At times in our history, political groups in our society have succeeded in attracting the support and utilizing the capacity of the military establishment to influence political outcomes.
The Pakistani military is no exception. Its officers’ corps is highly socialized. Besides, we have a long tradition of military officers and general staff serving on public and political posts in periods of military rule, the last of which ended as recently as 2008. The country’s major political parties, the PML-N and PTI, have recently flirted with the idea of influencing the opinions of officers’ corps and general staff through their incessant political campaigns that primarily target the military leadership. Pakistani society is in the grip of a political upheaval since 2014, when Imran Khan launched a protest campaign to dislodge the Nawaz Sharif government from power. One after the other, these two major political parties have launched protest campaigns, the geographical expanse of which is located in Central Punjab and urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The latest of these ongoing political protests by the former ruling party, PTI has been coupled by a social media campaign alluding to unrest within the army’s ranks, and suggesting that there has been a difference of opinion in the military with the decisions of the military leadership related to their perceived role in ousting Imran Khan from power.
The Pakistani political class has an age-old tradition of making attempts to attract and utilize the capacity of the Pakistani military establishment and intelligence services for their own political advantage. The fact that the Pakistani military establishment and intelligence services have a well-developed capacity to influence political outcomes in the country is well documented in the form of indigenously produced literature. At times in our history, political groups in our society have succeeded in attracting the support and utilizing the capacity of the military establishment to influence political outcomes. This, in fact, is another source of politicization of the officers’ corps and general staff of the Pakistani military. General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule is a classic example of a period when influential generals supported their favorites in the political arena, and in this way influenced the political outcome. Even in the post-Musharraf period, high profile generals continued with the tradition of supporting their political favorites. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the prevailing political crisis is partly the result of serving army generals supporting their favorite in the political arena. There are political commentators who blame support from within the military for Imran Khan’s continued belligerence.
A peaceful and united Pakistan is in everybody’s interests.
The developing political situation in Pakistan, Imran Khan’s aggressive style of politics and the state’s helplessness in face of the latter's belligerence led some international commentators to predict in the first week of May that the first thing to watch and observe in Pakistan will be the internal cohesion of Pakistan’s military. After all, the notoriously brutal Pakistani state failed to arrest Imran Khan in the months of April and May, when his aggressive followers prevented the police from entering his house. Imran Khan was insulting the police, the government and the state – all in the same breath. And yet he went unscathed. Something unusual was happening, or at least this is how the international commentators perceived the situation developing in Pakistan. Both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif have played with the idea of influencing opinion within the ranks and file of the military to influence the military leadership. To what extent they have succeeded only God and a few others know. There is, however, no doubt that the military leadership has been feeling the need to create a rallying point for the whole military rank and file to agree on. And it wanted the world to see the whole organization rallying behind a common point of interest to demonstrate the internal cohesion of the officers’ corps and general staff. The unruly mobs in Lahore and Rawalpindi, led by overenthusiastic PTI supporters, provided the military leadership with that rallying point for their organization. Within weeks of the attack on the GHQ and Corps Commander’s residence in Lahore, the whole general staff was shown on Pakistani television screens celebrating Youm-e-Shuhada. This was the occasion for the whole world to see the military’s internal cohesion that international commentators in Washington and other places were clamoring for.
Persistent entanglement in domestic political strife is something which the military leadership should avoid at every cost.
Persistent exposure to political strife in the society can make any military organization crack under pressure from different political groups in the society. And the militaries, unlike fracturing political parties, don't fight with arguments and words. The level of violence in our society is already very high and widespread. We cannot afford to unleash another source of violence. Whether it was PML-N’s or PTI’s rhetoric that has proved more damaging for organizational cohesion will be irrelevant for future generations. A peaceful and united Pakistan is in everybody’s interests.
Here I will list two policy recommendations, one for the military leadership and other for political leadership. For the military leadership, keep the officers and general staff as far as away from practical politics as is possible. Don’t make them taste the power of influencing political outcomes. Your predecessors allowed their subordinates to taste this power; the result of all that is before us in the form of an intractable political crisis. For political leaders – exit your bubbles and don’t make an attempt to attract and utilize the military's capacity to influence political outcomes to your advantage. You will be endangering the internal stability and security of this society if you continue to do this for your petty gains.
Persistent entanglement in domestic political strife is something which the military leadership should avoid at every cost. Pakistan's prevailing political crisis could be described as a triangular conflict, with the military occupying a permanent position on one corner of the triangle, with two other corners occupied by the two major political parties – the PML-N and PTI. While the PML-N and PTI continue to punch each other, they change their attitude towards the military depending upon their status as government or opposition. If they are in the government, they support the military and if they are in the opposition, they criticize the military leadership. In the foreseeable future, there appears no chance that the military will vacate their corner of the triangle. Especially when the present military leadership has made an old mistake that has remained the essence of military’s historical attitude towards politics in Pakistan: they have become party to the existing political conflicts in the society by way of their response to May 9 attacks on military installations. Involving oneself in political, social and religious conflicts has been a mistake every successive military leader in Pakistan’s history has made over the years. It seems we have no escape from the consequences of this mistake.