The Pakistan Army is seeking to make a virtue of necessity by publicly asserting its faith and commitment to constitutional governance

As the extended term of Pakistan’s Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is set to come to a close on November 29, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s dilemma in appointing a successor to the General is clear. He wishes to utilise the change of guard to initiate a process of change in the established civil-military relationship, and wants to ensure that the new person would not do a Musharraf on him. This requires that the chosen officer is amenable to the radical changes that Mr. Sharif wants to bring about, and is able to carry the Corps Commanders with him. At the same time, Mr. Sharif wishes to appear to be going by seniority and merit — and this severely limits his choices. All this is causing an inordinate delay in the naming of a new chief and leading to dark speculation at a sensitive time for the Army.

Multiple crises

The Pakistan Army has faced multiple crises for some years now. These include the continuing insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), and the virtual stalemate between the defence forces and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The situation in Afghanistan offers opportunities to the Army but has to be handled deftly to ensure that Pakistan does not get caught in a quagmire. The memories of the U.S. action involving the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011 have not disappeared from public memory; the stinging and wholesale criticism of the Army in the report of the Abbottabad Commission (that has been leaked) has not covered the institution with distinction.

General Musharraf’s bizarre conduct since his retirement, his return to Pakistan despite the advice of the top Army brass, and his continuing house arrest in one criminal case after another, have severely embarrassed the entire Army, though it has ensured he is not humiliated beyond a point. The reputation for probity that some Pakistani Generals have had, has taken a hit too. There have been whispers of the involvement of General Kayani’s brothers in questionable business deals.

The many difficulties it faces have almost eliminated, for the present, the Army’s appetite to interrupt the process of democratic governance established after General Musharraf relinquished power in 2008. Besides, it would hardly be rational for the Army to step in at a time when Pakistan is boxed in on the economic front, the social front and the security front. No national institution can attempt to salvage the situation irrespective of its level of internal cohesion and the resources at its command.

Such times require a political consensus and will, and the Army, notwithstanding its continuing and hardly disguised contempt for politicians, is aware of the role that politicians have, especially now, to play in the domestic sphere.

If anything, the Army is seeking to make a virtue of necessity by publicly asserting its faith and commitment to constitutional governance.

The Pakistan Constitution has not created a special place for the Army in the governance of the country. No seats are reserved for the generals in Parliament, nor is there any specific provision which empowers them to have a dominant role in decision-making in the security sphere. There is nothing which gives the Army Chief the final voice in making appointments in the Army itself. On paper, it is the political executive which has decision-making power in these areas — in line with the constitutional practice in established democracies.

The reality

However, the reality of Pakistan is altogether different. Here, the Army has always considered itself the ultimate defender of the country’s ideology, and politicians have generally been ever willing to let the Generals have their way on the internal workings of the Army and on all aspects of Pakistan’s security policies. The Army is currently wary of the emerging political consensus on the need to have a dialogue with the TTP.

The Abbottabad Commission Report is illuminating with regard to civil-military relations. The Commission asked the then Defence Minister, Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, why he did not exercise his constitutional authority. Mr. Mukhtar frankly said it would take time for the Rules of Business to be implemented in letter and in spirit. He admitted that the Minister was not being kept in the loop all the time, and that files usually only went to the Defence Secretary. Retired Army Generals are routinely appointed as Defence Secretaries.

What Mr. Sharif wishes to accomplish is thus the enforcement of the Constitution and the implementation of the Rules of Business in letter and in spirit. This is important for him as he wants the Army to follow the emerging political consensus on the need to hold a dialogue with the TTP. This is not the first time he would be making such an attempt. During his second stint as Prime Minister (March 1997-October 1999), Mr. Sharif had sought to do so. He had achieved partial success when he asked for and obtained the resignation of the Army Chief General, Jehangir Karamat. General Karamat had advocated the formation of a National Security Council, in which the armed forces would have a say in decision-making. An angry Mr. Sharif had considered this suggestion as being beyond the functional competence of the Army Chief. The rank and file of the Army were unhappy with Mr. Sharif’s decision but were unable to voice a view, let alone take action, because General Karamat would have none of it. In appointing General Musharraf to succeed General Karamat, Mr. Sharif felt he too would accept the erosion of conventions which gave the Army Chief power far beyond what was constitutionally mandated. However, soon after becoming the Chief General, Musharraf told his confidants that he would preserve the Army’s turf and he did so, and how!

In addition to the Army Chief, Mr. Sharif has to appoint a Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee who, in protocol terms, is senior to the Army Chief but has no real power. The last Chairman retired recently and Mr. Sharif has kept the slot vacant so that he has the full range of available officers to make his choice as Army Chief. Mr. Sharif has obviously considered the possibility of appointing the Navy Chief to this office but is aware that such a move would be deeply resented by the Army.

Of the five seniormost officers, it is the fourth-ranking General Tariq Khan, Corps Commander, Mangla, who enjoys the highest respect for his professional competence. However, he is unlikely to acquiesce in any real or perceived encroachment of the Army’s turf in Pakistan’s public affairs. The other four are dependable but with lacklustre records, but how much any of them would be willing to go along with Mr. Sharif is not clear.

As yet, the Army as an institution has not given any indication of a willingness to give up its stranglehold on Pakistani policies towards India, Afghanistan and the United States. It controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that it will give up its domination of Pakistan’s security policy without a struggle. How far will Mr. Sharif push and with what dexterity? Pakistan’s public life will be interesting in the coming months and the result of possible changing equations will naturally have an impact on India-Pakistan relations and the region.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan)

More In: Lead | Opinion