A French diplomat once famously described Pakistan as “an army in search of a country.” In the country’s 62-year history, so frequently has the army seized power that it, along with the ISI intelligence service, is universally acknowledged as the real power centre in Pakistan.
Yet, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s comments on Thursday about the army acting like “a state within a state” that remained outside the authority of Parliament were sensational for the reason that civilian-military power tussles – of the sorts we’re witnessing today – happen more behind closed doors than out in the open.
Gilani appears to have resigned himself to the inevitability of his civilian government losing power – or of him and President Asif Ali Zardari being replaced. Earlier on Thursday, Gilani had accused the defence establishment of conspiring against the government — a charge that Army chief Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani has since denied. Gilani was also extraordinarily candid while addressing the National Assembly. Taunted by Opposition members about an admission by the defence ministry to the Supreme Court that it had no operational control over the army and the ISI, Gilani unburdened himself forcefully.
“Some institutions of the state,” he said, without taking the name of the army of the ISI, were historically addicted to act like “a state within a state”. And while earlier civilian governments may have been kosher with that, he found it unacceptable. He had completed 45 months in office — thereby establishing himself as Pakistan’s longest-serving elected prime minister — and did not feel the need to cling to office.
“If they say they are not under the ministry of defence, then this Parliament has no importance, this system has no importance, then you are not sovereign,” Gilani said. He was, he said, calling an end to “this slavery”.
As institutions that were being paid from the state exchequer, they were subservient to – and fully accountable to Parliament, Gilani thundered. “If somebody thinks they are not under the government, they are mistaken. They are under the government and they shall remain under the government, because we are the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan.”
Brave words those, but the reason why they are being greeted with cynicism today – rather than being seen as heroic — is that Gilani and Zardari, for all their recent pushback against the ISI-military overreach in policy matters, have yielded ground willfully and played by the unwritten rules of the games of Pakistani politics: after Allah, the Army.
To be fair, these rules were laid down long before Gilani took office. Except for a brief period following the 1971 loss to India in the Bangladesh war of independence when the humiliated military fell off the pedestal, there isn’t a time when the army did not dominate politics in Pakistan — either upfront (as when martial law was established) or from behind the scenes.
Even the civilian governments that sporadically came to office knew full well that they served only at the pleasure of the military-ISI establishment. Anyone who stepped out of the box paid for it — by being booted out or, worse, bumped off. If democracy hasn’t taken root in Pakistan, the military-ISI establishment is of course primarily to blame, but the civilian administrations too share a bit of it for feeding the monster and not challenging the narrative with an eye on day-to-day survival.
Soon after they came to power, Gilani and Zardari rewarded Kayani with a three-year extension, evidently in the belief that a mollified Army chief would buy them peace in the short term. And although that objective was never fully met – there have been constant rumours of Zardari and/or Gilani being replaced – they continued to yield more and more space to the ISI-military and gave them effective overlordship.
Even a patently administrative matter that has no strategic implications for Pakistan – such as granting Most Favoured Nation trading status to India – has been the subject of controversy, because the civilian government said it wanted to consult “all stakeholders” on the matter. Among those “stakeholders” is also the Pakistani military, which is it today more than a military machine: it runs an industrial conglomerate, valued by some estimates at over $15 billion, which covers everything from bakeries to banks to security services.
What changed all that was the memogate episode, soon after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad by US Navy seals, which showed that a nervous civilian government, which feared a military coup by a humiliated military-ISI establishment, sought US help to defang the ISI.
Ever since the details of a secret US memo, drafted by the then Pakistani ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani at Zardari’s behest and delivered to US officials, became known, the strains between the civilian government and the military-ISI complex were exposed. The military-ISI establishment has since extracted bloodprice by securing Haqqani’s resignation, but it wants more, much more: the heads of Zardari and Gilani.
Gilani told Parliament on Thursday that whereas the joint parliamentary committee, set up after bin Laden’s killing, was mandated to investigate the circumstances in which the terrorist came to be living in Abbottabad evidently with Army patronage, the military and the ISI were instead turning the heat on the civilian administration by inquiring why CIA operatives had been given visas to enter Pakistan.
In that sense, the ghost of bin Laden haunts Pakistani politics today, and it isn’t about to be exorcised anytime soon.
So why did Gilani speak out so forthrightly today? He perhaps reckons that his days in office are anyway numbered, so going down in style – by holding the banner of endangered democracy –plays well to his constituency. It invests him with the halo of martyrdom, and takes attention away from the colossal failures of the government on every front – from the economy to the security situation to Pakistan’s image on the world stage.
And the reason why Kayani says the army won’t stage a coup is because it doesn’t have to: along with the ISI, the army already sets the agenda from behind the throne. If a change of faces is needed, it can easily engineer an election victory for an Imran Khan – and continue to be the power behind the throne.
All this holds important lessons for the Indian foreign policy establishment, which under the influence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s peacenik instincts, has an aman ki asha. To negotiate any concessions with the civilian administration out of a mistaken sense of solidarity is utter folly, when the real power lies elsewhere — and is cussed about waging its proxy war. Geopolitical considerations may require us to be seen to be talking to Pakistan, but there is great wisdom in restricting these talks to the cricketing fortunes of the two sides’ teams and other such anodyne subjects— until Pakistan sorts out its internal power imbalances first.