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The Changing Role of Security Establishment During The Last Decade

Umer Farooq traces the role of the military since the exit of Gen Musharraf and argues that over time their involvement in political affairs has increased with implications for domestic governance and national security. In part this has happened due to the weaknesses of political elites but the regional security environment and success in combatting militants have enabled the establishment to get back into the driving seat.

In the post-Musharraf period military has played a key role in the political decision-making in the country. Apart from historically dominating the decision-making process, the army in the post-Musharraf period started to play a crucial role in handling the internal security situation. This was primarily because of deteriorating security situation in the country on account of military’s operations in the tribal areas. Military not only decisively moved out of the barracks to curb the militant and terror activities in the country carried out by tribal militants (read Taliban) and other militant organisations based in settled areas of the country, it also decisively controlled the decision-making process of the government under which military operations against the militant groups were carried out.

On account of these developments in the country, the military’s role in controlling the political affairs increased.

In the initial five years of post-Musharraf period, the military acted as a consensus builder. They wanted the consensus support of all the political forces before they could launch a decisive operation against the militants or to ward off external threats emanating from India and evade diplomatic pressure from Washington. There, however, was a discernible change in military’s attitude towards politics and political forces, which came to dominate the political arena in the post-Musharraf period, after 2014. This was also the time when military wanted to start operations against the militants in Swat and South Waziristan — perhaps the biggest internal security operations in the history of the country.

The military leaders — Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani and Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha – sitting in the All Parties Conferences (APCs) on Swat and South Waziristan with the political leaders was a common sight in those days. It was then reported in the media that Gen Kiyani used to ask political leaders that it was extremely necessary that they get him political consensus before “I send troops into Swat or South Waziristan”.

What were the causes which led to the change of attitude within the military leadership: From consensus builders in 2009 to partisans against one or the other political forces after 2013, the complaints against military and its affiliate intelligence agencies backing the opposition forces against the incumbent government became very common after 2013.

The change of attitude was reflected in the army chief going to Supreme Court against the incumbent government in Memogate scandal, the DG ISI allegedly backing opposition’s sit-in against the incumbent government and voices accusing the military and intelligence services to back Imran Khan in his agitation politics.

APCs and culture of consensus under General Kiyani

In the period 2008-14, the army leadership attempted to build political consensus through organising APCs. These APCs were convened by the government of the day at the behest of army leadership. Through holding of APCs, the army leadership under Gen Kiyani clearly wanted to achieve political consensus in order to a) start a military operation against the militants in the tribal areas or any of the urban centres where things were getting out of hand, b) to ward off military pressure or external threat from a neighbouring country like India, c) APC forum was also used to evade diplomatic pressure from Washington or other western capitals.

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For instance, during the APC held in Islamabad on May 16, 2009, Gen Kiyani briefed the entire political leadership on security situation in an in-camera session. The military officials briefed the political leadership on every aspect of military operation in Swat and asked them to support the Malakand operation. They also briefed on the situation on the eastern and western borders.

Kiyani informed the political leaders that the US wanted Pakistan to move its troops away from eastern border to the border with Afghanistan and in this situation, it was ready to offer fool-proof guarantees that India will not embark on any misadventure against Pakistan. However, Gen Kiyani said the US was told on the matter of national sovereignty that no international guarantee was acceptable.

Prior to this meeting, Gen Kiyani had hinted at the importance of leading the military operations against the militants in a democratic setup. Kiyani, while addressing a corps commanders’ conference, said that Pakistan was a sovereign state and the people under democratic dispensation supported by armed forces were capable of handling the crisis.

The diplomatic pressure from Washington was clearly visible at the backdrop of this APC, which was taking place amidst rising tensions in Swat Valley. Only two weeks back on April 30, the then US President Obama addressed a late night press conference in White house, saying that the government in Pakistan is extremely fragile and is not capable of delivering basic services to its people therefore cannot earn their loyalty. The US has an interest in ensuring the stability of Pakistan and that a nuclear armed militant state would be extremely hurtful for US interests.

The second category of APC was the conference held in Islamabad on December 2, 2008 to consider the implications of Mumbai terror attacks and subsequent Indian military pressure on regional security environment. Leaders of all political parties participated in the meeting. The political leadership said that it fully supported the government and the armed forces in defending country’s security interests. This was primarily important because the Indian leaders were talking about war.

A day before the APC, India formally accused Pakistani elements of being involved in Mumbai terror attacks. Indian investigators told Reuters that the attackers underwent training in Pakistan and the lone surviving attacker have confessed that they were receiving orders from high command in Pakistan.

The Indian and Pakistani militaries, however, denied that there had been any unusual troops’ movement on the international border. The military spokesman said that Pakistan’s intelligence report suggest there had been no unusual troops movement on the international border on India side of the border. Similarly, the India’s military also denied reports in the Indian media that there was any troops’ movement towards the international border. These denials came amidst unusual reports that India is mobilizing its troops in the wake of Mumbai attacks.

