Pakistan’s Army Remilitarizes Politics

An inexperienced government leaves a vacuum for the generals to enter

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

In Pakistan, events seem to be powerfully rekindling the Army’s hopes for a more direct role in politics, which has been blocked to them since 2010 when the 18th amendment, designed to limit the sweeping powers of former military presidents, was passed and the possibility of direct military coups was impressive if not fully effectively blocked.

In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the coronavirus crisis, which has so far affected 20,9412 people and taken the lives of at least 536, has accelerated the increasing militarisation of politics –a  process that has silently but quite visibly been going on ever since July 2018 when the Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) headed by Imran Khan won national elections, supposedly with the military establishment’s support.

Backed by the military, which has perpetrated four coups since independence in 1947, the government has increasingly started appointing retired military officials on key civilian and bureaucratic posts.  They are filling a   vacuum left by a struggling government headed by Khan that has proven too inexperienced to govern. The public health system is in disarray and unable to handle the crisis and the rest of the government appears unable to cope with a long list of emergencies.

It is in accordance with these problems that the Army is also leading the fight against the coronavirus. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by a current high Army official, is the leading authority managing the crisis.

In this context, the appointment of the retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, who previously headed the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), as the prime minister’s ‘special information assistant,’ has sparked a new debate about possible ‘soft’ and ‘shadow’ martial law.

The post is usually seen as the key to shaping the national narrative on key issues including defense and foreign relations. In the present context, it seems that the post will mainly be used to not only shape the narrative on the 18th amendment –particularly with a view to amending clauses that have jeopardized the military’s interest –but also to maintain and justify the military’s high defense spending, which is coming under increasing criticism from progressive political groups and parties alike due to the obvious shortage of hospitals and other health facilities in the country and across all provinces to control the virus.

The 18th amendment is of special importance for the generals because it was designed to effectively, if not permanently, block the way for direct military coups. The intention was obviously to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan and prevent both military takeovers and Pakistan’s descent into authoritarianism and chaos.

Indeed, the history of previous military misrule shows how Pakistan has suffered politically, economically, and sociologically. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, who ruled Pakistan from 1958 to 1969, sowed the seeds of Pakistan’s territorial disintegration in 1971. East Pakistan rebelled to become Bangladesh even though Ayub’s era was and still is largely seen as the “golden decade” of development and industrialization. During Zia-ul-Haq’s period, which is otherwise known as Pakistan’s most authoritarian, Pakistan took a plunge into the ‘Afghan jihad’ and thus sowed the seeds of Islamist extremism that, until 2018, continued to haunt Pakistan. Musharraf’s era saw the seeds of Islamist extremism growing into a full tree with the killing of thousands of innocent people and, if official figures are to be believed, costing more than US$50 billion.

The 18th amendment, which was passed only two years after Musharraf’s exit from military rule, decreed that military takeovers would not only be treated as high treason, as always the case since the implementation of the 1973 constitution, but that no court of the country would have the authority to declare military government as legitimate. The latter clause was particularly inserted into Article 6 of the constitution in view of the historical fact that the Supreme Court of Pakistan did provide in the early 2000s a legitimate cover to not only rule but also to amend the constitution as and when deemed fit.

Whereas the military’s proclivity for direct rule remains strong, as many politicians asserted strongly in interviews, the rewritten Article 6 and the fact that a coup would not have institutional support have effectively forced the military to find ways and means of indirect, soft and shadow rule – a process that has gained pace ever since the coming into power of the PTI.

Indeed, as many politicians from the opposition have told Asia Sentinel, the military establishment supported the PTI during the 2018 elections because of a belief it could use this weak government to only to pave the way for their gradual inclusion in the government –and protect their financial interests –but also ultimately to reverse the 18th amendment.

Whereas Article 6 is surely a problem for the military establishment, the 18th amendment has also dampened the military’s ability to use the national exchequer as and how it has deemed fit. Before the 18th amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission award, which also was implemented in 2010, the federal government controlled about 80 percent of the national kitty. The 7th NFC award brought a fundamental change, giving about 58 percent of the financial resources to the provinces, thus reducing the federal government’s share by almost half.

The financial question remains supremely important for the military, sources say, and is again one reason why they continue to use the incumbent government to have their men on key posts.

In the Pakistani context, key bureaucratic posts are both the key to manipulating both the available resources and a way to protect cardinal interests. As it stands, despite the fact that Pakistan’s economy has drastically shrunk over the last two years, the military continues to get its due share.

In fact, soon after the outbreak of Covid-19, when the demand for cutting defense spending was rising, the government announced a supplementary grant of Rs 11.48 billion (US$72.3 million) for the China-Pakistan Security Force–South, Rs468.2 million to the Special Communication Organization and Rs 90.45 million for the Nuclear Regulatory Authority – all controlled by the military, strengthening the belief that democracy in Pakistan has already become too weak to prevent even soft martial law.