It was a year ago that a former Pakistani senator confided to me that the “country is at war with itself.” Bushra Gohar, a then-senator of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), was referring to the widening divide between the civilian government and the military establishment on issues ranging from the pro-Taliban policies to dispute resolution with neighbors and ties with the United States.
Pakistan’s war with itself is gradually becoming more visible with each passing day, particularly since the hastily-decided disqualification of the thrice-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif on charges of hiding assets, in this case a salary that he never received, in July this year.
Since then, the hawks in Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party seldom let an opportunity to express their angst go, using terms like “conspirators,” “secret hands,” and “invisible powers” to euphemistically reference the country’s powerful military establishment and intelligence services.
The party has also taken to including the top judiciary while continuing their complaints against the military. Opposition politicians, on the other hand, praise the army and the judges — giving an impression of an unseen war between the three powerful state institutions.
On October 2 during a court hearing where former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was appearing to face charges of corruption, Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister, did not mince words in expressing his anger when stopped by the Rangers paramilitary force from attending the court proceedings.
“There will be one law here and one government… two states cannot function within one state,” an enraged Iqbal told media outside the court. He went on to ask “is this a banana republic or a constitutional republic?” And state, “I cannot be a puppet interior minister.”
Iqbal’s October 2 comments resonated with those of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who delivered an angry speech in December 2011, saying “conspirators are planning to bring down the elected government but the people have the right to decide whether they want democracy or dictatorships.”
An otherwise soft-spoken Gilani was upset at rumors that his government was under threat after differences with the military generals in the aftermath of the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden close to the military garrison at Abbotabad by the United States.
“There can be no state within the state… no institution can say that it is not under the government.”, Gilani said. His statements were viewed as a finger pointed squarely at the army and intelligence services.
Hardly six months after his “state within state” remarks, Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in June 2012, which some Pakistani commentators termed as “judicial dictatorship” and punishment for Gilani’s remarks.
Since his election in May 2013, Nawaz Sharif continued trespassing the undeclared but nevertheless well-defined “no go” zones for civilian leadership, elected or otherwise, and tried to assert the civilian writ in areas that the country’s strong military leadership sees as its private domain.
Some of Sharif’s actions, seen in the military circles as a challenge, included his visit to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his statements supporting better trade ties with India and Afghanistan; his government’s move to get former military dictator Pervez Musharraf punished under the law for his “unconstitutional” steps; and his refusal to extend the service period of former chief of army staff Raheel Sharif.
The recent tensions in Islamabad is would seem to be between the top judiciary and the government led by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, but the pro-Sharif political leadership is also pointing accusing fingers at the country’s intelligence agencies and the military leadership without naming an individual or the specific institution.
The statements, mostly from Sharif side, are becoming more serious and stubborn. With each passing day the gap widens between the military and civilian leadership on key policy matters, be that the fight against militant groups, dispute resolution and trade with India and Afghanistan, or relations with the United States.
In a tit-for-tat response to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, which also disqualified him from leading the party, the party passed and signed into law the Election Act of 2017 on October 2 to enable the ousted prime minister to lead his party again. Sharif was elected president of the Muslim League unopposed the next day.
Addressing his party workers and leaders soon after his election as president of the Pakistan Muslim League party, Sharif said “we learned nothing from the fall of Dhaka,” an oft-repeated remark which refers to Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971. Pakistani politicians blame the military leadership for the debacle that led to the loss of what is now Bangladesh.
Political gimmicks apart, the civilian and military leadership also disagree over the country’s approach towards the various militant groups believed to be operating in Pakistan.
A candidate of the banned Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the second incarnation of the Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LeT), took part in a bi-election and ended up fourth in the contest where the wife of the ousted premier Nawaz Sharif was the lead candidate. Amjad Shuaib, a retired lieutenant general and a vocal supporter of the armed forces against the politicians, said during a television talk show last month that the military had presented a plan to mainstream the militant outfits but the civilian authorities (i.e. then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) had turned it down.
The banned JuD was launched into politics under the banner of Milli Muslim League (MML) with a nod from the security establishment despite opposition from civilian authorities. Of course, one of Nawaz Sharif’s points of discord with the security establishment was the policy of “good” and “bad” Taliban.
Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif, who is believed to be one of the closest confidantes of the ex-premier, termed Hafiz Saeed of the JuD a “liability,” a comment that infuriated many in the security circles. Saeed is wanted in India for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and also by the United States, carrying a bounty of $10 million.
Speaking at the Asia Society in New York last month, Asif said, “It is very easy to say that Pakistan is supporting Haqqanis and Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Tayeba. They are liabilities. I accept that they are liabilities.”
Although Pakistan has walked a long and tricky road since the last military coup d’état in October 1999, the country has yet to see or expect civilian supremacy in its true sense. Incompetence, corruption, patronage and dynastic politics with opportunistic approaches among political parties and their leadership are a few of the major hindrances in achieving the goal of real civilian supremacy.
“The military has a history of involvement in Pakistan [politics]. Their role [in politics] is not something new. Political interference is always there, but that does not mean the military is responsible for every wrong,” Senator Saleem Mandviwalla of the Pakistan People’s Party told me on October 3.
Ironically, it was not long ago when the People’s Party co-chairman and former president Asif Ali Zardari lashed out at the military establishment for their “interference” in political matters.
“If you do not stop, I will come out with a list of accused generals since Pakistan’s creation,” he said in the hard-hitting speech in June 2015.
Pakistan’s political temperature is reaching a high, with the warring sides the state’s key organs. These developments do not inspire an optimistic outlook for country still struggling to eliminate the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.