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Who Leads Coups in Pakistan: The Military or the Establishment?

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The Pulse

Who Leads Coups in Pakistan: The Military or the Establishment?

A look at the last coup attempt in Pakistan, the “London Plan” of 2014.

Who Leads Coups in Pakistan: The Military or the Establishment?
Credit: Nawaz Sharif image via Asianet-Pakistan /

In the wake of Turkey’s failed coup, a relatively obscure movement called “Move on Pakistan” hung posters of country’s chief of army staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, urging the general to take over the government. In response, Ejaz Haider, a political analyst and talk show host, told the New York Times, “There’s no direct evidence of the involvement of the army and its intelligence agencies in the posters.” Having absolved the armed forces of likely culpability, Haider then added, “Past experience tells us that one or the other intelligence agency can quietly push certain disgruntled elements to start such campaigns in the physical and virtual worlds.”

Previously, Sharif diligently helped reconcile the Nawaz Sharif (no relation to the COAS) government and the opposition political parties—Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT)—after the 2014 long march and sit-in protests. After an agreement was reached between the parties, Mushahidullah Khan, a senator from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PMLN) and then the minister for climate change gave a blockbuster interview to the BBC claiming that former Director General (DG) Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt. General Zaheer-ul-Islam had wanted to use the protests to orchestrate a coup. According to Khan, the coup attempt involved only very influential and senior generals (including Zaheer), but not the COAS and the army “as an institution.”

According to the BBC’s summary of the interview:

“[T]his conspiracy came out in the open when the intelligence agency Intelligence Bureau (IB) recorded some of the audio tapes of General Zaheer-ul-Islam’s conversations in which he was directing some people how to spread chaos during the sit-ins and then occupy the Prime Minister House.…the PM played those audio tapes before the army chief on the eve of August 28, 2014….the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was shocked to hear the audio. He summoned Lt. Gen. Zaheer there and played the audio tape before him and asked if it was his voice or not. After Zaheer’s confession that it was his voice, [the] army chief told him to leave.”

Indeed, many Pakistani analysts and columnists have begun to view the army as a professional and organized institution distinct from what they call the “power-hungry establishment,” which is ready to exploit circumstances to its advantage. In an op-ed skillfully titled, “Democracy is under threat from the establishment, not from the military,” a bureaucrat turned rising politician, Adnan Randhawa, argues that the time has come to distinguish a cabal of Bonapartes from the brigade of professional soldiers who lay down their lives for the beloved motherland. In his words, (translated from Urdu), “The establishment has always tried hard to hide itself behind the military uniform. Take, for instance, the example of last year’s sit-ins. No doubt the establishment was behind them, but who foiled this conspiracy? When the protesters were impatiently rushing to storm the sacred premises of parliament and the prime minister house, the military was in control of these institutions. If the military and the establishment were on the same page,” Randhawa concludes, “there surely was no hindrance in the way of martial law. But the military sided with the democracy, not with the establishment.”

The military has categorically denied any involvement, material or otherwise, with the recent posters urging the COAS to take over and a criminal conspiracy case was instantly registered against the chief of the political party that hung the posters. However, it remains to be seen if Sharif’s civilian government, like Erdogan’s in Turkey, moves forward or is successful enough to uncover a broad net of conspirators, abettors, and financiers facilitating the government’s potential wrap up. Against this backdrop, however, it’s pertinent to note that the chief of “Move on Pakistan,” Mian Kamran, has been arrested “from a guest house located near Aabpara”—the secretariat of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is speculated to have run the show.

Nonetheless, this is neither the first time, nor probably the last, that the agency has come under fire. It faced similar charges in 2014 when, according to critics, it deviously facilitated a rare joint long march and sit-ins in Islamabad. The alleged aim: to dethrone Nawaz Sharif or at least force him to “share space” with the military—an increasingly ironic euphemism for civilians unconditionally surrendering strategic and foreign policies to the military while simultaneously providing the constitutional cover of civilian leadership.

Ostensibly led by PTI and PAT and touted as the “Azadi (freedom) March” and “Inqilab (revolution) March” respectively, the unusual sit-ins in Islamabad alleged that the 2013 parliamentary elections had been systematically rigged and demanded Prime Minister Sharif immediately resign. Although the cricket-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based incendiary cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the heads of PTI and PAT respectively, deny receiving any support from the military or ISI, it is widely believed that ISI was behind the paid protests in the capital.

The allegations were corroborated by PTI’s former head, Javed Hashmi, who on a popular private TV show confidently claimed that the sit-in was the idea of General Shuja Pasha. Similar insinuations have appeared international media, whereby the senior editors of Pakistan’s popular newspaper, The Express Tribune, were reportedly instructed by their CEO to provide favorable coverage of the protesting political parties in Islamabad and downplay the government’s version of events. According to Neha Ansari, who was on the Express Tribune editorial staff at the time, the Pakistani media houses, hers included, “received instructions from the military establishment to support the ‘dissenting’ leaders and their sit-ins.” In her estimation, “The military was using the media to add muscle and might to the anti-government movement in an attempt to cut Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif down to size”

However, as the crisis began to unfurl, a conspiracy theory popped up to claim that the “London Plan” that sought to destabilize Sharif’s government was solely authored by “two successive ISI Chiefs” — Pasha and Zaheer — and had nothing to do with the army as an institution.

