The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Did Mushahidullah Khan lose his job because he was peddling falsehoods about the dharna and Lt Gen (r) Zaheerul Islam? Was he calling for meddlesome generals to be held to account, or singlehandedly trying to fix the civil-military imbalance? Or were his statements an indiscretion simply because his delving into the past could embarrass the army and its chief by reminding folks that at one time the ISI and the top khaki brass might not have been under the chief’s absolute control?
Is it improbable that conversations of everyone important in Pakistan are monitored? To the extent that an ISI chief was encouraging the main opposition party to try and overthrow the government by use of street power, wouldn’t (civilian) intelligence agencies not sharing such information with the prime minister be a major intelligence failure? And if the PM had faith that his army chief was an upright soldier, wouldn’t the proper thing to do be to hand over information to the army chief and let him manage the ISI chief?
Brig Samson Simon Sharaf of the PTI had first insinuated that if the ISI encouraged the dharna it might have been more of a conspiracy by fellow generals to hurt the army chief than one to make Imran Khan prime minister. The suggestion that top echelons of the army can indulge in palace intrigues is hurtful for the image of our army that prides itself in its discipline and finality of command; an army extremely sensitive to public opinion as it understands that its soft power (especially in relation to politicos) springs from popular support.
When Chaudhry Nisar discredited the insinuation as mindless gossip, he was clarifying that the PML-N had no interest in making this into a civil-military issue. There is no basis to argue that the powerful interior minister was acting on his own because he is close to the military. On this issue the PML-N wasn’t playing good-cop-bad-cop. When Kh Asif suggested that ex-DG ISIs had sponsored the dharna, his emphasis was on the PTI’s movement not being a popular one and Imran Khan courting khaki support to usurp political power.
In building narratives, emphasis is everything. So long as focus was on the PTI riding khaki coat tails, it helped the PML-N and hurt the PTI. But when focus shifted from what the PTI was doing as alleged by the PML-N to what ex-DG ISI was doing as alleged by Brig Sharaf, it began to hurt the army and its chief, and by extension threatened the state of equilibrium between the PML-N and the khakis that provides the surest guarantee for a PML-N touchdown in 2018. It was thus that Ch Nisar issued the memo. And Mushahidullah Khan was punished because he disregarded it.
It has only been over a year and a half and the difficult position General Raheel Sharif found himself in when he took over as army chief is all but forgotten. It is no secret that General Sharif was not the expected choice for the position of chief. When he assumed command sitting alongside him on head table were Lt Gens Tariq Khan (corps commander Mangla), Saleem Nawaz (corps commander Gujranwala), Khalid Rabbani (corps commander Peshawar), Sajjad Ghani (corps commander Karachi) and Zaheerul Islam (DG ISI).
Notwithstanding ranking on the formal seniority list, all six were contemporaries who had graduated within a course of each other from the PMA. Thus, for almost a year the army chief had the unenviable job of leading a top-heavy team with a bunch of its senior most players afflicted by a betrayed sense of entitlement for his job. This was the time when the dharna had happened, when civil-military relations were strained, and when the corps commander conference tried to bend the PM’s ear and ‘advised’ him to resolve political disputes amicably.
This was a time when Nawaz Sharif could have gotten paranoid and reacted harshly to the ex-DG ISI’s meddlesome ways, had he learnt nothing from the 90s. He could have taken the position that the ISI reported to him and fired Zaheer. That would have brought pressure from top generals and the army to bear upon the chief to stand with the DG ISI and defend the army’s ‘honour’ (as had happened during the days of General Musharraf’s indictment). It could have made the army chief’s position precarious by forcing him to pick sides. But NS did no such thing.
It was August through October 2014 that things could have gone horribly wrong. It was at that time that the PM reposed faith in the army chief and strengthened his hand, and the army chief in turn did what was the right thing to do: not indulge in politicking and discourage everyone under his command from doing so. Upon retirement of the army chief’s contemporaries and promotion of those handpicked by the army chief, the composition of military high command began to change and the seniority gap between the chief and his team began to grow.
All key appointments going to newly appointed Lt Generals (Rizwan Akhtar as DG ISI, Naveed Mukhtar as corps commander Karachi, Hidayatur Rehman as corps commander Peshawar, Hilal Hussain as corps commander Mangla and Ghayur Mahmood as corps commander Gujranwala) was a clear sign that the first exhausting year of General Sharif’s command was over. That he wanted his own handpicked and promoted generals to execute his national security policies. Incidentally civil-military relations have also been in a state of equilibrium since.
Once bitten, twice shy they say. With our history of coups and tumultuous civil-military relations, we are programmed to panic anytime ISPR issues a statement and a minister gets fired. In his third term as PM, NS seems to have made his peace with the existing civil-military imbalance. He appears to have understood that the military’s role in policy can expand, as it can contract. But that this is a time for the military’s expanded role primarily as terrorism is the main challenge confronting the state and the military is best placed to fight it.
There has been no manifestation so far that the PM is threatened by the army chief or sees him as a competitor. He appears to have understood that even if the army chief is the most popular army chief in history or the most popular public office holder at the moment, he exists and functions in a parallel universe. Just as Abdul Sattar Edhi’s popularity as philanthropist shouldn’t bother NS, he is not in competition with the army chief so long as the army chief doesn’t have the ambition of usurping political power.
Post-APS the army chief has shown true grit and leadership. He has come to be seen as the long-needed commander laying down the foundation of a terror-free Pakistan: he has led our domestic war against terror from the front; he has rallied public opinion to stay the course in this hard fight; he has campaigned with foreign countries to get them behind Pakistan’s anti-terror strategy; he has broken from tradition and begun holding errant generals to account; he appears to understand public mood better than politicos; and ISPR’s par excellence PR campaign makes him picture perfect.
As the army chief enters the final year of his term, it is time to raise his guard against vanity, ambition and sycophancy. This is the time to ensure that the military leadership he leaves behind stays with the National Action Plan he has authored and promotes the newly minted self-accountability drive within the military. This is a time to begin succession planning, think about his legacy and be very weary of those who tell him that he is indispensible.
Civil-Military Equilibrium | Babar Sattar