With democracy maturing, coup not likely — General Jehangir Karamat (retd), former Pakistan Chief of Army Staff


Even with the advent of a democratically elected government with a clear mandate, the fear of military intervention at some stage continues to linger in Pakistan. In Lahore, Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief, The Tribune Group of Newspapers, speaks to General Jehangir Karamat, who preceded Gen Pervez Musharraf as army chief, to read the temperature within the barracks as well as outside.

‘With democracy maturing, coup not likely’
— General Jehangir Karamat (retd), former Pakistan Chief of Army Staff

Gen Jehangir karamatGen Jehangir Karamat (retd), 72, remained Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army from January 1996 to October 1998. He resigned as army chief following differences with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Having served as a professor of political science at the National Defence University in Islamabad, General Karamat is also an expert on defence and security matters, especially with his career in the military. In 2004, he was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, where he served from November 2004 to June 2006.

How do you view the outcome of these elections – what’s the big message?

The message that has gone out is that it was a performance-based response. They looked at the five-year performance, and then responded to that. Secondly, while there was great desire for drastic change, it has been tempered by a more rational outlook, which speaks for a great deal of maturity among the public — voting in a person who is experienced and is known. Another positive aspect is that a third political force, which is only going to become stronger, has emerged. Overall, it is a very positive development for democracy and the political environment in Pakistan.

What are the key challenges on the security front?

Security and economy are both in a precarious situation. Both are very important and interlinked in many ways. If you do not have security, you won’t have investment coming in. If the economy is strong, you can take care of many of the security aspects with greater capacity. The two will have to be tackled together as part of a comprehensive national security strategy, which we hope will emerge in the days ahead.

We have a situation on the western border that needs to be defused and stabilised. Obviously, one of the pillars of that is good bilateral relations with Afghanistan and India. The violence in Afghanistan has developed linkages in Pakistan also. So you have an internal security problem that translates into a human security problem also. An intersection of economy, security and foreign policy has to happen to bring about a comprehensive national security strategy.

What should be the new approach to dealing with Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, we had a problem with the US defining the end game, which brought in a lot of uncertainty. This uncertainty then led to sanctuaries on Afghan soil doing cross-border things in Pakistan, and vice versa. Now the focus is on the end game. From Pakistan’s point of view — and this is my opinion — we need to have a relationship with all stakeholders in Afghanistan — the Taliban, the Afghan government and the US. We should also support the process to make Afghanistan stable and capable of managing itself. That will give us enormous advantage in dealing with our own problems linked to Afghanistan, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistan) and other factions.

How should the Nawaz Sharif government deal with internal strife?

Thus far assertion of state power hasn’t really happened, and because of that we haven’t developed capacity for it. Overall, Pakistan needs to harden itself internally. There is no time to be soft on the inside. There should be no spaces that are either marginally governed or not governed. You need to make sure there is the rule of the law, credibility of government and governance.

There is talk of a multi-pronged approach being adopted to deal with domestic militancy.

They have taken steps, there has been a tremendous urge to take care of the grievances in Balochistan and handle that situation. There has been an effort to manage the situation in Karachi so that these linkages between ethnic and sectarian insurgent groups don’t spawn violence. There has been an effort to limit violence to the extent possible. That is one prong we need to move on.

The other is the political aspect, which all these problems have — like Balochistan and Karachi. There are the religious parties and other people wanting a space in the political system. We moved on that track in these elections. People linked to various groups in popular perception have been allowed to participate. They haven’t got elected, but the fact that religious parties and other people participated in the elections is important because you have now moved on the political track also.

The economic track has been weak because of the overall economic decline and the security situation that prevented us from moving quickly on this. This is a key aspect. Put the economy on centre stage. Orchestrate your foreign and security policies and other issues to have economic linkages, support and viability.

Sharif seems keen to build bridges with India again. Will he succeed?

Relations have hit a low with the LoC incidents and the tit-for-tat incidents in jail, and a lot of the inevitable rhetoric. Mr Sharif has a track record of promoting the economy. He is for free market, deregulation and infrastructure development. He can make positive moves on this aspect in the relationship with India.

There are a lot of other issues that cloud our relations. For example, Sir Creek is resolvable. If there is will and political decision making, you can resolve it. Siachen can be resolved without difficulty. The logical step after ceasefire on the LoC would have been demilitarisation — to avoid the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, which inevitably leads to some incidents.

