Pakistan caught in soft military coup

Pakistan caught in soft military coup

After a smooth transition of power for the first time in Pakistan’s history, there was a glimmer of hope that the powerful army would resist meddling in political affairs. However, the recent events leading to a soft military coup has destroyed such hopes.

On the 67th Independence Day of Pakistan, Imran Khan, a capricious leader heading the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), began his revolutionary protest march in the capital city of Islamabad making an apparently legitimate demand for a comprehensive probe in to alleged 2013 elections rigging.

On the same day, Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian resident Sufi cleric and leader of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), launched his protest demanding an independent inquiry in to police excesses against his followers in Lahore on the orders of Punjab Chief Minister and the Prime Minister’s brother Shahbaz Sharif.

Both leaders backed by thousands of protesters laid out a larger agenda for the protests calling for a democratic revolution that would dislodge the ruling Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) dispensation. It would also form an interim government to oversee a Constitutional overhaul.

Despite lack of support from other mainstream parties, the protests continued. The root cause for this inexplicable momentum to anti-government protests and its two-week sustenance lies in the fraying of relationship between the powerful army chief Raheel Sharif and the Nawaz Sharif government since March.

Frosty civil-military ties

The government handicapped itself by inviting the violent Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban), an organization believed to have stronger links with Al-Qaeda than with the Afghan Taliban leadership. It was supposed to reduce militant attacks in Punjab province, the largest in the country, and thus maintain popularity for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.

The army grudgingly accepted the government’s stance but with a caveat that if talks broke down, the military would use all means to flush out the militant group. The charade of peace talks continued for nearly a month during which the military forced a breakdown and launched an all-out assault in tribal areas.

The civil-military relationship grew colder when the government charged the former army chief and president General Musharraf with treason. Its rush to indict and avenge the general for the 1999 coup against Nawaz Sharif discomfited the army chief. After defying the army for a while, the civilian establishment allowed the General to leave the country.

Things turned worse in the wake of Geo TV’s prime anchor Hamid Mir’s assassination attempt. The government was again caught off guard as the media network, considered close to the ruling party, alleged the involvement of the army’s intelligence wing ISI in the assassination bid. After this open allegation on the fearsome intelligence apparatus, the media regulatory authority PEMRA began a clampdown on the TV network forced by the army.

The real agenda

Despite continuing economic problems, militant attacks and power cuts, the Nawaz Sharif government has kept the support of more than half the country’s population. In fact, the economy was stronger in June than during the same period in 2013, with credible improvement on the external front.

When the anti-government protesters numbering less than 20,000 began their sit-in, there were expectations that the government would tide over the crisis.

After two weeks, it seems the army used proxies to regain control over key security and foreign policy. That is, the elected civilian government will have no control over internal security and on ties with the United States, India and Afghanistan.

Given this psychological defeat, the government cannot be expected to carry on with the encouraging reforms it had initiated such as widening the tax net, privatizing public sector enterprises and open telecom auctions.

Pakistan has been a vortex of instability, and will continue to be with the army’s continued power.

About Author

Sundar Nathan

Sundar is currently a contributing analyst for IHS. Prior to that, Sundar was a project member at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He also worked at the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy where he helped launch a comprehensive study of urban governance in India. He has a Masters in International Public Policy from University College London.