In Pakistan, New Army Chief Steps into Increasingly Fractured Power Struggle

December 5, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a short series on the legacy of the recently retired Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

When Lieutenant-General Raheel Sharif was appointed as Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff late last month, the label widely used to describe him was “moderate”, a word that cropped up with the kind of frequency in the media that comes only from background spin. The message being given out by the Pakistan Army was that here was a general who would continue the work of his predecessor in allowing civilians to rule while building the professionalism of the military in its war against domestic Islamist insurgents. The man he succeeds, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, became head of the Pakistan Army in November 2007 as the military was just being forced out of power. By the end of his tenure, a civilian government had completed its term and handed over to another elected government for the first time in Pakistan’s history. That Pakistan reached this milestone was in part due to Kayani’s determination to keep the army out of overt interference in politics. With Raheel’s description as a moderate, the line being put out, therefore, to the domestic population and to the army’s US backers – themselves relatively recent converts to the need for democracy in Pakistan – was “carry on, it’s business as usual”.

However, notwithstanding the obvious flaw that all new army chiefs in Pakistan tend to be seen as moderate at the outset – General Pervez Musharraf who seized power in a military coup in 1999 was famous for claiming the mantle of “enlightened moderation” – the assumption of continued progress in the transition from military to civilian rule is tenuous at best. It ignores the unique elements that led to Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power. And it overlooks the fact that the much-needed but erratic transition to democracy, taking place under an increasing threat from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has in the short-term made Pakistan more fragile than ever.

For a start, the survival of the last elected government was not due to General Kayani alone. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) themselves played a big role in wresting power after learning from bitter experience that their in-fighting made it easier for the military to intervene.  In 2006 they signed a Charter of Democracy in London promising to work together for civilian rule. It was partly thanks to then opposition leader (now prime minister) Nawaz Sharif largely eschewing destabilising attacks that the PPP-led government survived a full term. This consensus has broken down in what has become a scrappy fight between Sharif and political newcomer Imran Khan, whose Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) now runs the provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The PTI’s decision to block NATO supply routes to and from Afghanistan in protest against US drone strikes is a direct challenge to the authority of the federal government which, at least nominally, has responsibility for setting foreign policy.

Secondly, the appearance of a democratic transition glosses over a much more opaque but increasingly fractured struggle for power within Pakistan. President and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari worked hard to build the institutions of democracy, devolving authority to the provinces and to the prime minister, while military officers were forced out of government departments.  No one expects a coup in the near future. With less involvement in the civilian administration and fewer sympathisers in top posts, the army can no longer rely on a militarised state to swing behind it. Power has become more diffuse – spread between the military, the politicians, the media, the judiciary and the religious groups, making it harder for any one institution to take control.

Yet the army continues to dominate foreign and security policy. Civilian efforts to improve relations with India have been stymied. With its strong business interests, the military also has an economic stake in keeping the upper hand in the domestic power struggle, one it could lose if there were to be lasting peace with India. The security establishment, moreover, influences the national debate through sympathisers in the media. When Pakistan was hit by floods in 2010, the army enhanced its prestige by playing up its role in relief efforts and contrasting this with the alleged callousness of the government. The primary recipient of US aid, it encouraged anti-Americanism in the past to improve its leverage in negotiations with Washington, while blaming corrupt politicians for being bought off with US money. Khan’s rise in popularity reflects the success of that military narrative – many of his comments, from railing against the United States to condemning corrupt politicians, could be heard tripping off the tongues of the military and their sympathisers only a few years ago.

The army may have bitten off more than it can chew. The powerful role in public debate of religious groups it once encouraged, Khan’s populist anti-American rhetoric and Sharif’s reluctance to speak out against TTP allies in his Punjab power base have made it harder for the military to muster support for action against the militants. No one is sure how far the army – long accused of running a dual policy of supporting some militants while fighting others – has resolved to recalibrate its strategy.  What is clear is that the propaganda it once fostered is limiting its room for manoeuvre. Nowadays it is not so much the collaboration between civilian politicians which is keeping the army at bay; it is the relative weakness of the military.

Meanwhile, with Sharif’s PML-N vulnerable to religious and sectarian groups in Punjab and Khan’s PTI afraid of growing violence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, both are publicly pushing for peace talks with the TTP – despite the militants’ insistence that their aim is to impose their own order across Pakistan. As a result, the ability of civilian rulers to represent the state is looking so shaky that even some liberals are saying they hope the army can stand between the TTP and disaster.

The United States would do well to pay close attention. However absurd it looks from the outside for Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP, the country’s ruling political parties were elected on a platform of peace talks. The killing last month of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike deprived those political parties and their supporters of the opportunity of learning from experience about the inevitable failure of talks. Moreover, all political parties have said they oppose drone strikes. These were carried out with the consent of the military in the past and suspicion lingers that the army still supports at least some drone strikes. Yet to continue them is to ignore the Pakistani parliament and potentially undermine further the country’s fragile democracy.

In previous periods of democracy in Pakistan, the United States has grown weary of the country’s squabbling politicians and greeted military rulers with relief. It never works for long; history has shown that Pakistan’s different ethnic groups cannot be united by force, leaving democracy as the only possible mechanism to allow them to negotiate their differences peacefully. And importantly, the army no longer enjoys the kind of authority that allowed it to provide a temporary façade of stability in the past, while its post 9/11 alliance with the United States has created misgivings and even fissures within the security establishment.

The risk – to use a South Asian expression – is that Pakistan will end up caught with a foot in two boats; civilian politicians too divided and frightened of the TTP to rule effectively and the army neither cohesive nor powerful enough to fall back on as an imagined safety net.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credt: FSCEM45212