SEEMA MUSTAFA | 14 JULY, 2018
The Big Elephant in Pakistan’s Room
Pakistan Army Chief
Was it a coincidence? That on the day that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam had decided to fly back to a sure arrest, at least 128 persons including a nationalist politician Nawabzada Siraj Raisani were killed in a deadly suicide blast in Balochistans Mastung district. And of course within hours the Islamic State---the terrorists in Pakistan now have a pick of titles to choose from---claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack since 2014 on the Peshawar Army school.
And Sharif’s return vied for the headlines and peoples attention, as security men swarmed the flight he and his daughter were on from London, asked the passengers to leave and whisked him away to Islamabad amidst high political speculation. Did he need to come back? Yes he did, said the political leaders. Why? He has to if he wants any future for his family and his party in Pakistan? What will happen now? Anything can, let us wait and watch. What about his daughter? Well she is off to a troubled start but is clearly the inheritor of the Sharif legacy, establishing herself in the process as a democrat.
The Pakistani papers prepared to headline the Sharifs return conceded the top space to the Mastung attack that underscored the dangers inherent in the elections ahead. But while this and more is being covered in detail by Pakistan’s media, the Deep State controlled by the Pakistan Army is for obvious reasons not figuring in the public discourse, Privately of course Pakistanis are worried, but then the current situation where a former Prime Minister is arrested, where political uncertainty dogs not just his party but the establishment itself in Pakistan, and where the terrorists have emerged with a declared upper hand does not lend itself to free thought and free speech. And this restraint is more than visible today with the chatter sticking to political options, and not moving into the role of the Pakistan Army that is again now in visible control.
Sharif, charged with corruption, is just one in a long line of politicians living beyond their means in and out of Pakistan. His removal follows his inability to get along with the Pakistan Army, the tensions that have characterised his two terms in office as Prime Minister, and the fact that the Army is not prepared to surrender its role and its goals. And these were broadly identified by The Citizen just a few days ago as full preservation of its power and privileges that make it the dominant institution in Pakistan; a decisive say in all foreign policy issues that determines its strategy for the region, namely India, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and of course China and the United States; and to take steps as and when required to ensure that any civilian government in power does not start thinking, and acting, as superior to the armed forces.
To ensure the above objectives the Pakistan Army is determined to keep its ‘instruments’ sharp and in use, despite pressure from the Americans on the question of terrorism. With Kashmir hotting up as it were this acquires greater urgency for the Pakistan Deep State, that is not prepared to relinquish the non state industry that has served it dividends over the decades, despite opposition from the liberals and political leaders like Nawaz Sharif.
So while the Pakistan media discusses the political pros and cons of the Sharif arrest, and looks upon the deadly attack in Balochistan as part of an unfortunate---yes condemnable---trajectory it is unable to recognise and hence analyse the role of the only one certain player in Pakistan: the Army. Publicly the present Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has followed the ‘hands off’ approach of his predecessor, at least publicly. In fact he met the caretaker Prime Minister just a few weeks ago to offer his support for a peaceful election on July 25.
Given Afghanistan, Kashmir, and of course the larger geo-political equations the Pakistan Army will use these elections to instal a government that will work with it closely in its strategic objectives, however misplaced these might be. It still has the capacity to influence the outcome and will not allow a political party or leader in the chair who might give it trouble in the crucial months to come. More so as it senses and sees an opening in Kashmir that it will exploit to the hilt, provided it has the civilian springing board it requires at this time.
With the arrest of the Sharifs it has been proven that no one is above the law, at least when the law chooses to exercise itself. Given the fact that all political leaders in Pakistan live far beyond their means this in itself will, and has, dampened spirits on the eve of the elections with the Army being recognised again as a saviour over and above the people. The Balochistan attack is---coincidentally or not---a warning to the democrats and liberals in the country to watch out. A message that the deep state has the capacity despite US pressure, and can strike at will.
Look at what has been achieved already by the Army, even before the Balochistan attack and the arrest of the Sharifs. The Islamic parties alliance Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) has been revived; designated terrorist Mohammed Hafiz Saeed’s candidates will be in the fray through a proxy party the Allaha-u-AkbarTehreek as his own new party Milli Muslim League has been denied registration as a political party; and if this was not enough the leader of the sectarian Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat Maulana Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi has been removed from the terrorism list and allowed to fight the elections.
The hitherto strong Muttahida Qaumi Movement is in disarray, and the exiled Mohajir leader Altaf Hussain has called on all Mohajirs to boycott the elections.
The Pakistan Peoples Party under Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is not even being seen as a viable option.
Imran Khan’s Tehreek e Insaf is but while seen as closer to the Army that others, it is not clear whether he is going to make the grade.
That the Pakistan Army seems to have a plan judging from recent developments. Imran Khan appears to be a front runner but many in Pakistan are of the view that he will be the hare who loses the race. The tortoise is who everyone is on the lookout for, a man that the Army can be proud of and repose full trust in. Otherwise who knows even the hitherto quiet Army Chief might be persuaded by his commanders to take control in the interests of the nation, of course. A move, of course, that will only be exercised as a last resort as the Pakistan Deep State wants to keep itself well out of the global firing line and do what it infinitely prefers: hold the strings and let the civilians dance.