Mr Sharif has at the outset sent signals that he wants to continue the process that started in 1999, with Mr Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore, which is a positive thing to do under the circumstances. More importantly, the fact that he is focusing on the bilateral relationship with India, which means trade, economy, foreign policy — the whole spectrum of things — the signs are good. But we have been through these good signs before and then stepped back. I hope we do not do that now. It is very important for both the countries. There are so many asymmetries developing between India and Pakistan. Reassurance from your side and a positive response to overtures Mr Sharif is making should go a long way in helping us towards a better relationship.

Bringing the 26/11 perpetrators to justice has been India’s theme song, but Pakistan isn’t listening. What prevents Pakistan from moving quickly on that?

From what I have read and heard from people who know about this, I believe there are some legal issues that need to be resolved before these people can be tackled. You cannot just be pressured into taking action without going through due process. There are lawyers on both sides who have been involved in this, may be a discussion between them would help. I wish this does not stay the ‘theme song’, and turns more into a learning experience. The need is for a joint investigative mechanism so that whenever there is an incident — whether on the LoC or a non-state actor does something in India or Pakistan, or an incident in jail — that mechanism should kick in immediately, and not allow the media to take over the situation, and then turn into a government response to the media situation.

The Indian media does report that Hafiz Sayeed, the mastermind of 26/11, is in Pakistan and free to move around. Why isn’t Pakistan taking action against him?

I believe there was some action taken, he was detained, investigated, and so were other people. But we would have to look at the exact interrogation, reports, etc, that took place. May be there is scope for legal minds to put their heads together on this.

On the other major issue, which is Kashmir, what do you think is the way forward? Is there any army perception that it is time to settle it now?

I think a bit of this has happened already. You have moved on trade, you’ve had a ceasefire in place for some time; you very quickly get into discussions whenever something happens. In a way you have already moved towards saying that relations could be normalised. Trade, economic issues, etc, could take over. Getting bogged down in an issue which is not being resolved means missing all the economic opportunities in this region — like energy flow from Central Asia or Iran — we both lose out on those. I don’t think there is resistance from the military to any of these things, but Pakistan’s basic stance on Kashmir remains unchanged. It is stated often enough — that this is the basis on which it has to be resolved. But then, a long time has passed, and perhaps more discussions are needed to relook at the problem, as happened during the Musharraf regime. Maybe a review of what happened then is needed, and then take up the process from there.

Nawaz Sharif says he wants to pick up the thread from 1999, leaving out the fact that there were many threads after that. Yet we always seem to take steps backward. What can be done to insulate the relations from such political vagaries?

On our side there is the question of ownership. When you talk of 1999, you want ownership of a process that you started and are now taking forward. You have to factor in 2004. You may repackage it so that ownership remains with you, and then move on. It is important that there is a more comprehensive and wholesome look at the entire process between India and Pakistan and not just condemning one segment because ‘so and so’ did it. I think once this happens we can have a process that is insulated from transient changes.

The second is the dialogue that started after the visit of then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was a very comprehensive dialogue. We have resumed it off and on. There are all these proposals for confidence building and hotlines. They all have their place. But one thing Pakistan has had on the table for long, that India does not look at seriously, is a strategic restraint regime between the two. That may help us plateau in some of the weapon development areas, which are extremely costly for both the countries. I know on your side there is a drift to a maritime strategy and a look at the Pacific, so you have to spend on acquiring that capacity. Indians also cite threats from China and sometimes say that for them the China and Pakistan threats are one. You have to cut through all that.

There will be an understanding here of India’s maritime threat and problems with China. But some Pakistan-specific policy studies in India, and similar studies on our side, could help in getting us to some kind of a restraint agreement. It is being worked out in Europe and there are models for it, so we don’t have to invent the wheel all over.

Nawaz Sharif also talks of setting up a Kargil commission in a move to absolve himself of the blame. How well will such a move go down with the Army?

That may be a difficult area. You had a Kargil commission in India immediately after the incident. I think that commission did a good job in terms of highlighting lapses and suggesting areas that needed to be strengthened. India has gained from that report. We could have done a similar thing and gained from it. But now reviving that without getting everybody on board and starting a process may not be wise. I think Kargil has been studied and examined within the Pakistan Army, and lessons have been learnt. Those just have to be harnessed and discussed with all the actors.

But Nawaz Sharif appears intent on pinning the blame on Musharraf?

