In May 2013, Pakistan celebrated a major political milestone: the successful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. This was a feat the country had never quite managed to achieve in its almost 70 years of independence. Coups and military interference in domestic politics are endemic in Pakistan. Its most recent military tyrant, Pervez Musharraf, is under trial for treason. All of this suggested a certain return to civilian normalcy. However, as of August 2014, Pakistan is back in the middle of a political crisis — its most severe in years by some counts, and one that is likely to have destabilizing outcomes.
Earlier this month, Imran Khan, the former cricket legend and self-styled leader of the Pakistani opposition, promised to lead a million Pakistanis straight into the heart of Islamabad on Independence Day (August 14). Khan leads Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), a political party that privileges the preservation of Pakistani national sovereignty and defending Pakistan’s unique national identity as a South Asian Muslim state. While Khan fell far short of organizing a million angry Pakistanis, he gathered enough to cause a stir in Islamabad. This Wednesday, his supporters breached the “red zone” at the core of the city, becoming an actual threat to important institutions including the Supreme Court, parliament, and embassies. Khan’s supporters are flanked by those of Tahrir ul-Qadri, a Cananda-based demagogue preacher. The top objective for these protesters is the resignation of Nawaz Sharif and his government who they claim came to power through election rigging in May 2013.
I won’t pretend to know how these protests will resolve themselves. Uncertainty looms large in Islamabad. Sharif’s government dispatched the Pakistani military to the capital in anticipation of Khan’s march on the city. Should widespread violence erupt between Khan’s supporters and the military, Sharif will undoubtedly inspire nationwide rage. Rage of the sort that Pervez Musharraf witnessed in 2007 when protests sprang up against his rule across the country. Alternatively, PTI and the government appear to be on the cusp of entering into negotiations (although PTI’s precondition for negotiating is an assurance from Sharif that he will step down). The crisis is further complication by notices from the Supreme Court of Pakistan prohibiting Khan and his supporters from “illegal and unlawful trespassing of prohibited zones” in Islamabad.
This crisis will have important reverberations for civilian governance in Pakistan, but more importantly it will almost certainly strengthen the position of the military in national politics. Nawaz Sharif has given the military plenty of reason to dislike him, and it is well established that Sharif has a deep skepticism of the Pakistani military. One can’t blame him considering his experience in 1999 when he was ousted in a coup d’etat spearheaded by then-Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Pervez Musharraf. Sharif’s government further brought a treason prosecution against Musharraf last fall, angering many in the military who remained sympathetic to Musharraf. Finally, Sharif’s plans for cracking down on the Taliban and rapprochement with India and Afghanistan are anathema for many in the Pakistan military and intelligence communities, including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
While the Pakistan military certainly has the motive to take advantage of the current political crisis, its reputation has also been transformed in recent years. The lowest point for the Pakistani military in recent years, particularly after Musharraf’s ouster and exile, was its inability to detect and prevent the United States’ unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abottabad compound. Over at Foreign Policy, Michael Kugelman describes the transformation of the Pakistan military’s reputation within Pakistan in some detail, noting the important effect of current counterinsurgency operations in North Waziristan. Kugelman additionally describes the current potential for Pakistan’s military to take dramatic action to resolve the crisis:
With Islamabad increasingly on the defensive, the military is gaining an upper hand. Consider Sharif’s decision last week to make the armed forces responsible for security of sensitive facilities in Islamabad during the protests. This can be interpreted either as a sop to the military or as an acknowledgment that the government can’t protect its own people — or itself. Additionally, Sharif’s Independence Day speech on Aug. 14, the first official day of the protests, was rife with praise for Pakistan’s military. That such praise came from a civilian leader as combative as Sharif is quite telling. Most significantly, on Aug. 19, as marchers entered the Red Zone, the government ceded full security of the area to the military. The government gave the military carte blanche to do what it so relishes: serve as the nation’s protector and savior.
One small solace might be that while Pakistan has had relatively politically adept men in the position of CoAS in the past, the incumbent, General Raheel Sharif, seems to have few political ambitions and is instead more of a battlefield tactician. Furthermore, the military’s current preoccupation with Operation Zarb-e-Azb means that an armed coup is unlikely. Historically, military coups in Pakistan have been precipitated by the preeminence of a particularly politically skilled CoAS — Ayub Khan, Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf certainly. The current Pakistani political landscape seems to lack such an individual.
Above all, the current political crisis will be a litmus test for the progress of civilian-led democracy in Pakistan. Imran Khan and Tahrir ul-Qadri’s challenge to the Sharif government can be resolved within the confines of Pakistan’s constitution and without military intervention or bloodshed. Despite the massive rift between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, the two must recognize the stakes for Pakistan’s democracy and work towards defusing the crisis before the military crosses the Rubicon, condemning Pakistan to further instability.