Pakistani Prime Ministers bear the consequences of challenging military authority

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pak prime ministers and pak army
Prime Ministers of Pakistan

The serenity prayer implores God to give a supplicant the serenity to accept things that can’t be changed, the courage to change things that can be changed, and most importantly, the wisdom to know the difference. Even if one isn’t particularly religious, this universally applicable entreaty is an undeniable reminder of human frailty and that’s why one would have expected Pakistan’s street-smart politicians to be at least mindful of its insightful import.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case and so it’s not at all surprising that four Pakistani prime ministers have paid a heavy price for violating the serenity prayer by trying to put the Army in its rightful place. While Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the unluckiest as he lost both his chair and life in what is rightly mentioned as a “judicial murder”, his daughter Benazir Bhutto was ousted in what she aptly referred to as a ”quasi-military intervention”.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was targeted twice by the powerful Pakistan Army. He was first overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by the then Pakistan Army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf in 1999, and 18 years later, was once again removed, but this time through what Sharif rightly claimed were “court verdicts” obtained by the military through “coercion” of senior judges. In the case of Prime Minister Imran Khan, Rawalpindi adroitly used the legislature to get rid of him through a ‘no-confidence motion’.

 The Pakistan Army’s role in repetitively manipulating the legislature is indeed regrettable and while one does sympathise with the ousted prime ministers, but then, the fault didn’t lie in their stars but in themselves as they made the cardinal mistake of assuming that with an army chief of their choice [or an army chief as the benefactor], they could end the status quo and run Pakistan the way that a democracy should. And this fatal error of judgment of trying to change what can’t be changed cost them dear!

In appointing Gen Zia ul Haq, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto superseded not one or two, but a whopping seven Generals. Obviously, the ease of working with a seemingly apolitical and unambitious army chief would have been the main reason that tipped the scales in Gen Zia’s favour. Unfortunately, Bhutto’s benevolence failed to overshadow Gen Zia’s ambition and marginalise his inbred military ethos of ensuring continuation of Rawalpindi’s supremacy in Pakistan.

Similarly, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who became prime minister in 1988 soon ended up antagonising the military hierarchy as well as pro-Army President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. She compelled the then Pakistan Army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg to remove ISI chief Maj Gen Hamid Gul for using non-state actors for clandestine operations in Afghanistan post-Soviet withdrawal to install a pro-Rawalpindi Taliban government in Kabul. Rawalpindi viewed her readiness to stand up against the Army as a potential threat to its dominant role in Pakistan’s politics and swung into action.

So, this troika unleashed ‘Operation Midnight Jackal’ which entailed covertly using taxpayers’ money for bribing senators to vote against the Benazir government. The aim was to pave the way for fresh elections so that the ISI could manipulate the formation of a new government comprising conservative pro-military politicians. When this attempt failed, and the Army cleverly manoeuvred her ouster on charges of corruption and nepotism by President Khan in 1990, clearly demonstrating that it would not tolerate a government that threatened its sovereignty over the country’s polity.

Nawaz Sharif made the mistakes that both the Bhutto father and daughter duo had made. In 1993, he [like Benazir] got embroiled with the pro-Army President over authority issues  and was pressured into resigning by Rawalpindi. During his second innings as prime minister in 1998, he did his homework well and played safe by choosing Pervez Musharraf as the Army chief, and [like Zulfikar], superseded three Generals. However, this didn’t help and he was deposed by his own protégé the very next year when he dared to remove Musharraf as Army chief after the Kargil debacle.

Unfortunately, Sharif apparently didn’t learn any lessons from these reverses and during his third tenure he once rubbed Rawalpindi the wrong way. In 2017, Dawn newspaper revealed that “In an unusually blunt warning, the civilian leadership told the top brass [of the army] to act against militant outfits or risk the country being isolated internationally.” Rawalpindi took great umbrage at Sharif’s asserting the constitutional authority of the legislature in 2017 and this proved to be the proverbial straw that broke Rawalpindi’s back!

Soon Sharif was inundated with criminal charges and debarred from holding public office for 10 years by the courts. The subsequent public revelation of serving senior Islamabad High Court [IHC] judge Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui [who was in the reckoning for elevation to IHC chief justice] that “Today the judiciary and media have come in the control of ‘bandookwala’ [Pakistan Army]” and that “In different cases, the ISI forms benches of its choice to get desired results” leaves no room for doubt that Pakistan’s judiciary is but a tool that Rawalpindi uses to discipline politicians who dare to oppose the army.

Though sacked for his comments, Justice Siddiqui has recently been absolved by Pakistan’s Supreme Court of any wrongdoing and this further proves that Rawalpindi does manipulate the judiciary. And when asked on a TV show as to how he got out of the exit control list, didn’t Gen Musharraf admit the same by mentioning that “These courts work under pressure behind the scenes and then give decisions. The army chief [Gen Raheel Sharif] had a role to play in releasing the pressure behind the scenes”?

Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s recent mention of moving a resolution to summon former Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed in the National Assembly definitely has great merit as both have a lot to explain with regards to the Army’s dubious handling of the TTP menace.

However, since this would be tantamount to the legislature questioning the Pakistan Army, it’s bound to have adverse repercussions. Accordingly, PML-N Senator and Nawaz Sharif’s close confidante Irfan Siddiqui’s opposition to this proposal on the grounds that it would open ‘old wounds’ makes very good practical sense and confirms with the serenity prayer.

So, if not the serenity prayer, Pakistani politicians should at least pay heed to the age-old ‘what can’t be cured must be endured’ axiom!

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