A series of events recently have widened once again the perennial rift between the Pakistani civilian government and the military establishment. Let us examine some of the main flashpoints of the past few weeks.
The Panamagate investigation already has the government jittery, as the media and opposition parties — especially the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) — have been ratcheting up the pressure. At any given time, there are the ever-present perceptions about an 'understanding' between the military establishment and opposition parties such as the PTI and now the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party). Such perceptions are fuelled in part by fact and in part by paranoia on the part of sitting governments with low urban approval ratings. The fact that the Joint Investigation Committee ordered by the Supreme Court includes a representative each from the Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence will probably do little to assuage any fears on the part of the embattled PML-N administration.
In the wake of the recent Pakistan visit by Indian tycoon Sajjan Jindal and his hushed-up meeting with the Prime Minister, concerns raised by pro-Establishment voices are another indication of the widening civil-military rift. The presumably back channel parleys between the Indian tycoon and Prime Minister Sharif may have come at a wrong time but the opposition and sections of media took full advantage and PM Sharif was termed a 'security risk'. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif as the opposition politician in 1990s used to say the same about Benazir Bhutto during that period.
As if that were not enough, matters came to a head over the past few days with the Dawn Leaks probe. There was an outright rejection by the military's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of the government's measures so far to hold its officials accountable over the leaks. The military leadership clearly wants heads to roll over the matter of the leaks — and it was not shy of bluntly saying so via Twitter.
Two things ought to be clear from these instances. First, that a civilian government which claims to have a heavy mandate could do a better job of managing its relations with the security leadership of its own country. Projecting its fears onto the military leadership would not be a wise approach. Second, that the military leadership could also avoid situations of open friction — or worse, outright collision — with elected governments, sworn as it is to upholding the constitutional political order and working within its legal limits.
But above all, everyone involved — the government, the opposition, the military and the media — would do well to remember that Pakistan is fighting a war for its survival. The security risks we face include not just the battle-hardened Taliban factions but also the Islamic State group and its globally recognised brand of horror. While civilian and military officials struggle for space in Pakistan's post-2008 political constellation, sectarian religious divides in the country have hardened and society hurtles towards ever-increasing religious extremism and the accompanying bloodshed.
Nawaz Sharif has completed almost four years in office. The results of recent by-elections and Sharif's rallies show that he enjoys considerable popular support. This is what worries the opposition. The PTI is disorganised and even its sympathisers hold this view. The PPP suffers from a leadership crisis with the dynamic Bilawal Bhutto sidelined by his shrewd father. Both parties are seeking the support of the establishment but they have forgotten that the Pakistan of 2017 is fundamentally different from that of the 1990s. It is no longer easy to 'fix' the elections and get away with it.
The truth is that both the civilian constitutional-democratic order and the military establishment are here to stay. Pakistan cannot afford to return to the ways of a banana republic where the Constitution is held to be a mere scrap of paper, easily thrown aside or "held in abeyance" whenever needed. There is a realisation across the board that such times are the past. Similarly, the politicians cannot run their dynastic empires — known as political parties — and think that an expanded middle class will accept the status quo.
Yet, the continuity of democratic order is vital. Next year, another milestone is likely to be achieved. For the first time in Pakistan's history a third civilian government will be elected. This by itself is no mean achievement. But this process could be squandered if elected governments remain unstable. The policy challenges — from collapsed social services to climate change and from under-serviced cities to youth unemployment — will become worse if we don't allow civilian governments to implement their agenda. The greatest of challenges is to secure regional peace. With two hostile governments in the neighbourhood, we are likely to remain mired in proxy warfare. Who will fix it if our top institutions are more interested in their turf, power perceptions than actual solutions to address the multiple crises the country faces?
It is time that civilian politicians and soldiers — and those who like to fish in the troubled waters of a civil-military gulf — were to make an effort to move Pakistan in the direction of a 21st century democracy which can confront its internal enemies and external competitors free of constant, loud infighting amongst institutions of state?
This article first appeared in the Daily Times.