What Happens If We Stop Believing That The Pakistan Military Is All-Powerful?

What Happens If We Stop Believing That The Pakistan Military Is All-Powerful?
Ever since I started reporting on politics for local newspapers, I have always come across multiple dimensions and shades of the myth of the military's hegemony in the country's politics. The military and its role in politics has been all pervasive during the past 33 years that I have been a reporter and journalist.

Often people don’t mention military or generals by name, they just refer to them in third person or in euphemisms, “they are angry with so and so”, “he is their (military’s) man”, “they (military) will never allow this to happen.”

This mysterious third person is never mentioned by name in the political discourse in the country's political and media circles. The fact that they could be angry, happy or may have gone all out to support or oppose a political development or a personality could have a decisive influence on the events or direction of argument in a drawing room debate.

Here I want to unpack some of the basic feature of the lore around the military’s involvement in Pakistani politics.

Perhaps most pervasive is the idea that the military or more precisely its intelligence arms are omnipresent and omnipotent: this could mean that they can always decisively influence a political outcome if they really want to. What has fueled this myth are a series of events in the post-Zia period. For instance, there was a general impression that the then military command wanted Benazir Bhutto out after she picked a fight with the military establishment in 1989.

So, when the then COAS, General Aslam Beg sponsored a no confidence move that failed, the military had its way by pressurizing the President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to dissolve the National Assembly and Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister in the wake of the 1990 dissolution and he also fell out with the President. Everybody remembers the constitutional deadlock between the Prime Minister and President and, everybody in Islamabad heard the news about how COAS General Abdul Waheed Kakar used the might of his office to force a resignation out of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1993. Then President Farooq Laghari succeeded in ousting Benazir Bhutto again after securing the backing of the military establishment in 1996. 1999 was the year of yet another military takeover, after which the military imposed its will directly on the country. Major political parties were ousted.

People also like to believe that the military knows all, and everything about everyone who matters in the country: this myth is fueled by powerful political players like former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, when he repeatedly refers to ISI as an intelligence agency, which knows everything about the corruption of Pakistani political leaders. This myth is reinforced even by the judiciary in rare incidents when representatives of two military intelligence agencies, Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) were included in the JIT formed to probe the corruption charges against Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

We would do well to remember that this is a highly painstakingly constructed myth in Islamabad’s political culture. The stories and gossip doing the rounds during every period in the post-Zia era are carefully crafted and spread to create an image of the military led intelligence agencies as all-knowing. Tales of behind the scene meetings, gossip related to melodramatic dialogues between key political players who spend most of their life behind the curtains are made available to those who work for constructing this myth.

There are also widespread misconceptions about the military’s international connections. Officers are always reluctant—when you talk to them—to admit that they have any connections with the outside world outside the official framework established by the government of Pakistan. But side by side, there are intellectuals in our political and media circles who place far too much emphasis on the military's international legitimacy. Officially, the military’s officials say that any incumbent COAS’s interaction with foreign dignitaries is strictly within the framework established by the government of Pakistan. But consider this: the late General Musharraf has narrated in his autobiography how he first informed CENTCOM Chief, General Anthony Zinni that he had staged a coup on the night of 12 October 1999. Whatever may be the official status of the military's interaction with the outside world, these interactions reinforce the myth that it has international connections. This coupled with the all-pervasive myth that foreign powers control the mechanics of a country's politics fuel the rumor-mill that the military and its leaders are the real power wielders in the country.

In the last days of General Musharraf’s rule, cracks started to appear in the military’s all-powerful reputation, when two insurgencies—one in the North West, led by religious extremists and Pashtun tribal fighters and the other in South West, led by more secular minded Baloch rebels - started to shatter the omnipotence of the military in Pakistani society. The years between 2007 and 2014 were a period of mass scale violence against the military, and against urban targets in Pakistan. Public opinion about the effectiveness of the military and its leaders took a nosedive in those years.

However, by 2017-2018 the military had recouped its reputational strength, because it prevailed over the militants' groups owing to its superior firepower and organizational strength. This perhaps, led to over confidence among the military leaders who intervened in the country's political arena in August 2014—the same year the military launched a full-scale operation in the tribal areas—in order to install their favorites in the corridors of power. This led to a deep division in political society in areas and regions that were recruiting grounds for the military's officers’ corps.

With the ouster of Imran Khan from power, the alienation of Punjab-centric political parties from the military establishment was complete. Now it was time for the military leadership to pay the price of its visibility in the media and in political circles. There was a palpable anti-military reaction among the hitherto pro-military middle classes in Central Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some observers say that the reaction was so intense that the military’s myth of political dominance itself took a hit from the rise of anti-military reaction in the public opinion in Pakistan’s heartland.

Two factors will determine the true impact of this changing public opinion on the strength of the military's reputation. First is whether the change of hearts among Punjab’s middle classes is permanent. All will depend on how elastic public opinion in Central Punjab proves to be. Will it resume its original pro-military form after Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif stretched it towards an anti-military reaction as part of their political campaigns in the wake of their respective ousters from power?

Remember that the military's strength is mythologized because Punjabi middle classes, intellectuals and journalists perceive it in a certain way. If these classes and groups start thinking otherwise, that is likely to become the political reality of Pakistan. Secondly, in the post-Zia period, the craftsmen who created the military's domineering image were constructing this myth against the background of massive flow of aid—both military and economic—to the military government of General Pervez Musharraf. The narrative worked when it was shaped while everything was hunky dory in the economics department.  The problem of terrorism, extremism and militancy contributed, in no small part, to bestowing external legitimacy to Pakistan’s military in the post 9/11 era. With the Americans gone, countries like Russia, China and the Arab Sheikhdoms are still interested in controlling what is happening inside Afghanistan. But whether these new partners in counter terrorism and counter militancy will be as generous as the Americans were, is a debatable question.

Perhaps what is most worrying about this situation is what will replace the narrative of an omnipotent military as a stabilizing factor for the Pakistani political system, in case the major political parties’ campaigns are able to shatter the myth.

That any semblance of stability we have enjoyed in the post-Zia period can be credited partially to this overarching narrative is beyond any doubt. Weak political institutions and inept leadership in the post Musharraf period have almost completely relinquished any role they might have had in the past in stabilizing the country from the perspective of internal security. They don’t have any wherewithal left either.

We should collectively start pondering over the question of whether our political institutions have the required strength and legitimacy, or are we fated for complete anarchy.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.