Where now for Pakistan, as army and politics collide again?

A personal view by CJA Executive Committee member, SYED BADRUL AHSAN

There is once again turbulence in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army is once again on the warpath. The difference is that this time it is out to quell a political party and reassert its role in Pakistan’s politics. It is not that the army has ever been out of the political landscape, but in the past few years it has tried to convey the false narrative that it has no link with the political establishment, that indeed it is keen to see a democratic system take over in Pakistan.

Now that former prime minister Imran Khan, pictured, has openly challenged the soldiers, the better to have them take their hands off politics, the army – or as one may term it the empire – has struck back. It is not that the army is indulging in such action, of tearing Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to pieces in light of the violence resorted to by Khan’s supporters when he was arrested on 9 May, for the first time. More than a half century ago, the Pakistan army went ferociously into action against an electorally triumphant Awami League in what then was East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh, and pitilessly subjected as many as three million Bengalis to genocide.

In March 1971, the Pakistan army sought to punish Sheikh Mujibur Rahman through repudiating the results of the December 1970 election. The Bengali leader, who was poised to take charge as Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, was instead placed under arrest, flown a thousand miles away from Dhaka to distant (West) Pakistan and put on trial before a military court. Mujib did not come back to his liberated Bangladesh until January 1972, a month after the Pakistan army had surrendered to a joint India-Bangladesh command in Dhaka.

General Zia ul Haq, who banned political parties.

One would have thought that the Pakistan army would, after the humiliation it went through in 1971, take a backseat in Islamabad and operate, finally, under the authority of elected civilian governments. That did not happen. Why it did not happen has much to do with the move by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took over as president of a rump Pakistan following the emergence of Bangladesh in December 1971, to send the soldiers into action against nationalists in Balochistan in 1973. It was an operation conducted under General Tikka Khan, the same officer who had initiated the genocide in Bangladesh.

The Pakistan army thus found in the anti-Baloch operations an excellent opportunity to claw back to respectability. Bhutto adopted a policy of appeasing the soldiers, a policy which in the end resulted in his overthrow in July 1977 by his hand-picked chief of army staff Ziaul Haq.  The army was thus back in the driver’s seat, in all its arrogance. General Zia’s seizure of power was the initiation of a new dark age in Pakistan’s history in that under him the army went into a process of Islamisation of the military that was soon extended to the entire country. Zia banned political parties, had Bhutto hanged, repeatedly promised elections but then went on to keep power in his hands for eleven years till his death in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Under Zia, Pakistan regressed into a medieval era.

But Zia’s death did not spell an end to the role of the army. His successor as army chief, General Aslam Baig, did not seize power but made sure that the soldiers kept pulling the strings from behind. Baig was unwilling to have Benazir Bhutto assume office as prime minister after the elections which took place following General Zia’s death. In the end, Benazir Bhutto assumed office after agreeing to the military’s condition that she would have no role in defence policy or, in simple terms, would not interfere in the affairs of the army.

The vice-like grip of the army on Pakistan’s politics would not be loosened in the post-Zia period. Benazir would assume office twice and be sacked twice. Much the same was the fate of Nawaz Sharif. In October 1999, as he attempted to dismiss General Pervez Musharraf from the position of chief of staff, Musharraf, then returning to Pakistan after a meeting in Colombo, literally came down from the skies and sent the Sharif government packing. The deposed prime minister was first jailed and then sent off into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Martial law decrees

The history of the Pakistan army is, again, a whole lot more than a turfing out of civilian governments and seizing power. In the times of Pakistan’s first military ruler General Ayub Khan (who later promoted himself to field marshal), democratic politics was put to an end through martial law decrees and systematic arrests of respected politicians. Under the Elective Bodies Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO), decreed by the regime in 1959, an entire group of politicians was compelled to opt out of politics. Ayub promulgated his constitution in 1962 and had an electoral college of what the regime called 80,000 Basic Democrats empowered to elect the country’s president and the national and provincial assemblies.

Ayub Khan capitulated in the face of the mass upsurge against him in March 1969. Ironically, though, he did not hand over power to the speaker of the national assembly as stipulated under the 1962 constitution. He simply handed over power to the army chief, General Yahya Khan. The Yahya Khan regime presided over the country’s first general election before launching a genocide against Bengalis and eventually seeing the country break up through the emergence of Bangladesh.

Head of the army, General Asim Munir, resisting Imran Khan.

Such is the disturbing history of the Pakistan army’s meddling in politics. The soldiers have often brought civilian politicians into the limelight, raised them to prominence before dumping them when their utility appeared to be over. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Imran Khan are cases in point. Khan is now on a crusade to force the army back into the barracks and for civilian rule to become the norm. It is not likely that he will succeed. The army, under General Asim Munir, has in a fit of rage been dismantling his party, arresting senior leaders of the PTI and exercising pressure on other party officials to leave the PTI. Imran Khan is now a lonely figure. The army has cut him to size.

The saying goes, half in jest and half in seriousness, that while every country needs an army, the Pakistan army needs a country. Pakistan has been the plaything of its army, which in these seventy-five years have led the country to battlefield disasters through its adventurism. In 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 (the last through the unprovoked incursion into Kargil), the Pakistan army went into aggressive mode against India and then retreated, licking its wounds. Besides, in the past four decades, the army has been busy going after Baloch nationalists. Thousands of Baloch have been killed and thousands more have disappeared as a result of the army’s offensives.

Given such a sordid narrative, it is unlikely that the Pakistan army will acknowledge, if at all, the sovereign authority of elected governments in Pakistan. An example will suffice. Every action the military is taking against Imran Khan today is decided on at army headquarters. The civilian thirteen-party coalition government now in office, placed there of course with the sanction of the army, has little or no power.

The battle today is between Imran Khan and Asim Munir. There is no place in it for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.