The third type of APC was held in September 2011 when Pakistan came under increasing pressure from Washington to sever its relations with Haqqani network and conduct an operation against it in North Waziristan Agency. Pakistan was still considered an ally of Washington in the war against terror and meetings between Pakistani military leaders and US security establishment official were frequent.

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Army’s role undergoes a dramatic shift

From consensus builder to a partisan, at least in perception of the opposition parties: Political adventurers created a legitimacy crisis for both PPP and PML-N governments between 2008-14 just to weaken their moral and ethical position to continue to rule the country in the light of the mandate that they had received from the public in parliamentary elections held in 2008 and 2013 respectively.

This meant that the adventurers created questions and challenges to their constitutional authority and electoral mandate, which cast doubt on justification of their continued rule in the country. For instance, the Memogate scandal was a classic case of orchestrating legitimacy crisis for the PPP government. In this scandal, the serving COAS (Gen Kiyani) and serving DG ISI (Gen Pasha) accused the leaders in PPP government of conspiring to dismiss these two gentlemen from service in connivance with American military. In Pakistan’s peculiar case, the revelation that the sitting government is conspiring against its army in connivance with a foreign and hostile military power is a charge serious enough to justify the ouster of the civilian government, in public eyes. Hence any government caught doing it red-handedly has lost its legitimacy to continue to rule in the public eyes.

During PML-N’s tenure, the Panama scandal came as a god sent opportunity for the adventurers. Disclosure of an international law firm included the revelation about the financial mismanagement and tax evasion of Prime Minister Sharif’s family. The adventurers knew exactly how to turn the entire coercive machinery of the state against the incumbent prime minister and to orchestrate a legitimacy question for the government. The rest is history.

The allegations coming from the opposition parties like PML-N and PPP are numerous and most of the time hard to prove. These allegations of political interference are levelled against the military-led intelligence agencies and their role in orchestrating the downfall of Nawaz Sharif. Some of the opposition members have come out openly, accusing the then DG ISI Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam of backing the August 2014 sit-in of Imran Khan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan took charge of the country as a result of July 2018 parliamentary elections. This time the rules of the game are different. The incumbent government itself is the main player challenging the legitimacy of major political player and major political parties.

This is primarily a result of the fact that the PTI has borrowed its political narrative from political actors who have been out to malign the major political parties in the post-Musharraf period, with the result that the first two products of this political system in post-Musharraf period have been dubbed as a thoroughly and unpardonably corrupt.

Why this shift in the political tactics of the army and its leaders? Is it a fact that in the immediate years after Musharraf, the army leaders wanted to retreat from political arena and leave the political field solely in the hands of available political players? Later, its experience with the political elite forced it to change course and adopt a partisan approach towards political players? Or is it the fact that change of political policy is personality driven? That Gen Kiyani was a consensus builder while Gen Raheel Sharif and Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa were more of partisans? Reality perhaps is more complex than these simple explanations. Following are the three explanations gleaned from background interviews with retired military officials and security experts.

  1. a) External influence: There are analysts who claim that the military became more confident in its dealing with domestic political forces after 2014, when it started developing relations with the regional players like Russia, Iran and China, which started to see eye-to-eye with it on the situation in Afghanistan. After 2016, Russia, China and Iran developed contacts with Taliban in Afghanistan and started to see them as a countervailing force rise of ISIS in Afghanistan’s north and east. These regional developments may not have direct relevance to Pakistan’s domestic political situation, but certainly gave confidence to the military leaders.
  2. b) Breaking the back of the militants: In the recent years, the military claimed and started to believe that it has broken the back of militancy in the country. This became a source of further confidence for military leadership. They started to believe that they are contributing substantially more to national life than the civilian leadership which played absolutely no role in stabilizing the country as far as internal security situation was concerned. This also helped the military in making the transition from consensus builder to partisan in national political arena.
  3. c) Ineptitude of the political elite: The political elite is perceived by the military as inept and corrupt and these perceptions helped the military in making the transition from consensus builder to partisan. Stories of corruption and ineptness of the political elite in Pakistan are a daily occurrence in country’s media. Though most of these stories originate from the institutions partially manned by the retired military officials and their cronies. Nevertheless these stories must have played a role in shaping military leadership’s attitude and policies.
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Implications for national security

In a politically-fractured country like Pakistan consensus was considered to be a prerequisite for running a coherent national security strategy. Now the current army chief, Gen Bajwa, only occasionally pays lip service to national unity, while the opposition continuously and persistently accuse the military leadership of being partisan in political arena. Hence on vital national security issues, the mainstream political parties like PML-N and PPP don’t desist from stating their objection to domestic handling of political situation by the government and the military, while expressing their solidarity with Kashmir.

Not surprisingly the military officials are seen complaining about the attitude of political leaders for equating situation in Indian-held Kashmir with the handling of political prisoners at home. The post-Pulwama raid of Indian air force across the LoC was the only occasion of military threat appearing on the horizon after Pakistan army turned partisan in domestic politics. And even then the domestic political scene remained fractured. But perhaps the regional and domestic developments have given too much confidence to the military leadership for handling security threats on their own.

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Umer Farooq

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.

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