Pakistan, which has been ruled by military forces for around half of its existence, is considered to be a classic example of a praetorian state. The country’s military perceives itself as the sole guardian of national sovereignty and moral integrity, the chief initiator of the national agenda and the major arbiter of conflict between social and political forces. Over time, the armed forces became so deeply and widely entrenched in every sphere of the Pakistani state that, today, they do not depend on any formal prerogatives to exercise influence over the political decision-making process or to secure their corporate interests. It can be stated that Pakistan has never experienced ‘civilian supremacy’ with regards to its civil-military relations. Nevertheless, over time and due to extraordinary circumstances – for example after Pakistan’s armed forces lost wars (and its reputation) against India in 1965 and 1971 or the unexpected death of Military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1988 – civilians had exceptional chances to regain control over ‘their’ soldiers and decision-making and as such to strengthen the political institutions. However, paradoxically on one side, the attempts for ‘democratic transitions’ were always caused and facilitated by political interventions of the armed forces, and on the other side, the ‘democratization phases’ were conditioned and truncated by the military’s top echelon. Politicians were not able to institutionalize civilian control over the armed forces because civilians had neither sufficient power resources nor the will (or both) to establish political supremacy. Furthermore, civilian rule was always characterised by unrestricted and persistent power struggles between government and opposition as well as between different political institutions (branches of government) in combination with autocratic styles of governance, mismanagement and corruption. This created a situation in which civilians’ lost public support and the army was able to regain its reputation and ‘moral legitimacy’ to intervene directly in politics. Subsequently, the military (deliberately or unconsciously) was able to nourish the perception that civilians were neither able to form a sustainable, functioning government nor capable of running the affairs of the state.
Against this backdrop, Nawaz Sharif’s outstanding triumph in the latest General Election in 2013 –which was also the first transfer of power from one civilian government to the other – created the impression that Pakistan may finally be on the path to political stability, especially regarding the unhealthy state of the civil-military relations in the country. The fact that the military did not intervene in the electoral processes of 2008 and 2013 outside the constitutionally defined boundaries and was obviously acting on the basis of civilian-decision making, gave the impression of an emerging cordiality between soldiers and civilians.
But immediately after Sharif took over the Prime Minister Office (for his third time), it appeared that Pakistan’s relations between soldiers and elected governments were still trapped in old patterns. First of all, Nawaz Sharif promised remarkable reforms in civil-military relations. From the new Prime Minister’s (PM) perspective, this was essential since he needed to assert decision-making power in all key policy areas in order to initiate his political agenda, especially with regards to the normalization of relations between India and Afghanistan, economic development, and improving the domestic security situation. In an attempt to increase his influence, Sharif initially tried to gain direct control over the foreign affairs and defence portfolios. A cornerstone in his strategy to assert his oversight in matters of internal security was to push for negotiations with the Taliban instead of supporting the army’s demand for decisive military action.
In order to insure the allegiance of the army, Nawaz Sharif appointed Raheel Sharif as new Chief of Army Staff bypassing two more senior generals. Civilian ignorance of military hierarchies in the procedure of appointments is generally not taken kindly within the officers’ corps and especially not in the Corps Commander Conference, Pakistan’s most powerful decision-making body. Furthermore, the military did not accept losing its grip on foreign policy, especially the relations with the US, Afghanistan, and India. Regarding the latter, it is noteworthy that the army is not interested in a substantial rapprochement with New Delhi since it would lose a significant argument (besides the fighting Taliban and other extremist forces) to publicly justify the overstretched defence budget. In this context, one should mention that the PM’s interference into the handling of the Taliban issue in a way which was not in line with the generals added to the annoyance of the army’s headquarter in Rawalpindi. Further tensions rose as the government proceeded with a trial for treason against the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted Nawaz Sharif in 1999. This treatment of a retired general was perceived as a reputational attack’ on the military as an institution and as raising concerns among the military’s top echelon that civilians were trying to break a taboo of holding soldiers unaccountable. Finally, civil-military relations worsened in early 2014, after it became clear that there was no chance for a peace settlement with the Taliban who continued their terrorist activities even during on going negotiation. Sharif’s attempt to strive for a dialogue and non-military solution with the Taliban was displayed as total failure and a waste of time.
Subsequently, it seems that history in Pakistan is repeating itself and the future of civil-military relations looks rather grim once again. The stage for an open confrontation between the military and Nawaz Sharif was apparently set as the country had to face severe political turmoil in the last summer. Over several weeks, opposition politicians Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri led mass demonstrations against the government, demanding the resignation of the PM for rigging the 2013 General Elections and other claimed faults of his governance. The following political standoff between the conflicting civilian parties offered the army a convenient avenue for a formal and direct ‘morally’ legitimated (doctrine of necessity) return into politics. As a result, the army has been able to present itself as a ‘neutral third force’ to ensure political peace and stability. But the more important question asked by many analysts is: which role did the army have in the anti-Sharif agitation? Taking Sharif’s attempt to assert civilian control into account, his plenitude of power based on his domination of the most important Punjab constituency (which is also claimed by the army as a significant resource for economic and political power and influence) and his clear popular mandate, some observers suspect that the army is working behind the scenes in order to intensify and to control the impact of the protest movement. The argument made is, that a too powerful Sharif -who always had a tense relationship with the country’s armed forces- crossed a ‘red line’ by trying to establish civilian supremacy over defence and security policy which are perceived as very own ‚reserved domains’ by the generals. In the end, the security forces intervened in order to end the protest and Nawaz Sharif survived the crisis for a moment. In retro-perspective, one might identify a certain kind of power-sharing agreement between military and the PM. But the military intervention to solve the political turmoil will be at a prize, which is once again paid at the expense of the resilience of the country’s civilian institutions and the quality of democracy. The fact that the army has ‘publicly expressed’ its support for supremacy of the constitution is not seen as a contradiction to an undue involvement in the country’s politics by the generals. The military was once again benefitted from a (perhaps strategically caused) situation by pointing out to the inability and incompetence of the elected leadership to deliver good governance and political stability. In doing so, the generals taught Sharif once again who was really calling shots, by weakening instead of ousting him.
Nevertheless, both sides, military and PM Sharif, are aware that options to stage a coup against an elected government have been significantly reduced. First, due to constitutional changes, the military lost its opportunity to use the president (which had formerly the special power to sack a government) as a proxy to oust a prime minister and his government as it happened regularly in the past. Second, there is currently a consensus among all major political parties in the parliament that the only way to force a government to resign is a vote of confidence. This is significantly reduces the option to use the ‘power of the street’ to enforce an extra-constitutional resignation based on ‘calibrated public pressure’. Third, neither Pakistan’s general public nor the international community will accept a direct military enforced regime change.
Having this in mind, Nawaz Sharif might conclude that, besides the fact that the army was able to ‘cut his wings’; there are still loopholes to regain ground in decision-making to balance the power of the generals. At the moment, there is no real, open strategic retreat from the PM’s aim to establish civilian supremacy. This could be seen as an indicator that Sharif is not willing to reconcile to a subordinate role to the military in order to make any kind of power sharing work. In sum, things will stay as they were! Islamabad’s civil-military circus will continue- but cordiality might not be its main feature.
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