The Doom & Gloom Brigade, which comprises perennially disaffected politicians and journalists based in Lahore and occupies itself with wishful predictions of the fall of civilian governments, is at its favourite pastime again. Mian Nawaz Sharif, says the Brigade, has only a short lease of life left. Is there in fact any basis to this ‘prophecy’?
There is certainly some merit in the observation that President Ghulam Ishaq is no longer as enamoured of PM Nawaz Sharif as he was a year ago. Apart from the usual disagreements over continuing policy matters, part of the real reason may be informed speculation about Mian Sahib’s long-term ambitions which may seriously conflict with those of Mr Ishaq Khan. Sources close to the Presidency confirm that Mr Khan would like to be re-elected as President next year for another three-year term but believe that Mian Sahib’s advisors are telling him that it is time for Mr Khan to call it a day.
More significantly, they are reportedly telling Mian Nawaz to stand for President himself next year and install a pliant non-entity as PM in his own place. This way, the argument goes, Mian Nawaz should be able to take all the reins of power in his hands and rule for another decade. If this sort of irresponsible talk has reached the Presidency, and there is no reason to doubt that it hasn’t, Mian Nawaz is on a slippery wicket for sure.
There is greater credibility in the news that relations between the PM and the COAS have rapidly soured in recent times. The PM has been unhappy about the three ‘meetings’ between Gen Asif Nawaz and Benazir Bhutto, especially the ‘dinner meeting’ before the Chief left for the United States in January. The fact that the Chief was able to sweep the decks and quickly negotiate a fruitful relationship with the US — thereby hogging the limelight in Washington — could not have been lost on Mian Sahib who is known for his reluctance to share kudos with anyone.
The PM was also displeased with the sacking of Gen Hameed Gul who has secretly been a pillar of support for the IJI government since he engineered the formation of the Alliance and chartered its ‘winning’ electoral strategy in 1990. Nor could the PM have been terribly overjoyed by the intervention of the COAS with Benazir Bhutto and Mustafa Jatoi to prop up Muzaffar Hussain Shah’s government in Sindh to the exclusion of any mediatory role for the PM’s ‘Panj Pyarey’ team of trouble-shooters.
On the other side, no COAS could possibly welcome civilian interference in the army’s internal military matters. Take the case of Gen Hameed Gul. The GHQ decided to transfer Gen Gul from a command position in Multan to a managerial slot in Pindi. Gen Gul refused to move to his new appointment. Instead, he applied for leave and approached the Defence Ministry to ‘intervene’ with GHQ on his behalf — Defence Minister Mr Ghaus Ali Shah reportedly met with the Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff Committee, Gen Shamim Alam, to persuade him to ask GHQ to change its orders. Gen Alam correctly advised Mr Shah to drop the matter. But because Gen Gul had disobeyed army orders, he was promptly sacked by GHQ. When Gen Gul gave an interview to a newspaper recently in which he obliquely criticised GHQ policy on Afghanistan, the military protested to the Foreign Office and sought public clarifications from the government. None were forthcoming, reinforcing GHQ suspicions that Mian Sahib was sheltering a renegade General who was continuing to meddle in politics from behind the scenes.
On the heels of the Gen Gul affair comes the Gen Javed Nasir affair. As per norms for the appointment of the DG, ISI, a list of three Generals was forwarded by GHQ to the Defence Ministry which was expected to exercise its prerogative to chose one of them. In this particular case, the PM rejected all three GHQ nominees and appointed Gen Nasir whose name was not on the list. The GHQ, which had only two months ago promoted and appointed Gen Nasir to another post where he was expected to stay for the duration of his service, must naturally have felt slighted.
Significantly, too, speculation that the PM is keen to appoint a Vice-COAS to look over the shoulder of the COAS cannot have been well received in Pindi. The army tradition excludes the necessity of such a post in normal times. Gen Zia created a VCOAS because he had the dual responsibility of President and COAS. Many administrative matters, which could not be dealt with appropriately by Gen Zia because of his Presidential preoccupations, were consequently shouldered first by Gen K.M. Arif and then by Gen Aslam Beg. When Gen Beg became COAS, he immediately dispensed with the requirement of VCOAS and reverted to army form. So the appointment of a VCOAS by the PM, if it should come, is likely to be viewed by GHQ with the same mistrust in which the appointment of the DG, ISI, is currently held.
For reasons of national security, GHQ remains unhappy about the continuing lawlessness in Sindh in which different terrorist and extremist groups have taken advantage of the political opportunisms of governments in Islamabad to become stronger and better armed over time. Where Bhutto turned a blind eye to the extremists on the fringe of her government in Sindh, Mian Nawaz has done much the same for the MQM, an alliance partner. The army is concerned that national security continues to be compromised in Sindh because Islamabad’s political compulsions do not acknowledge the necessity of a Clean-Up Operation in which extremists all of shades — PPP or MQM-affiliated — are disarmed and arrested.
So a situation has arisen in Sindh today which is similar to that which prevailed on the eve of Bhutto’s ouster in 1990. The only difference is that whereas Bhutto sought protection of Sindhi nationalists and was hostile to the MQM, Mian Nawaz Sharif is hostile to the PPP and is protecting the MQM in the same one-sided manner.
