Pak’s civil-military conflict continues

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Pak’s civil-military conflict continues

Wednesday, 17 May 2023 | Ashok K Mehta

Pak’s civil-military conflict continues

An unstable neighbour is anathema but it would be wrong on our part to assume that a disturbed and divided Pakistan is better than a stable one

Pakistan’s poly-crises – political, economic and civil-military relations – continue unabated though it is nothing new – and an only spike in scale and intensity of multiple crises. For the single-most critical factor of national stability and cohesion – the Army – it possibly is more significant than the military defeat in 1971 when on his return home, Lt Gen AAK Niazi was made to sit on a donkey and paraded through his village. Or the taking out of Osama bin Laden in 2011 from under the very nose of the Army. For over two years now, the Army has been saying that it has no political role although historically it is deeply involved in propping up prime ministers – Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan to name two.

The Deep State is a grand trinity of Army, ISI and jihadi Tanzeems. Current COAS, Gen Asif Munir is former DG ISI appointed by outgoing COAS, Gen Bajwa over PM Imran Khan’s choice of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Khan has called out Bajwa and Maj Gen Faisal Naseer as his would-be assassins. Given that the Army has managed to call the shots without direct rule, it is unlikely to declare martial law. Last Saturday DG ISPR Maj Gen Ahmad Choudhary announced: “There is no question of imposing martial law”. After which Khan, rescued by courts, tore into COAS and DG ISPR. More on this later.

The likely internal divisions in the Army among nine Corps Commanders have to be fixed and any popular unrest over the future arrest of Khan has to be brought under control with a soft hand. The Army is the ultimate custodian of Pak’s core values and ‘atomi taakat’, its nuclear crown jewels. At present the People’s Movement for Democracy – all political parties led by PML Nawaz, brother Shahbaz Sharif along with the Establishment are opposed by Khan’s PTI and a divided Supreme Court. National elections are to be held in October.

Khan wants them held soonest as his party is expected to sweep them. The establishment wants elections minus Khan (in jail) to fix the outcome. For Khan to be put back in jail the process has to be transparent and legal as the courts indicated last week when they provided Khan with a reprieve till 15 May and bail for two weeks. This bit is not clear as reports suggest that Islamabad High Court gave him blanket relief in 145 cases against him.

Khan returned home in Zaman Park Lahore and a national broadcast blamed Gen Munir for his ‘abduction’ and tore into DGISPR. He asked his supporters to stage freedom protests on the weekend near their towns and villages. Hundreds of corruption cases have been levelled against him and the ball now is in the government’s court -how to react to wholesale relief against 145 cases. The prolonged crisis had led to people storming military installations including Mianwali Air Base, destroying the Chagai monument, the symbol of Pakistan’s nuclear power and Lahore Corps Commander’s residence. Some reports indicate Corps Commander has been removed.

These crises come atop Pakistan’s worst economic situation when the IMF's 25th loan – this time of USD 5bn -- is on hold prompted by the US. Despite friends with deep pockets in Saudi Arabia, UAE and China, there is a near atta famine across Pakistan, inflation shooting to 47 per cent and the dollar at an all-time high of Rs 300. That’s why no one wants Pakistan to become a nuclear Somalia. Some five years ago, when I was in Tel Aviv for a counter-terrorism conference, we were taken deep into the desert to witness Iron Dome air defence firings. A senior IDF officer connected with Mossad confided that US and Israeli Special Forces have rehearsed contingency plans in these deserts to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s recent leaked pivot to China paper has only confirmed Pakistan-China iron-clad relations. Beijing is silent over Khan’s arrest as it regards the military as the touchstone for internal stability. How the brutal assaults by Khan supporters on its institutional symbols will affect Beijing’s confidence in the military, one will not know. As for India Pakistan has remained a troubling neighbour with the 2003 cease-fire renewed in February 2022. The revocation of Article 370 by India will never be accepted by Pakistan as Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s recent interview to an Indian TV channel during his SCO visit reveals. Two deadly terrorist attacks in Jammu over three weeks and probably more in store during the G20 tourism ministers’ meet in Srinagar later this month have revived hostility in bilateral relations.

Pakistan’s military has scores to settle with India over 1971 and Balakot. It has one confirmed ally, China, in this mission. India cannot wish away an internationally recognized UN-registered dispute over Kashmir over which there are also bilateral agreements at Simla and Lahore. It's time for India to wake up and smell the coffee. Meanwhile, it will be wrong on the part of many Indians to assume that a disturbed/divided/disintegrated Pakistan is better than a stable Pakistan.

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal)

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