to Kayani’s Reappointment

Nevertheless, the reappointment largely echoed public sentiments. General Kayani has broad popular support as a “war hero” for his successful push against the Pakistani Taliban. The prime minister cited his “spectacular successes” on the battlefield in Malakand, Swat, and South Waziristan, strong relationships with NATO and U.S. military leaders, and support of democracy as the basis for his reappointment.

The prime minister’s pronouncement especially resonated with pragmatists, who have turned against the Taliban in a massive wave. With his military victories in western Pakistan, General Kayani created and led a popular tide against the Taliban. Persuaded by these successes, several well-known defense analysts including Hasan Askari, Nasim Zehra (Dunya News), Ikram Sehgal (The News), Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, and Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani spoke approvingly of the prime minister’s decision.

On the other hand, idealists who advocate for unadulterated democracy stood firm in their belief in civilian primacy over the military. Among them, Pakistan’s best-known human rights advocate and lawyer, Asma Jehangir, publicly alleged that the reappointment resulted from pressure from the military. Liberals, such as TV host Najam Sethi, were also lukewarm in their endorsement, and anticipated that Kayani would be “calling the shots” on foreign policy. They warned that such extensions, beyond legally delimited terms, would strengthen individual power over institutional independence. Pragmatists counterargued that one election was not enough to entrench civilian supremacy. In their view, it will take years, if not decades, for military leaders to accept their subordination to civilian masters.

However, progressives and nationalist-conservatives enthused over the reappointment. They maintained that in extraordinary circumstances individuals do matter as much as institutions. Progressives were especially taken with General Kayani for his moves to de-theologize the military from its dependency on Islam. They extolled his ability to energize his command with an all-inclusive brew of “Pakistani patriotism” rather than loyalty based on faith. They pointed to one telling detail — all ranks in the army are now required to wear the national flag on their shoulder sleeves.

Yet some progressives felt despondent about the overall ineptitude of the coalition civilian government, leading them to look to the military for Gaullean-style or Ataturk-like secular democracy. For instance, Pakistan’s best-known progressive journalist, Shaheen Sehbai, had once risked his democratic credentials by calling on Kayani to clean up “the bloody mess” of corrupt politics left by his predecessor Musharraf. Similarly, nationalist-conservatives, such as commentator Haroon-ur-Rashid, applauded Kayani for his “irreversible” commitment against the Taliban’s “terrorism.” They regarded him as a “defender of democracy” and an “upholder of the rule of law.”

Kayani had earlier garnered much popular support by issuing directives that prevented the military from influencing civilian rule. In February 2008, he ordered the Pakistan Election Commission (PEC) and civil and military bureaucracy to dismantle then-President Musharraf’s elaborate infrastructure, thereby ensuring fair and free elections. In March 2009, he again stepped in to arbitrate between the government and the lawyers’ movement, thereby reinstating more than 60 judges dismissed by Musharraf. Such interventions helped establish Kayani as “upholder of the rule of law.”

The center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, however, pushed back on the reappointment. When journalists sought Sharif’s views, he responded with a verse by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “There is more in the world to worry about than just love.” Sharif’s evasiveness was consistent with his long advocacy for civilian primacy over the military.

Turning the Tide against the Taliban

Taliban militancy is the single most important factor weakening civilian primacy. It has emasculated political leaders, literally forcing them indoors. The president’s and prime minister’s residences resemble fortress bunkers, protected with “no-fly zones” in the air and “red zones” (roads closed to all public traffic) on the ground. Yet the unity of military and civilian leaders, coupled with military victories in western Pakistan, has helped mobilize public support against the Taliban.

In a perverse way, the Taliban themselves have ignited a popular backlash against their benighted orthodoxy and pathological bloodlust. In the past two years, they committed a series of atrocities, in a calculated sequence, which have turned the country against them. Their prime miscalculation was the 2007 assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom they branded an “American transplant,” “a secular socialist leader,” and an “anathema to religious and nationalist conservatives.”

The Taliban also mistakenly believed that the military despised Bhutto due to its putative allegiance to Musharraf. On this count, they had a rude awakening in August 2009 when the military avenged her assassination by killing their leader Baitullah Mehsud and depositing him in an unmarked grave. Nevertheless, the violent slaying of Bhutto left a deep wound on the national psyche.

