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The Soft Coup in Pakistan

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • August 03, 2010

    Prime Minister Gilani granted another full tenure of three years to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff on 22 July 2010. In a nationally televised speech in Urdu that evening, Gilani paid glowing tributes to the Army Chief and said that the success in the army operations in Malakand, Swat and South Waziristan was achieved under the leadership of General Kayani who planned and implemented the policies for the elimination of terrorism. He also added that “this decision has been made in view of his active role against terrorism and I am confident that under the leadership of the Army Chief this war against terrorism will lead to its logical conclusion.”

    This decision did not come as a surprise. The speculation over Kayani’s extension was rife in the Pakistani media as the November 29 deadline of his retirement was approaching closer. Earlier it was speculated that he will get only a one year extension so as not to hurt the aspirations of other army generals who are awaiting promotions. But a three-year extension means General Kayani will stay in office up to November 2013 and outlast both Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari.

    In his speech Gilani went further and said, “I want to give a message to the nation that at this time, the prime minister, president, CJP and COAS are now in a secure position till 2013. They must now work within the ambit of Constitution.” What Prime Minister Gilani left unsaid was that Kayani’s extension was too critical for the survival of his government in the face of the restive opposition and the declining economic and security situation at home. Or conversely, if Kayani’s tenure would not have been extended, it would have posed critical challenges to the existence of his government. Would it have resulted in a coup if Kayani’s term had not been extended? Was there no other General available to lead the army at this moment?

    The daily Dawn in its editorial captured it well: “The public does not know yet, perhaps it never will, if the decision was a total capitulation or the result of a quid pro quo.”1

    Curiously enough, Gilani also referred to ‘security’ of the Chief Justice’s tenure in his statement. Was it a signal to the CJ that he did not any longer face a threat from either his government or the Army? Gilani kept the door open for more such surprises in future when he said that for the sake of “consistency and continuity” in the ongoing war on terror, “we have already given extension to the ISI director general and some other generals and may do so in future as well.”

    Ever since Musharraf’s fortunes plummeted, Kayani’s stars have been on the rise. Kayani has quietly but firmly carved out his niche in the emerging political system of Pakistan ever since he was chosen to lead the Pakistan army in November 2007. He stayed neutral in the post-election politics that forced Musharraf to resign. Later, he insulated himself successfully from the tussle between Zardari government and the Chief Justice and earned respect from both.

    He assumed centre-stage during the Pak-US strategic dialogue in early 2010 and led the process of collating the ‘wish list’ from the Pakistani side. In fact, he called all federal secretaries to the GHQ to brief him on Pakistan’s needs which could be presented to the US government during the first strategic dialogue in Washington. Such is the stature of the Pakistani army that even if the delegation was led by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, General Kayani, the US papers wrote, was the star attraction of the delegation.

    Kayani also demonstrated his willingness to oblige the Americans by his operations in Swat and FATA. His hobnobbing with Taliban and his much-touted secret dealings with Karzai for reconciliation with Taliban might have provoked the ire of the Americans. However, the Americans would blame Karzai more than Kayani for keeping the US out of the loop.

    The Americans all along knew that the only institution that mattered for them in Pakistan was the army. They have consistently maintained their links with the Pakistani army without bothering too much about its implications for the ongoing democratic transition in Pakistan. Earlier too, the American commitment to democracy sub-served their strategic interests in the region. The US contribution to dominance of the army in Pakistani politics has not received the attention it deserves. In the case of Kayani’s extension, which resolved beyond doubt the primacy of army in the evolving system, the American nod may have played a crucial role. Observers in Islamabad point out that the soft and invisible coup in Islamabad could not have been there without tacit American blessings.

    Kayani’s extension puts him in the driver’s seat for various reasons. During his second, and possibly last tenure (if he does not step in, invoking the ‘doctrine of necessity’), he will be less amenable to pressures from the civilian government. He has already expressed his views on India, Afghanistan and the neighbourhood and will continue with his search for parity with India at one level and strategic depth in Afghanistan on the other. He may get Pasha’s tenure (his trusted lieutenant) extended to coincide with his own. Last but not the least, he will play a crucial role in the next elections in early 2013.

    This is not however the first time that the term of a serving Army Chief has been extended in Pakistan. Other Generals who had enjoyed extended tenures as Army Chiefs were Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf, who were dictators and extended their tenures by themselves. In this case, however, Kayani’s term was extended by a democratically elected government. The only other General who was offered a similar extension by a civilian government (headed by Benazir Bhutto) was Wahid Kakar, which he had graciously refused.

    Ironically, the very government which sought to the reestablish supremacy of the civilian government in Pakistan and brought in the 18th amendment to this effect has demonstrated its weaknesses vis-à-vis the military.

    Moreover, Kayani’s extension can no way be termed as purely an internal one. Pakistani vernacular Urdu media has argued that there were many external actors who played their roles behind the scenes. One said that China was impressed with Kayani’s military leadership because of burgeoning military ties between the two countries and requested an extension of his term when President Zardari recently visited China (Daily Khabrain, 23 July 2010). Yet another report in the same paper suggested that the Americans as well as the British did not want any change in the Pakistani military leadership in view of the impending withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan.

    Since the extension was announced against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan, the Pakistani media (especially the urdu language newspapers) argued that the US had lobbied for Kayani’s extension. Columnist Sarfaraz Syed in Ausaf (Urdu daily) observed that “this extension could have been better, had it happened before US secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit.”2 Another columnist Abbas Mehkari presented a counter argument in the daily Jang (Urdu daily) that those who were arguing that the decision was taken under American pressure, ignored “the professional capabilities (of Kayani) and forget that Pakistan is fighting a war which is extremely complex.”3 The only people critical of the extension were from Jamaat-i-Islami, the party fiercely opposed to the Zardari government.

    These debates apart, the political situation within Pakistan is likely to remain unstable, even after Kayani’s extension. The PML-N and the religious parties seem to be preparing themselves to take on the Zaradri government over various issues ranging from the declining economic situation to the situation in Afghanistan, Balochistan and FATA. Any political instability will strengthen the hands of the army further. The final decision to allow democracy a chance will remain in the hands of the army. As long as the civilian government toes the army’s line on foreign policy and security issues, and there is relative peace on the political front, Kayani’s Army may not usurp power. However, it will continue to determine Pakistan’s approach towards India.

    Known for his hardline stance vis-à-vis India, Kayani is likely to take every possible measure to isolate India in Afghanistan and constrain its activities there. It is also quite probable that there will be an effort to intensify the level of insurgency in Kashmir and other areas within India. As the situation will turn in Pakistan’s favour in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army may seek to divert the attention of the jihadis towards Kashmir, to take advantage of the political turmoil in the valley.

    In this context, India has to prepare itself for the consequences of an unstable Pakistan headed by a weak civilian government, effectively controlled by the army. Even after the 18th amendment and restoration of civilian government in Pakistan, the army is likely to remain strong as ever. Hence, talking merely to the civilian dispensation will not help. The military of Pakistan has to be part of any creative framework for dialogue in future.

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