Death sentence to General Musharraf isn’t end of military rule in Pakistan; Rawalpindi has long moved to control via other means

  • That General Pervez Musharraf have been sentenced to death by a Pakistani courtis being read a decisive triumph of Pakistan's constitutional principle over military power, but that's not quite the case

  • After Musharraf, the army has built a system in which it retains firm control of strategic issues, as well as a veto over major government policies similar to the 'military rule by other means' system developed after the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq

  • Pakistan's army has proved willing to cede influence over the administration of the state, but not over the structure and thrust of national strategy

  • General Qamar Bajwa’s years in office has seen the consolidation of this type of hybrid state

Ice tinkled in cut-glass tumblers, gently punctuating the gentle rustles of silk and soft murmurs that rose from Karachi’s elite, as the coup-flower blossomed in gardens outside. Then Pakistan president Iskander Mirza, his guests recalled, had seemed ill at ease all evening. They didn’t know, then, that at 8 pm, he had ordered tanks and armoured personnel carriers out, to cut off key roads; troops had seized the airport, the port, the radio station, the telegraph office and the telephone exchange.

General Ayub Khan’s army took over government departments responsible for everything from sanitation to road construction. The media was censored; Brigadier Tikka Khan, later to distinguish himself in the dark art of genocide, banned the teaching of Sindhi to schoolchildren.

Now, decades on, General Pervez Musharraf — the author of Pakistan’s last years of military rule — has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court, charged with having committed treason by suspending the Constitution from 3 November to 15 December, 2007.

 Death sentence to General Musharraf isn’t end of military rule in Pakistan; Rawalpindi has long moved to control via other means

File image of former Paksitan president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf. AP

The judgment is being read a decisive triumph of constitutional principle over military power: a rewriting, as it were, of the story of Pakistan since 1958. That’s not quite the case: Pakistan has buried military rule many times before and, yet, it lives.


“Necessity knows no law," Pakistan's then-Chief Justice Mohammad Munir wrote in 1955. His words were used as the foundations of the coup launched by General Ayub Khan, aided by Mirza, in 1958. In 1972, Pakistan's Supreme Court held that the use of the so-called doctrine of necessity to justify military rule was “unsustainable”. Yet, inside five years, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq used it to overthrow then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Zia’s usurpation of power was again deemed unconstitutional — but that didn’t deter General Musharraf.

In a 2009 judgment, the Pakistan Supreme Court declared General Musharraf’s state of emergency illegal and barred any future invocation of the doctrine, by banning judges from offering “any support in whatever manner to any unconstitutional functionary who acquires power otherwise than through the modes envisaged by the Constitution”.

But the army still exercises a veto over Pakistan’s political life — and understanding why it does so, and how, is key to understanding the actual significance of the judgment against General Musharraf.

To understand what’s changed in the civilian-military relationship, we have to go back to 2007. Late that November, General Musharraf handed over his role as army chief to General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani. Following the election of the President of Pakistan — later prime minister — Asif Ali Zardari in 2008, General Kayani rebuilt the compact between the army and the politicians: the politicians would hold office, but on all key issues, the Generals would rule.

"I am a soldier; I don’t believe in sharing power,” General Musharraf had proclaimed in a televised address in 2001, adding, “I believe in the unity of command."

Like many in Pakistan’s Army, General Kayani understood that the overweening claim didn’t serve the institution’s own interests.

General Kayani saw that his predecessor’s term in office had created a savage rupture with Pakistan’s jihadist groups — the army’s long-standing clients — and opened the way for civil war. The new chief, as General Musharraf was to publicly admit, rolled back operations against the Taliban. He also resumed support for jihadists operating against India — opening the road to 26/11.

Economic reform programmes initiated under General Musharraf had, moreover, created strains within Pakistan’s polity, angering large swathes of the bourgeoisie and the urban poor — with the anger directed at the army.

Leaving then president Zardari the unhappy job of dealing with these social issues, General Kayani built a system in which the army retained firm control of strategic issues, as well as a veto over major government policies. This marked a return to the system developed after General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq's assassination in 1988, which gave way to what the scholar and diplomat Hussain Haqqani has described as “military rule by other means".

The scholar Hasan-Askari Rizvi noted that the army chief became the “pivot” for this political system. The army chief, in turn, derived his authority from the corps commanders who addressed “not only security, professional and organisational matters, but also deliberate on domestic issues”.

President Zardari's early efforts to bring the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate under civilian control were repulsed, and General Kayani defeated his efforts to seek a grand rapprochement with India. Pakistan's army proved willing to cede influence over the administration of the state, but not over the structure and thrust of national strategy.

General Qamar Bajwa’s years in office has seen the consolidation of this type of hybrid state. The General forced then prime minister Nawaz Sharif out of office when the doughty politician sought peace with India on terms unacceptable to the army. However, the army did so by stacking the electoral system and courts in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s favour, not the blunt tool of a coup.

“The army is the nation,” General Kayani said in one speech. That pithy maxim sums up the Pakistan Army’s role: as a guardian not just of the territorial borders of Pakistan, but its ideological frontiers, and destiny.

Like every political system, Pakistan’s military-rule-by-proxy isn’t without its internal strains. The Supreme Court’s unprecedented questioning of a three-year extension to General Bajwa, for example, is reported to have the backing of disgruntled aspirants to the top job — among them, Lieutenant General Sarfraz Sattar, who is reported to have resigned after a row with his chief, and Lieutenant-Generals Nadeem Raza, Humayun Aziz, Naeem Ashraf, Sher Afghan and Qazi Ikraam.

There have long been reports — made, most recently, by the United States diplomat Richard Olsen to scholar Shuja Nawaz — that former ISI chief Zahir-ul-Islam plotted to overthrow Sharif in 1995, without the knowledge of army chief General Raheel Sharif. Major-General Zahirul Islam Abbasi, Brigadier Mustansir Billa and the jihadist leader Qari Saifullah plotted a coup against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995 — only foiled by the military and intelligence services.

But tensions do not mean the system itself is collapsing. Learning from then-president Mirza — who was removed in a second coup, within days of the first, after he tried to upstage General Ayub Khan — politicians have allowed the Generals to exercise a veto on the policy.

From his hospital bed in Dubai, General Musharraf is likely contemplating the ironies of the situation. His original military coup in 1999, after all, was sanctified by Pakistan’s Supreme Court — and he had reason to believe the Generals would exercise a veto against his conviction in this second case, fearing an erosion of their own de-facto immunity from the law.

That assumption has proved flawed. General Bajwa has little reason to compromise his own legitimacy, or that of the army, to defend a widely-reviled military ruler. The conviction for treason does not interrogate the Pakistan Army’s primacy in the country’s political life; it only reiterates a proscription on the use of a tool the Generals do not think they now require.

And if the need should arise, history tells us, the Generals’ sword makes an irresistible argument for necessity.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 22:14:20 IST