In October 2008, almost a year after her death, the Taliban tried to assassinate the Pakhtun icon Asfandyar Wali Khan, who heads the progressive Awami National Party (ANP), in a suicide bombing. He survived. The ANP, which also leads the coalition government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, responded with its own massive show of force. In May 2009, it mounted a military offensive to clear the Taliban’s stronghold in Malakand Division, a cluster of six districts that account for about one-third of the province, and evicted the Taliban in three months. The offensive, however, displaced 3.5 million people, who eventually returned home by August 2009.

Undeterred or in utter desperation, the Taliban finally decided to challenge the state symbol of Pakistan’s military might. On October 10, 2009, they brazenly attacked the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) — Pakistan’s Pentagon — in Rawalpindi. They aimed to capture or kill Kayani and several of his top generals while sending the message to the Pakistanis that their strongest defense was vulnerable and that they’d better join forces with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Six soldiers passing through the gate and four militants died. The previous year, al-Qaeda and the Taliban had plotted to assassinate Kayani, but they backed off for fear of a scorched-earth military response.

Dramatic Falloff in Taliban Support

The Taliban’s attack on the GHQ was a turning point. It bled them of their support base in Pakistan, which has since shriveled to a miniscule four percent, even less in border areas where fighting has dramatically impacted civilian lives and livelihoods.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the foremost center-right party, rallied nationalist-conservatives against the Taliban and publicly supported the military. Intellectuals among the nationalist-conservatives, who have long been ambivalent in their support for the Taliban, blazed a trail of their own — away from the Taliban. Prominent among them were Javed Chaudhry, Hamid Mir, Ataul-Haq Qasmi, and Haroon-ur-Rashid.

Idealists were already at odds with the Taliban’s theocratic agenda, which went against their basic principles of democracy and human rights. Asma Jehangir and her sister Hina Jilani, leaders among the idealists, are even credited with swelling the anti-Taliban tide by releasing a video that showed the Taliban flogging a teenage girl for “immoral behavior.”

Progressives and liberals, committed to secularism, seized on such atrocities and mobilized the public against Taliban theocracy. The most influential progressives — the Awami National Party (ANP), the Mutehidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — hold seats in the national and provincial governments. Of these, the ANP has suffered the largest number of fatalities at the hands of the Taliban, losing a hundred leaders and workers in the Swat Valley alone. The MQM, anchored in the country’s largest city of Karachi, contemptuously rejects the Taliban’s restrictive views on gender relations and their violent campaign to re-Islamize “errant Muslims.” A former MQM leader living in exile was assassinated in London this September; the Taliban are suspected.

As noted earlier, the worst victim of their violence is the PPP. It lost its legendary leader, Benazir Bhutto, to the Taliban’s fanaticism. Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007 after a deal with Musharraf. The Taliban were afraid that, with her popular support base, Bhutto would be a far stronger foe than Musharraf. They reasoned she would go farther than Musharraf to please the United States. But above all, Bhutto’s gender irked them the most. So they first tried to kill her on the very day she arrived in Pakistan – an attempt that failed to kill the PPP leader but killed around 300 of her followers. Her subsequent assassination united much of the nation and all progressive forces against the Taliban.

Yet the religious-conservatives, who adhere to the exclusionary Wahabi faith and cluster in such groups as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam, still support the Taliban. They perceive Pakistan as a fortress of Islam, without which the country need not exist. As such, they espouse the Taliban’s cause of re-Islamizing secular Muslim states, including Pakistan, and oppose the war on terror as an American ruse to extend its hegemony over the Islamic world. Some of the Taliban’s allied groups, like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, go to the extent of re-Islamizing the Shiite Muslims whom they regard as apostates.

In a similar vein, religious-conservative intellectuals such as Irfan Siddiqui, Shahid Masood, and Salim Saafi (the latter with a degree of ambivalence) continue to support the Taliban and Mulla Omer. They believe that the emergence of the Taliban is a reaction to U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As soon as the United States leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban will end their war.

More importantly, the religious-conservatives believe that Kayani is following in the footsteps of his predecessor Musharraf by prosecuting the “American war” as his own. They disregard the Taliban’s terrorist violence that has thus far killed 27,000 Pakistani citizens and 2,700 of its service members. Such violence, on the other hand, only serves to deepen the unity among idealists, pragmatists, liberals, progressives, and nationalist-conservatives to save and stabilize Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Stability and the United States

Pakistan’s stability, as noted earlier, is of grave concern for the United States. This past March, the United States elevated its five-year-old “strategic dialogue” with Pakistan to a ministerial level. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi co-chair this forum, which signals stepped-up U.S. efforts to strengthen Pakistan’s national security, economic viability, and democratic structures. A second round of this dialogue took place in July, followed by a third round in October.

