Over the last several days, Pakistan’s already thin veneer of civilian democratic rule has been shredded to pieces. Leaders of both the major opposition parties in parliament are now in prison, as are leaders of the populist Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). The national media is firmly controlled by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the media wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Even the economy is being managed by a team handpicked by the generals. In something that is unlikely to ever happen in another democracy, the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has become a member of a high-powered committee formed to handle Pakistan’s economic crises.
The ISI now has a new boss, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who earned recognition as the agency’s chief political manipulator while he was its second-in-command. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had identified Hameed, then a Major General, as the man responsible for political engineering ahead of the July 2018 elections.
In a normal country, such allegations against a supposedly professional soldier would have been a reason for immediate suspension and investigation. But this being Pakistan, Hameed got promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General instead.
At ISI, Major General Azhar Naveed Hayat will be one of Hameed’s deputies. Hayat was filmed while distributing money to anti-government Islamist protesters under the previous civilian administration.
The career trajectories of Hameed and Hayat disprove the army’s propaganda about the institution having changed its ways and General Qamar Bajwa being different from his politically meddlesome predecessors.
Like several army chiefs before him, Bajwa feels a three-year term as the army commander is insufficient for him to save Pakistan. Like Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Zia ul Haq, General Pervez Musharraf and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, he too wants an extension in his tenure as the army chief.
The first three imposed Martial Law, took over the reins of power, and extended their tenure as army chief. But Kayani created political circumstances, with the help of the secret services and malleable Supreme Court judges, which led to the civilian government giving him an extension in service. Bajwa appears to be moving in a similar direction.
Pakistan’s generals look at their country as a wholly owned subsidiary of General Headquarters and consider themselves its board of directors. The role of a prime minister in this scheme of things is not to provide political leadership but rather act as a manager implementing the wishes of the board of directors.
Bajwa and Hameed helped Imran Khan become General Manager of Pakistan Inc. and want him to do not just what they say, but also ensure their career advancement. Their other interests are to ensure that economic managers can secure more financing from the nation’s creditors (for example, the IMF) and continue increasing the military’s budget, which provides the generals perquisites and privileges.
At a time when Pakistan’s economy is generally not doing well, and the citizens are feeling the pinch, the country’s military spending continues to rise. In 2014, the defence budget stood at PKR 700.2 billion; five years later, it has gone up to PKR 1,100 billion. Further, to deceive the public, Pakistan’s defence budget is truncated in budget documents under several heads.
The defence budget does not include military pensions or allocations for nuclear and missile programmes and major equipment purchases. If military pensions and capital expenditure on military equipment were added to the defence budget, the amount for 2014 would be PKR 1,113.6 billion while for 2019 it would be a whopping PKR 1,882 billion.
Civilian politicians – like the currently jailed leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari – have to maintain their voters’ support by allocating more resources for public infrastructure, healthcare and education. They are not always men of total integrity and it is true that stories of corruption and kickbacks in civilian projects abound.
But Pakistani voters act in their self-interest when they vote for flawed, even corrupt, politicians. They expect at least some share of a poor country’s resources under the supposedly corrupt politicians whereas they get nothing from the generals’ penchant for expensive toys.
Politics was defined by political scientist Harold Lasswell as the process that defines “who gets what, when, and how”. Historic circumstances have made Pakistan’s army a key political player. The army existed before Pakistan was created, having been raised by the British as foot soldiers for their effort in the World War II. It took over the process of defining Pakistan’s ideology and direction to maintain itself.
Now that the army’s unending needs collide with the needs of a society struggling economically, the army wants other players to either follow its commands or accept incarceration and removal from the scene.
It is true that Pakistan’s civilian politicians would garner greater sympathy if their reputations were not tainted with allegations of graft and corruption. But the arrest of two young Pashtun members of parliament from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan casts doubt on the army’s willingness to tolerate dissent from honest politicians.
Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar refused the generals’ command to give up their demands for accountability of the security personnel responsible for enforced disappearances and atrocities. Both have a reputation for incorruptibility, both are now in prison, and the Pakistani media is virtually forbidden from even mentioning them except in terms approved by the military.
Moral of the story: The army’s tolerance for a politician does not increase if the politician is financially not corrupt. If the generals can’t imprison you on grounds of corruption, they still have charges like ‘waging war against the army’ and ‘treason’.
General Bajwa’s game plan is not very different from the strategy of almost every army chief since Ayub Khan first imposed Martial Law in 1958. The men in uniform want to eliminate any politician who can be a serious challenge to the military’s domination over decision-making.
The generals select insignificant or inexperienced politicians to serve under their stewardship but are compelled to get rid of anyone who becomes better known or starts accumulating political experience. Ironically, military intervention is said to be the product of Pakistan’s political instability whereas, in reality, it is the source.
Pakistan’s failure to evolve as a democracy under the rule of law with strong institutions and its governance by a military-led oligarchy have created an air of permanent political crisis. Members of the oligarchy jockey for power through intrigue, rumour and whispering campaigns. A new round of that intrigue has now started.
Lieutenant generals with any hope of being the next army chief are mobilising their friends and supporters to make the case for their ascension after Bajwa’s impending retirement in November. Bajwa and his team have started making the case for an extension in his tenure to maintain the stability that they claim to have achieved by installing a civilian government that reads from the army’s playbook.
But after four direct military coups and persistent behind-the-scenes interventions, Pakistan’s military establishment is far from delivering the stability and progress it promises through its machinations. It is unlikely to succeed this time either.
Military officers are used to dealing with regimented minds. The troops under their command ask no questions while obeying orders. But civilian life and running a government involve managing diversity. Even after the current round of repression, Pakistan will remain a nation of multiple ethnicities, beliefs and opinions.
A country of nearly 200 million people will just not march in threes at the command of a drill sergeant, as the generals were taught at Pakistan Military Academy. But the stubborn persistence of the generals’ myopic vision will result in Pakistan’s key economic and social indicators falling further behind those of its peers.