Of Evil Politicians And The Virtuous Generals
Pakistanis quite naively think that only those people indulge in politics who are members of political parties, incessantly fight each other, contest elections and deliver fiery speeches against each other. The mighty and the all-powerful who take decisions about distribution of resources in the society, or those who set directions for nation’s future by ideological assertions, or those who chalk out strategy for achieving national objectives – their activities are not covered by or couldn’t be defined as politics.
Somehow, politics is defined and perceived as evil or vile activity and the powerful and mighty are paragons of virtue. One such paragon of virtue, as perceived by urbanized Pakistanis, is person of Chief of the Army staff (COAS). COAS—whoever happens to occupy that position doesn’t matter—is the defender of national interests amidst a crowd of naughty and deceitful politicians.
He acts as disciplinarian when the vile politicians misbehave or act in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the country. He doesn’t indulge in politics, but only enforces a discipline needed for the smooth functioning of the country and achievement of lofty and high goals of national security and interests. He is the very opposite of what the unruly political class indulges in.
For example, when the COAS issues a warning to all and sundry that “We (army) shall not let it (gains of security and stability achieved by national sacrifice and army’s efforts, in his own words) reverse to suit any vested agenda at any cost,” he is not taking sides and he is not indulging in politics at all. He is just setting the limits of national priorities and national agenda.
Politicians fight, the COAS, on the other hands, makes them behave. Politicians sell national interests, COAS, on the other hand is a guardian of national interests. Politicians indulge in vile politics and dirty politicking, the COAS, on the other hand, sets the national agenda for all to follow.
Consider the following scenario: Since October 27, when JUI long march started from Karachi, the rival political leaders are hurling threats and criticisms on each other, calling each other anti-national, Jewish agent etc.
But since the COAS, Genenral Bajwa issued a warning – in which was contained the limits for politicking—everyone started behaving. Government and opposition started the meaningful negotiations, Prime Minister Khan stopped his rant against opposition leaders and even fiery Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced that he didn’t intend to proceed towards D-chowk, a step could have endangered the peace of Islamabad.
But things have changed a bit since the last soft intervention of Army in the political system of the country. Now even the mainstream political parties don’t consider or label the office of COAS as impartial. This is a development that followed the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the office of prime minister in 2017, followed by his trial and jail sentence.
PMLN workers had reportedly raised anti-COAS slogans in their political rallies and meetings. After their initial aggressiveness towards army’s role in politics subsided, the PMLN leaders are now not too open in their criticism of the COAS and army. But they do cryptically criticize his involvement in politics, his activities and assertions, which they see as amounting to taking sides in the political arena.
Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have always remained within the discipline and limits of politicking set by the army leadership. But parties on the periphery—which feel the more direct impact of army’s presence in their area– have always been open in their criticism of the “men on horseback”. Hence, new political force on the periphery like Pukhtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) have been quite scathing and open in their frontal verbal attacks on the person of COAS.
Pakistan’s political scene has changed a lot since the demise of last military government of General Pervez Musharraf. During the nine years rule of General Pervez Musharraf, the debate about the political role of COAS remained in the media focus. The political activities of the then COAS and President were widely reported in the national and international media. Musharraf’s styles and antics compelled him to give access to the national and international media, which allowed great coverage of the role of COAS in political system of the country.
The debate and political polemics that surrounded the issue of General Musharraf wearing the twin caps of President and COAS at the same time, greatly enhanced the understanding of the media and general public towards the dynamics of powers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The fact that General Musharraf was forced out of office of the President within months of doffing the military uniform made it clear to all and sundry that the real power lies in the office of COAS and an elected president is next to nothing within the context of Pakistan’s power structure.
COAS largely assumed the increasingly significant role in country’s political system in the post-Musharraf period. This is partly the result of continuous squabbles between rival political groups and partly an outcome of increasingly central role army chief has been compelled to play in decision making relating to internal security by the persistently deteriorating security situation during this period.
Apart from the physical realities of army’s naked power, the essence and basis of army’s perceived omnipotence is the fact that its political power has been mythologized in public imagination in Pakistani society. In this, no small part is played by the propaganda machinery, which is at Army chief’s disposal. Mythologization of the army chief’s role in country’s public life is largely the outcome of erroneous historical belief that in Islamic history the central role in historical developments is always played by men of sword.
Only a senior official whose sense of entitlement—army’s self-image and self-perception as a guardian of country’s political system– is very strong can say that he would not allow any particular political development to take place in the society. Politics in a democratic polity requires the popularly elected leaders to decide future course of direction of the nation. It matters little that popular will is going against a direction for which military bureaucracy thinks it has made some kind of sacrifice.
There are theories of political science that state that groups and institutions often acquire advantages in society, which far exceed the importance due to them by dint of their better organizations. This squarely applies to Pakistan army, which dominates the society and the state structure because of the physical spread of its presence in the country. In recent year after the perceived victory against militancy the military leadership has shown a tendency to dictate agenda to other segment of the society on the pretext that they have given some kind of sacrifice.
This is reflected in forcibly changing the direction of media in the name of fifth generation warfare, and national security. At other times it is reflected in the attempt to brush aside the grievances put forward by groups like PTM. This is also reflected in military’s propaganda machinery attempt to malign every dissenting voice and bulldoze political opponents.
Successive army chiefs in the past few decades have repeatedly played the role of mediators between rival political groups and political opponents. This role has given them prominently and perceptibly legitimate place among the political elite of the society. Whenever two rivals get into a political squabble, it is generally expected that the army chief will intervene and resolve the conflict.
This is what happened when Fazl brought his party activists to Islamabad for protest against PTI government and started demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
There was a general expectation in Islamabad that General Bajwa should intervene and mediate between the two parties.
Army’s self-perception as guardian of the system, in other words their sense of entitlement, plays no small part in compelling the army leadership to consider every business of the state and government their own business. But there are senior retired army officers who are of the opinion that the army chiefs in post-Musharraf period have been treating the politicians and political system wearing kids’ gloves.
This will change the moment next army chief will be appointed after next three year, when General Bajwa will complete his six years term, they say.
These retired officers point out that General Bajwa is the last army chief who has not led troops in combat operations against militants himself. The next army chief will be a person who would have the experience of leading troops in combat operations and thus would have seen his men getting killed. His tolerance level will be low and sense of entitlement much stronger.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.