The tensions between Pindi and Islamabad over the running of the Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, which is presided over by a no-nonsense General and held to ransom by the MQM simultaneously, is a case in point. The controversy over whether the civilians or the armed forces should control and direct the Mehran Force (MF) is another — the MF was set up exclusively for the purpose of controlling law and order in the province so that any untoward interference in its workings by politicians could be excluded. The army would rightly like to improve law and order in Sindh without directly getting involved in any Clean-Up Operation. The obvious solution is to let the MF, along with the Rangers, do the needful without political interference or bias. Mian Nawaz, like Bhutto earlier, is reluctant to let the army direct the MF and Rangers to do so impartially.
Gen Asif Nawaz was selected by President Ishaq to be COAS. Detente with the USA and support for the UN’s Afghan policy are initiatives that the Chief has accomplished. But he has done so only with the firm backing of President Ishaq Khan. If the Chief met with Bhutto before embarking on his trip to Washington and if the Chief prodded Messrs Jatoi and Bhutto to give Muzaffar Shah some breathing space in Sindh, it was not without the explicit approval of President Ishaq in the national interest. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s suspicions that the Chief might be already playing off his own bat and therefore may be politically ambitious are unfounded.
That said, it may be relevant to shed some light on the dangerous implications of some of the PM’s recent policy changes as well as those which may be on his cards. It is understood that the military will brook no political meddling in its internal affairs, especially those which have to do with the professional conduct of the army and involve appointments, transfers and promotions by GHQ. The PM would be well advised to steer clear of these. Such interference would merely increase suspicions about his Bonapartist intentions and increase animosity without yielding any particular dividends.
Take the case of the ISI. It is widely assumed that the PM has appointed Gen Nasir to keep an eye over the COAS. In the first place, Gen Nasir is hardly likely to be foolish enough to do anything which may incur the wrath of his Chief. Secondly, the Chief is likely to retaliate by personally effecting the appointments of Gen Nasir’s No 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 men in the ISI so that any personal initiatives against GHQ which the PM may be planning via Gen Nasir are effectively neutralised.
Or take the case of the Mehran Force. If the PM intends to use it arbitrarily for the protection of his party-political interests rather than for a genuine, even-handed Clean-Up Operation as advocated by the military, he will find that the General in charge of the Mehran Force will quickly by reigned in the GHQ and neutralised by the Corps Commander Karachi, who is the Chief’s hand-picked man.
The PM could do worse by not recalling the fate of Bhutto’s initiatives to disarm Gen Aslam Beg: although she appointed Gen Kallu as DG, ISI, Gen Beg enlarged the scope of Military Intelligence and completely neutralised the ISI; when she utilised the Rangers in Sindh for party-political purposes, Gen Beg retaliated by seeking special powers for the army in Sindh and failing that engineered the downfall of her government. If the PM were now to install a Vice COAS against the advice of GHQ, he will only antagonise the Chief further without achieving any purpose: the Chief will give the VCOAS a clerical job in GHQ and put him out of business.
Given this background, it is perfectly understandable why Pir Pagara should once again become functional and publicly conjure up visions of marching jackboots and family planning. Mr Jatoi’s sudden departure from the IJI is a pointer in the same direction. Ms Bhutto’s Eid overtures and warmth towards the Chief are not without a ray of hope. Nawabzada Nasrullah’s post-Ramadan activation, just before the budget crunch, cannot also be without implications. Mr Mustafa Khar, too, is up to his old tricks again and seems to have wormed his way into the PPP.
Mr Muzaffar Shah’s hapless province of Sindh may provide some clues to what is likely to transpire ahead. If Pir Pagara does a deal with Mr Jatoi, Mr Shah cannot survive. If Mr Shah rigs the bye-election in Sanghar to ensure a victory for Jam Sadiq Ali’s son, Messrs Jatoi & Bhutto will go on the warpath and move heaven and earth to get rid of him, thereby leading to a fresh round of arrests, recriminations and instability. If Mr Shah loses, he will have to face the prospects of a serious challenge from Mr Jatoi. Either way, he cannot hope to last for long. Then What? Will President Ishaq send everyone packing home and tell the army Chief to run Sindh? and if the Chief takes charge and deals even-handedly with the warring factions in Sindh, will the MQM desert eh PM in Islamabad and leave him stranded at the mercy of the oppositionists in the PDA and the Muslim League?
Clearly it is in the PM’s interest to mend fences with the COAS. These tensions between the two of them are totally unnecessary and will cloud the satisfactory outcome of matters of national interest. Each has his own job cut out for him. Any initiatives which the Chief has taken and might consider in the future may be reasonably presumed to have the backing of President Ishaq, who is not only the fountain-head of the political system in play today but also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
The PM is perfectly within his rights to run the civilian government with the President’s help just as the Chief is perfectly within his rights to command the army with the President’s blessings. Any interference by the PM and the Chief in the other’s domain, without the support of the President, could spell serious trouble in the delicate balance of power within the troika.
In the final analysis, political power flows from the barrel of a gun. So the PM may be especially advised to take it easy and refrain from stepping on the toes of the Chief. He might also take his over-reaching colts in hand because they are becoming much too big for their slippers. Any dangerous thoughts of trying to repeat the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto-Gen Gul Hassan drama of twenty years ago should be banished forthwith in the present circumstances. Otherwise the Doom & Gloom Brigade will have much to rejoice about.