Nawaz Sharif at loggerheads with the army again, the old pattern of 1999 repeating itself. Cruel destiny…is Pakistan doomed to walk the paths it has trodden before? What is at work here… the army’s overweening ambition or PM Sharif incurable?
Nawaz Sharif’s problem is not the army. His problem is himself, and his inability to be at ease with any but loyal yes-men. More than most mortals he is also given to that oldest of human vices: flattery. Since his rise to political prominence in the 1980s – when Governor Lt Gen Jilani chose him as Punjab finance minister – he has surrounded himself with the trained butler-type of civil servant. As prime minister for the third time this tendency remains unchanged.
The trouble with the army is that no chief, no matter how obliging and self-effacing, can be his master’s voice. He cannot, in open durbar, sing praises of Mian Sahib’s sterling leadership qualities. Politicians are good at this; bureaucrats, especially the breed we see nowadays, are past masters at this game; but it is unreasonable expecting the same from a chief of the army, commanding its divisions and holding the key to the country’s nuclear arsenal.
It’s not that he is a Caesar or someone in that mould. It’s the nature of the position. The present Punjab Inspector General of Police, Khan Baig, can be considered obliging beyond the call of duty. Make him army chief and see the transformation. Even he will start behaving differently…and Mian Sahib will smell a conspiracy.
Army chiefs are no angels. Let us not fall into this trap. There are other things they can do: start unwanted wars and then lose them. An entire army can surrender, as in East Pakistan. Generals can have as keen an eye for wealth and property as any laird of Nawabshah or baron of Raiwind. But bowing and scraping and singing songs of unadulterated flattery army officers usually will not do…unless of course it is a Ziaul Haq performing a role, but then other phantoms will be dancing in his mind.
Mian Sahib has a problem understanding this. Remembering the demons of the past, he thought long and hard about who to appoint army chief and then settled on Gen Raheel Sharif, and everyone said what a brilliant choice, what a thorough gentleman and from what a martial background. And within just a few months Mian Sahib’s telltale smile, which tells all being a bellwether of his feelings, has vanished from his face as he finds himself virtually at war with his own appointee.
No issue of war and peace is involved here, no policy disagreement, just plain human psychology and the inadequacies of a man not comfortable with the mental give-and-take of a genuine discussion.
Forget Gen Raheel Sharif for a moment. Nawaz Sharif has had problems with every army chief he has had to deal with. True, Gen Aslam Beg was flying so high at the time that anyone would have had problems with him. So let’s forget him too. But then Nawaz Sharif couldn’t get along with Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua, nor Gen Kakar, nor – and this beats everything – Gen Karamat. And when Karamat, a civilised man to his fingertips, gave in his papers, no one thrust Gen Musharraf upon Nawaz Sharif. As army chief he chose him himself, and what became of that we know too well.
We may well say Musharraf was an adventurer and a buccaneer and there was bound to be trouble with him. What about Raheel Sharif? Has he too begun looking like a buccaneer, the wolf emerging from the sheepskin?
Army officers generally say nice things about Gen Raheel. But he could have been a saint, a warrior of the steppes, conqueror of Samarkand and Bokhara, and Nawaz Sharif still would have run into problems with him…simply because Gen Raheel would not have clicked his heels enough nor dipped his tongue into jam and sugar when speaking to the prime minister. Nothing more complicated than this.
With a chief who is your appointee and who by all accounts is a reasonable man, what was there that could not be discussed…India, the Taliban, the Musharraf trial? But this would have required some mental interaction, some intellectual engagement with the military brass. Trouble is that even to hint at such an exercise in relation to the lords of the present dispensation may be to ask for too much.
Persons close to Nawaz Sharif, with his interests at heart, told him not to get embroiled in the Musharraf trial. I have it from well-placed sources that the PM would listen but say nothing. The urge to settle scores with his old nemesis was simply too compelling to resist. Even when a way out of the imbroglio had been found – by allowing Musharraf to go abroad – the revenge urge proved more powerful than any words of wisdom and the PM, according to more than one account, went back on his word. And the army saw red and postures stiffened.
Wiser counsels seemed to prevail once more when the PM went to the passing out parade at PMA Kakul and, in what must have been a first in the history of the Academy, went out of his way to hold up the virtues of the army chief for young army officers to emulate.
When all this bonhomie was on display in Kakul, the same evening the attack on Hamid Mir took place. This was a golden opportunity to further mend matters between the government and GHQ. When the ISI was accused of being behind this attack and a media civil war was flaring up over this allegation, all that was required was a four-five line statement saying that the issue should not be pre-judged and no institution should be attacked without the burden of proof.
But the government just could not bring itself to say this, feeding the perception that it was taking sides not only in the media civil war but standing against the army and ISI. The PM visited Hamid Mir in Karachi but said not a word about the accusations against the ISI. The army’s riposte came in the form of the army chief’s visit to ISI HQs in Islamabad a day later, confirming, if any confirmation was needed, that the breach between the two sides was now wide open.
In 1999 it took the Kargil conflict and much more to push Pakistan to the brink of the October coup. This time round, even before Nawaz Sharif has completed his first year in office, it has taken much less to bring the country to a similar pass. Musharraf, down and out, forlorn and lost, can be forgiven for chuckling to himself.
Some consequences we can already note: (1) without the army’s backing the Taliban talks are as good as dead; (2) India must be looking very carefully at the prospects of doing business with a beleaguered government; and (3) channels of communication between the civil and military spheres have gone dead. Call this the brilliance of Pakistani statesmanship.
And the outlines of a new line-up are visible on the national horizon. When in times past the army stood against democracy, rightwing forces and Islamist parties stood with the army. When the army is supportive of democracy and searching for a national consensus against the threat from the Taliban, all its erstwhile allies have deserted it, to join forces with the new rightwing, and pro-Taliban coalition, on the other side.
The old ideological alignments have thus been made to stand on their head. Call this the new paradigm, a first for Pakistan and something entirely new for the army.