According to details, the incumbent head of the ISI, Zaheer, had a “personal grudge” against Nawaz Sharif and wanted to pit the two Sharifs—Nawaz and Raheel—against each other. Once embroiled in the crisis, the speculation has it, Zaheer expected that Nawaz Shairf would accuse the COAS of orchestrating the sit-ins and try to fire him without a second thought. Upon learning the government decision, the general would then stage a counter-coup to send the government packing. And that would settle the score of the ISI chief.

However, the alleged plan did not go as expected. The COAS, it is said, was averse to military coups and wanted democracy to reign. Hence, he came forward to reconcile the ruling PMLN and the protesting political parties through “politics, not force.” Ultimately, the sit-ins came to an end and the government of Nawaz Sharif survived the political whirlwind, at least until now.

However, a more nuanced understanding of the events reveals that nothing was as smooth or straightforward as it tends to appear. The political solution that allowed the survival of the government came with a price — and that price was nothing less ominous than rendering the prime minister only “ceremonial,” as Ayesha Siddiqa put it in her interview with the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, the military under General Sharif “weakened status during the political crisis to strike a deal in which he would leave strategic policy areas—including relations with the U.S., Afghanistan and India—to be controlled by the armed forces.” Meanwhile, as Mehreen Zahra-Malik observes for Reuters, that left the civilian government to “face public anger over internal problems such as a faltering economy and widespread power cuts.”

In addition the Journal reports, the “military… extracted a promise of freedom for Mr. [Pervez] Musharraf”—now an absconder wanted on treason charges for leading a coup against Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999. The retired general has served Pakistan as COAS and president and is alleged to have imposed emergencies twice in his tenure — first in 1999 and later in 2007 — to restrain the unamenable courts from challenging his questionable legitimacy.

As of today, nearly two years after the conclusion of the sit-ins, the vital issues of strategic importance and foreign affairs are being single-handedly run by the army, without civilian oversight and input. In a Senate committee meeting, Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) senator and former Presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar declared, “Foreign policy on Kashmir, India, Afghanistan, and nuclear assets is being formulated in GHQ [General Headquarters] instead of the Foreign Office.”

The military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence — and ruled indirectly for the rest of the time. “Even under civilian rule,” T.V. Paul notes in The Warrior State, “the army and its spy wing, the ISI never gave up their power over crucial national security and foreign policy matters, including the control of the atomic weapons that the country obtained in the 1980s.”

Such an undue penetration of the armed forces into civilian affairs unreservedly begs the inevitable question: is the military as an institution distinct from a cabal of few power-hungry generals — what advocates call the establishment? After all, it was the ISI alone and not the COAS or the army as an institution that orchestrated the 2014 long march and sit-ins. However, the fact that it was Raheel Sharif, the head of the army, not Zaheer, the head of ISI, who signed the deal to extract concessions from the rickety civilian government renders the distinction between the army and the establishment superfluous. Again, as Babar claims, it is the GHQ — although Aabpara is not excluded — that continues to shape and implement foreign and defense policies makes the so-called distinction of army-establishment decidedly dubious.

Moreover, unlike the establishment, the army claims to be an organized professional entity but it has not allowed either the courts or the parliament to take action against Zaheer or Pasha for their role in the 2014 protests, nor has the army itself instituted or started any inquiry — much less convictions and sentences for the perpetrators. Although Pasha later independently sought an inquiry to clear his name from involvement in the “London Plan” conspiracy meant to destabilize the civilian government, no such inquiry has taken place against him, neither by the civilian government nor by the military. This despite the fact that Hashmi was not alone in claiming Pasha instigated the sit-ins; Privatization Commission Chairman Mohammad Zubair and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif also alleged Pasha’s role.

According to Zubair, the brother of PTI’s Asad Umar, as paraphrased by The News, “when [I] was not in politics and was part of the corporate world, Gen. Pasha met some people of the corporate world and asked them to join the PTI. [I] was also one of the participants of that meeting…. the PTI sit-in was backed by Gen. Pasha.” Similarly, according to Khawaja Asif, both Pasha and Zaheer were responsible for the “London Plan.”

Although logically and legally, the civilian government is responsible for instituting the inquiry and punishing the architects of 2014 long march and sit-ins, that’s easier said than done. Some of the aides of Nawaz Sharif, for instance, had advised the prime minister to proceed against Zaheer-ul-Islam, but Sharif “exercised maximum restraint and remained patient.” The News reports that, “According to one source, the PM was of the view that his action against Gen. Zaheer might increase uncertainty to the advantage of those who wanted to dent the democratic and constitutional rule.”

Earlier, when then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched Operation Kargil in 1999 reportedly without consulting Prime Minister Sharif, the senior officers in the armed forces feared “a court martial or martial law.” Before a court martial could take place against Musharraf, he imposed martial law. Nonetheless, upon coming to power again in the 2013 parliamentary elections, Nawaz Sharif’s government constituted a special bench to try Musharraf under treason charges. As the Wall Street Journal report indicates, analysts believe the ongoing trial of Musharraf was one of the irritants that put Sharif on a collision course with the military, which is reported to have secured the freedom of their colleague as a quid-pro-quo to allow Sharif stay in power.

If it is proved, as the Journal report claims, that the military facilitated Musharraf’s exit from the country to avoid his arrest and subsequent execution, it is another blotch on the integrity of the army as a professional entity. The codes of conduct of organized and professional armies always call for court martials against those who defy the organization’s rules or the law of the land. It looks like Pakistan’s army cares for neither.

Ahsan Chaudhary holds masters degrees in law and international relations from universities in Pakistan and the United Kingdom.  He was a Commonwealth Scholar 2014-15 at the University of Bristol, U.K. He tweets at @ahsanych