An invisible coup

By Zoon Ahmed Khan
Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

Pakistan Today Feature Analysis by Spearhead Research

Raheel-Sharif-Nawaz-Sharif29 August, 2014: Rumor had it that a ‘soft coup’ has taken place in Pakistan. What triggered the Washington Post’s fiery claim then was the ease with which the opposition brigade marched up to the capital creating an air of unease for the majority party Pakistan Muslim League, successfully pushing them into a position of relative compromise. While demands for more transparency and better accountability are anything but foreign to any democratic organism, in Pakistan’s delicate democratic reality even the basic right of protest can be misconstrued as the signs of something larger in the pipeline. As the PML-N takes its third shot at the center- both internal and external voices continue to debate how different the reality is from perception, to what degree if at all is the State determining the tune the civilian government must dance to. And as we enter the second year of this political tenure these rumors have anything but pacified- and for good reason.

Two years is enough time for any elected government to take charge of policy making and implementation. It is enough time to make a start by putting in place a competent and credible team that understands economic and security matters, their linkage – proceeding to methodically evolve a blueprint for action by correct prioritization. Two years however will fall short if time is wasted in taking a decision on the major security threats to the internal stability of the country, if the answer to the economic problems is a reliance on windfalls and if the critical importance of a civil-military relationship. Over these two years the civilian government has avoided the organic configuration of a mutually conducive alliance, either owing to diverging preferences ,the fear of seeming weak, lacking control, or losing their claim to the ‘throne’ yet a third time.

The reality is that on both provincial and federal levels credible and competent teams- geared towards timely execution are nowhere in sight. This is further aggravated by bad governance, and an inability to correctly prioritize major policy thrusts. The most recent incident to highlight this lag is the severe heat wave to have hit Karachi in June 2015. Past the tragic loss of over 1,000 lives – on one side we see swift mobilization of the Non-Government Sector and relief work agencies like Edhi Foundation and Pakistan Relief Foundation; or we see the Pakistan Army filling the vacuum by having already set up 29 relief camps. And the civilian government embroiled in a blame game between centre and province- and Government hospitals severely under-equipped on the other side. The decline in almost all the social indicators is a sad reflection on government response to human security and welfare. Yet it must be recognized that accurate steps were taken on the Yemen issue, that the relations with the US have registered noteworthy improvement, that a change has been made in the intent to forge a cooperative relationship with Afghanistan; and that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor can be a game changer for Pakistan- provided both Operation Zarb e Azb and implementation of the National Action Plan bring critically vital internal security.

True, the Army has been playing a visibly more significant role in Pakistan’s political and foreign policy matter- and also in domestic security matters. As was the case in November 2014, even today the general perception is maintained that a soft military coup of sorts has quietly taken place. However the raison d’être behind this perception is that political institutions have been reluctant as well as hesitant in establishing political ownership of major initiatives. This hesitation became more apparent with the launching and execution of Zarb e Azb, the changing relationship with Afghanistan and the Sind Rangers led operation in Karachi to rescue that city from the clutches of mafias and their armed gangs. It is the military that has assumed center stage and it is to the military that the nation is looking towards for deliverance. For once the sound of marching boots and the vision of men on horseback is not stirring fear, rather has instilled heightened expectations and hope. Pakistanis do not want a military coup- but they want timely execution, they want to see the military in a cleansing, tutorial and whip wielding role.

As we enter 2015, the security, economic and energy challenges confronting Pakistan have anything but assuaged. Despite a full throttle Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the terror infested FATA and North Waziristan, and despite having reported 90% success by November 2014 we saw by the massacre of 132 school children in December 2014 and the gunning down of 44 Agha Khanis in May 2015. Pakistanis have awakened to the gravity of the situation and are demanding that more needs to be done, more swiftly, and more effectively than the civilian governments are capable of. The military is being seen as the glue holding the country together, as the supportive force sustaining an amateur democracy, and the watchdog that will keep predators at bay. Completely lost in translation is the fact that the military is just one of the elements of national power and that it is one of the institutions under political control. This is because none of the structures available to the government at various tiers are being used to assert control – indicating that it is in fact the political government that is orchestrating state power and not the military. The unfortunate conclusion being drawn is that the government has voluntarily ceded critical space to the military either because this was the easier option or because it was being overwhelmed by the problems facing the country and had no other option. The politicians who should have been in the driving seat are being viewed as mouthpieces of the military- and that too not at the military’s diktat.

Within Pakistan there are voices calling for a roll back to the past- to carry out across the board accountability and for the military to return to the barracks. But such voices are weak, ineffectual and to a great degree irrelevant in a state of emergency. No one wants to wallow in the past and let the present take us into a state of oblivion. The majority wants, and needs the military to do far more. It would be prudent for all if the current civil-military relationship is seen as an arrangement suited for the present environment and a stage in the evolution of this relationship that will lead to an effective democracy. But this is, in the evolution of a strong democracy, a temporary phase. For this positive progression it is important that the weaknesses in the other institutions are addressed to the soonest and corrected. If some kind of soft invisible coup has indeed taken place then it has taken place with a tacit understanding between the civil-military leadership in the best interests of the country. Such coups can and should be transient but only if the political institution takes steps to become effective and assertive—this can only happen if political leadership has vision and the military leadership has no political ambitions.