The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistani Opposition’s Criticism of the Military Continues

Pakistan Democratic Movement leader Fazlur Rehman’s potshot at the army shows the opposition remains emboldened.

Pakistani Opposition’s Criticism of the Military Continues
Credit: Flickr/openDemocracy

The row between Pakistan’s government and opposition parties has taken a new course: debating whether Pakistani forces can fight its enemies for 24 hours or more.

Earlier this week, the head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUIF), Maulana Fazlur Reh­man, in a statement said Pakistan’s forces “are not capable of fighting for 24 hours.”

Rehman further said that Pakistan was pushing for reconciliation with India because it couldn’t fight the country due to the weak economy. He also criticized the chief of the army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, for reportedly holding a secret meeting with several journalists.

Condemning Rehman’s speech as an insult to dead soldiers, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said “attacking the national institutions for political reasons is highly reprehensible.”

“It is better for the Maulana not to cast such unfounded doubts on the matters of national interest only to satisfy his political ego,” Fawad said.

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“Where was the Maulana when Pakistan had responded to the Indian aggression on February 27, 2019?” he questioned in an apparent reference to the downing of an Indian aircraft by Pakistan. Criticizing the opposition parties’ alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), Fawad added that any movement that was ever led by Rehman couldn’t “fight for even 12 hours.”

Rehman’s latest attack on the Pakistani military comes after confrontation between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and other parties in the PDM deepened over the question of resignation from the assemblies and a long march against the government. Rehman’s JUIF and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) have been on loggerheads with the PPP over the latter’s apparent conciliatory approach toward the military establishment. Earlier this month, Rehman, who is also the PDM’s head, virtually expelled the PPP from the group, accusing it of making a deal with the military.

Last year, the PDM accused the army chief of facilitating the removal of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and meddling in politics to bring Imran Khan to power. “You, Mr. Qamar Bajwa, forced our fully functioning government out of power and sacrificed the country and the nation at the altar of your ambitions,” Sharif said last year.

However, the PDM has gradually lost steam and public support for its anti-military campaign. Its internal divisions have only complicated the issue. The latest statement from Rehman in a way represents his frustration over the PDM’s inability to force the current government out of power.

Furthermore, it also shows that the last few months’ attacks on the military may have emboldened the opposition to an extent that it doesn’t feel any hesitation when it comes to commenting on the institution’s ability and capacity to fight.

To an extent, much of what the opposition has been saying is true: Pakistan’s powerful military has maneuvered the domestic politics very successfully for decades, enabling some politicians to take lead roles while sidelining others. Currently, almost all leaders of the PDM, including Rehman, have at some point played the role of accomplice to the security establishment. The current government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is also considered a beneficiary of this decades-long arrangements.

However, what the national security establishment has not been successful at is facing off foreign enemies effectively. There are many examples, including the separation of the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from the rest of Pakistan in 1971, and several other territorial issues with India, including the issue of Kashmir.

What is perhaps different this time around is that someone from Punjab has spoken against the national security establishment – something which the military is not accustomed to. It is perhaps one of the reasons that the military has remained silent for months, leaving the government to do the job of defending it.

The PTI government on its part has responded in the only way known to political parties in power: associating any criticism of the military’s leadership with disrespect to the sacrifices that soldiers have made to keep the country safe.

The opposition’s movement to bring down the government may have faltered but its crusade to keep hitting the military remains alive.  Commenting on the opposition’s attack on the military leadership, Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military, said, “It’s not going to be an easy run for the opposition.”

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“This is a longer-term battle that will likely drag on for months. Much will depend on how cohesive the opposition is in consistently striking at the hybrid regime,” Siddiqa added.