At the conclusion of this last round, Secretary Clinton confirmed the continuation of the Obama administration’s security assistance commitment to Pakistan, including the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund. Previously agreed-on items include integrating the two countries’ defense requirements and providing Pakistan with sought-after Drone aircraft and, more importantly, 18 F-16s to fight the Taliban. In addition, the United States approved $2 billion in military assistance to Pakistan.

The stepped-up U.S. defense cooperation deeply resonates with most Pakistanis, as they see their military as the only force that stands between their country and chaos. Secretary Clinton believes that the outcome of Pakistan’s struggle against the Taliban and other radical elements will “have regional and global repercussions,” for which “strengthening and advancing your security remains a key priority of our relationship.”

Although security concerns dominate Pakistan-U.S. discussions, their implications for Pakistan’s economy are equally noteworthy. Over the years, terrorism has exacted a heavy toll on its economy, estimated at $50 billion. Recent devastating floods compound the tragedy. President Zardari has called for a Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of his country and neighboring Afghanistan. The United States has already approved a $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan, which will help strengthen the key sectors of its economy.

The Obama administration, aware of the democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan, made the aid package conditional on Pakistan’s commitment to strengthening democratic institutions. Many Pakistanis, including the military, considered this conditionality an affront to Pakistan’s sovereignty. As a result, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), one of the sponsors of the aid package, issued a written statement that addressed Pakistan’s concerns for sovereignty.

Against this background, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen denied U.S. involvement in the reappointment of Kayani and called it Pakistan’s “internal issue.” Earlier, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad went to great lengths to quash speculations that the United States had engineered the decision.

The Obama administration, nevertheless, is happy with Kayani and his continued command. Over the years, top U.S. military leaders have developed a close working relationship with him. This relationship was further nurtured by his attendance at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The United States will continue to press this relationship to help end the conflict in Afghanistan. While vowing to keep his country on an independent course, Kayani has given a solemn commitment to the Obama administration that he and his country will never let the Taliban retake Afghanistan, as it is contrary to Pakistan’s interests.

The Future of Civilian Rule

The balance of civil-military relations will continue to favor the latter for years to come. Taliban militancy has united the nation behind the military, extending its support base across the ideological divide of idealism, liberalism, nationalism, nationalist-conservatism, and progressivism.

General Kayani, whose second three-year term now extends to November 2013, has further deepened this unity by recasting the military as the nation’s ultimate defender. Similarly, he has cheered the country by recalling hundreds of army officers from lucrative and sinecure civilian jobs, and banning his officer corps from socializing with politicians to keep the military apolitical. Above all, Kayani’s crucial interventions to mediate government-opposition conflicts have gone a long way to save democracy and uphold the rule of law.

For these same reasons, Kayani has become the ultimate arbiter in matters of national security, foreign policy, and the national economy. The United States has had a close-up view of his dominant role in shaping these policies during the three rounds of strategic dialogue.

The civilian government, on the other hand, has found itself weakened in the midst of a national security crisis fostered by religious extremism, Taliban militancy, al-Qaeda terrorism, and political violence. Its ineptitude in managing the economy and combating corruption has further tarnished its credibility. Economic contraction and lurid tales of corruption have deeply hurt the credibility of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, whose lives are fodder for comedians and satirists. In frustration, coalition partner MQM has publicly requested that the military cleanse the country of “feudalism, chieftainism, and capitalism” with a “martial-law-like” system. This call speaks volumes about the future shape of civil-military relations in the country.

The United States continues to be invested in Pakistan’s stability, which is critical to peace in Afghanistan. Washington needs to tread cautiously in dealing with the civilian and the military establishments to avoid repeating perceived threats to Pakistan’s sovereignty, such as those that occurred over conditions placed in the Kerry-Lugar bill.

At the same time, the United States must recognize that popular support is essential to achieving strategic objectives. Musharraf failed to deliver in the face of an insurgent democratic opposition led by the PML and PPP. Since 2008, these two parties have successfully mobilized nation-wide mass support against the Taliban that has contributed to military victories in western Pakistan.

The United States, therefore, needs both civilian and military leaders to achieve its regional ends, including stable civil-military relations in Pakistan. In the long run, this stability will come through institutionalizing the rule of law, which is still a distant star on the horizon of Pakistan.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Tarique Niazi teaches environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and can be reached via email: [email protected]