(3 February 2012) — No elected government in the history of Pakistan has survived a full term in office. In fact, up to late last year, the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country has come under military rule more often than it has enjoyed democratic government. 8,839 days over 8,830 days to be exact, according to the Centre of Civic Education Pakistan as of September 15, 2011.
However, for the first time in the history of independent Pakistan, the all-powerful military, which sees itself as the principal guardian of the nation, now seems unsure of itself as it ponders its next move in the standoff with the civilian goverment.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has openly challenged the generals over the ‘memogate scandal’ — an alleged note from Pakistan’s political leadership that urged the US to prevent any possible coup by the Pakistan military. He further upped the ante on January 11 by sacking the defence secretary, Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired general close to the military establishment.
Tensions have calmed down slightly after Gilani, now the longest-serving premier of the country, extended an olive branch of sorts last week during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He told reporters, “I want to dispel the impression that the military leadership acted unconstitutionally or violated rules […] We have to be seen on the same page.”
Still, the continued survival of the civilian government despite its very public and combative confrontation with the generals is seen as a remarkable new development in Pakistan political circles. After all, seasoned pundits would tell you that “removing a civilian government was something the generals used to do between lunch and tea”.
For decades, the military has maintained its stranglehold over the country by controlling the presidency and playing the political parties against each other, while receiving abundant backing from the US, first for supporting the US during the Cold War and now for its campaign against terrorism.
But the US Marines’ daring capture of terrorist Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad in 2011 robbed the armed forces of their public adulation. People in Pakistan treat the incident as the greatest national humiliation since the 1971 war with India that had resulted in the break-up of Pakistan and hold the military, which they used to deify, singularly responsible for it.
Crucially, the incident has also weakened US support for the Pakistani army. Few in the US believe that the generals did not know about Osama’s hideout a few hundred metres from their academy.
At home, the military is increasingly isolated. The president and the prime minister are united against the army. The supreme court, while hostile to the president, has become an independent centre of power since the chief justice successfully led a movement to oust former president Parvez Musharraf in 2008.
Significantly for the military, the US has now virtually replaced India as the bogeyman of the Pakistani people. The incessant drone attacks by US and NATO forces inside Pakistan’s territory, which often result in deaths of innocent civilians, and the US demand on Pakistan to carry out military operations against its own people in the tribal areas have made the US the most hated nation among most Pakistanis, especially among the poor and religious.
Security experts like India’s Mahroof Raza have suggested that terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba are finding it difficult to keep their foot-soldiers focused on India, especially Kashmir, and that the new generation see the NATO and US soldiers in Afghanistan as much better targets for the fulfillment of their psychological jihadi calling.
In fact, the Pakistani military itself is so submerged in containing secessionist demands from elements in its south-western Balochistan province, violence on its Afghan border, and frequent skirmishes with the US and NATO over drone attacks on its soil and occasional Pakistani military casualties, that India seems almost a diversion at this point.
With fewer people apprehensive of a war with India anytime soon, the daily reliance on the military has receded from public consciousness.
The army is now being forced to sit back and hope that the supreme court would dismiss President Asif Ali Zardari in an old corruption case. Army chief General Kayani believes that Zadari is directing the government against the army, with the prime minister as the public face of the challenge.
The military feels that any preemptive move on its part to dislodge the government may not find popular public support under the present circumstances. Moreover, given the military’s current lack of standing with the US after the Osama capture, the US is almost sure to favour Zardari.
Losing to Zardari in the current tussle will confirm the diminished authority and influence of the military. For the moment though, no one quite knows how the present narrative might evolve. For a change, not even the military. And that is what makes the current imbroglio intriguing.