The civilian political order headed by elected federal and provincial governments appears to be in decline because of poor delivery of essential services to the people and its inability to deal effectively with internal security affairs. It has yielded a large space during 2014-15 to the military for countering terrorism, coping with violence in Karachi and dealing with the external threat because of Indian aggression on the Line of Control and the Working Boundary.
The problems of the civilian federal government began with its policy of dragging on negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban in 2013-14 even when the Taliban were not willing to engage in direct dialogue on any issue. The Taliban leadership used this time to relocate from its original hideouts in North Waziristan and traditional locations in mainland Pakistan. On June 15, 2014, the military decided unilaterally to start an operation in North Waziristan. The federal government decided to go along with it. The success of the security operation in North Waziristan and the significant decline in violence in mainland Pakistan during the last 15 months has improved the image of the military in general.
Another important development that has boosted the image of the military is the improved security situation in Karachi. It was in September 2013 that the Rangers were asked to launch a comprehensive operation in Karachi to eliminate terrorism, violence, extortion and other criminal activities. By now, the role of the Rangers has much expanded to make them autonomous of the provincial government of Sindh.
Another factor that has contributed to the decline of the civilian democratic system is the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar, on December 16, 2015 and the subsequent civil-military decision to go after violent groups with full force. The military joined with the civilian authorities to devise a new strategy to cope with the Pakistani Taliban. It was on the armed forces’ initiative that military courts were established under a constitutional amendment. The apex committees were established at the federal and provincial levels to push the civilian authorities to be more active in implementing the National Action Plan (NAP). It may be pointed out that the 20 committees established by the federal government to implement the NAP did not function beyond holding one or two meetings under the interior minister. It was due to this lack of interest on the part of the federal government that the apex committees were introduced and which have pushed the federal and provincial cabinets to the background.
Meanwhile, the Rangers expanded their domain in Karachi by focusing on the financiers and sponsors of terrorism and violence. It was also decided that federal institutions would be used for curbing corruption in the government on the assumption that some of these monetary gains also made their way to terrorism. These issues were discussed in the Sindh apex committee and the Federal-level apex committee and the prime minister was on board for the extended scope of action by the Rangers and other federal institutions, such as NAB and the FIA in Karachi. Once equipped with the blessings of the apex committees, the Rangers, under the guidance of the military, went ahead for tough action without seeking the specific approval of the chief minister of Sindh for each and every action.
The freedom of action of the Rangers in Karachi hit the MQM quite hard, whose activists were arrested on charges of terrorism and related crimes. Later, the PPP expressed strong anger at the arrest of some its key people for corruption or terrorism related charges.
This caused in-fighting among the political parties, i.e., the MQM versus the PML-N, and the PPP versus the PML-N, thus weakening the civilian system. The problem is that the prime minister cannot offer much to the MQM to save them from the wrath of the Rangers. The same is the case when it comes to the grievances of the PPP. This means that the prime minister’s political position will be weakened if these two political parties decide to openly oppose him.
The PPP is pursuing a two-pronged strategy of asking the prime minister that as the chief executive of the country, he should take the lead in controlling the role of security agencies and federal institutions and that he should accommodate the grievances of the political parties. On the other hand, the PPP is asking the military not to pursue the anti-corruption and antiterrorism drive in a selective manner. They want such actions to be extended to Punjab so that the PML-N and its beneficiaries should also face the accountability process.
Facing pressures from the MQM and the PPP, the prime minister has decided to stand with the military for the currently expanded security operation. If he accommodates these two political parties, he runs the risk of undermining his apparently smooth interaction with the armed forces. However, if the military takes the initiative in pursuing sectarian and other hardline Islamic groups in Punjab and NAB decides to take up corruption related issues in Punjab, the Nawaz-military relations can run into serious trouble.
The next four to six weeks will determine the direction of civilian politics and Nawaz-military relations. If the in-fighting amongst the political forces escalates, Nawaz Sharif’s position will be weakened vis-à-vis the military. The situation can become more problematic if the London-based issues diminish the role of the MQM chief.
However, all this will not necessarily benefit the military. The unravelling of the civilian system will adversely affect the ongoing campaign against terrorism and related evils. The military cannot by itself compensate for civilian disarray. Some political and civilian arrangements will be needed in any case. Pakistan is increasingly becoming ungovernable from one point or by one authority. Therefore, the present or a reshuffled civilian order is needed to deal with multiple problems of political participation and socio-economic justice that are over and above the external and internal threats currently faced by Pakistan. A civil-military hybrid may work better even if the greater initiative stays with the military.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2015.