I think going off on tangents and blaming individuals, being vindictive, looking at retribution, is going to be counter-productive. We have got to look at the present and move on to the future. There have been many changes in Pakistan since Kargil. There has been a democratically elected government for five years and another government has come. There are great hopes on the economic front too. So I think focus should be on these issues and not getting side-tracked. It could turn into an enormous distraction. You have to put the past behind and move on.

Sharif has already stated he believes in civilian supremacy and would ensure it. How will the army take it?

There is a change already in the last five years. The Army has consciously kept itself out of political decision-making and situations, which is a good sign. This is going to be Kayani’s legacy when he leaves — that he worked for better civil-military relations and for democracy in the country, and made a very positive contribution. It is already being said by everybody. Structures for civilian supremacy already exist. You have the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which is institutionalised. Everybody sits there; the minutes are recorded before decision-making. You have the Ministry of Defence, which handles the budget for the armed forces and other policy decisions pertaining to the forces. There is the Defence Council, which is a body chaired by the Defence Minister. I think if you work the system and use the institutions, you have everything to develop very good civil-military relations.

You said there is a change in the Army’s approach, what is that change?

The change in the army’s approach has been to completely stay out of the political arena and situations. Let the dynamics of situations play out and let the political institutions resolve things. The situation was grave in Balochistan and Karachi. But the military didn’t interfere in that. The political government did its best to handle it on its own. While an elected government should have institutional and structural strength of the military behind it to assist it, you shouldn’t have points of friction where the army holds back or waits before it gives everything. One thing that could help vastly is that an elected government should establish its credibility and retain that through good governance, management of the economy, internal security, etc. Once that credibility is there, there won’t be any reason for friction among the institutions.

Some experts say the army is no longer a government-in-waiting. Is it true?

Yes, in a way it is true because the complexity of the problems has increased vastly. There is also global abhorrence of a military imposing itself and shunting out democracy or elected governments. The proof of this is that we have been through very precarious situations like Swat, but the military never even considered doing anything to upset the democratic process. So I think there is a sea change.

However, whenever I met Indian colleagues and friends, they have the obsession that it is the military which calls the shots in Pakistan. Perhaps there is a history and it was true in the past. But during the past five years — and five years is not a short time — there has been a considerable change. Nawaz Sharif has been making very positive and definite statements and there will be a change. More focus should be on a political government.

It is not only India but other people also who say Pakistan does not have one power centre, and they do not know who to talk to. Democracy is all about resolving this image of Pakistan. The focus should be on the elected government, and it should be the main decision-maker.

The ISI is dubbed by many as a state within a state. Will the new government be able to manage the ISI?

I think it has already happened. The ISI is a great asset for Pakistan. It works under the Prime Minister and provides strategic intelligence for Pakistan. There have been brief periods in the past when the ISI was kept out of decision-making, and the government took all the decisions. Mr Sharif knows this. During the past five years, the ISI has again been kept out political affairs. But I think ISI inputs are very important, as are military inputs. That is why I tried to hint at a national security strategy that may bring everybody on board and lay a directive to everybody on how the political government wants them to operate and deliver. Of course, I believe the ISI’s role should be confined to intelligence, which will help all institutions, including the military and the ISI itself.

Is there chance of another coup by the military?

You had events triggering that in the past. I do not think that in the prevalent global situation and economic situation or with the host of problems facing the country, there is any chance of a military coup to succeed. For anybody it will be foolhardy to take such a step.

What if the political and economic situation deteriorates?

Actually, I am looking at the situation improving and moving up from a very low point, and not looking at some kind of a catastrophe. Of course, if such a catastrophe does strike, and national survival is at stake, then steps could be taken, but I don’t foresee any such situation. We have shown resilience through some very difficult times. There have been misunderstandings down the road, yet nobody was provoked into taking any such action. The past was another time. With the present environment, I don’t think it is an option at all.

Did Musharraf make a miscalculation by returning to Pakistan?

I think Musharraf took a very conscious decision to come back. He must have had a good idea of what he could face. I think what he wants to do is go through the process and get himself cleared of many of the allegations levelled against him.

Is the army upset that for the first time a former chief is being prosecuted and in some ways humiliated?

In the past too we have had military dictators subjected to criticism at the tail-end of their tenure. Our country still looks at every military intervention as a negative event. People who carried out those are subjected to criticism. In that sense the army has accepted criticism at the individual level. This time, of course, it is a legal process and the hope is that President Musharraf will go through the legal process and come out of it positively. There is no desire to intervene. Everybody is sorry that it happened, and it should not have happened. But now that it has, if it clears the air, it could help.