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EFSAS Commentary

New weapons of Pakistani Military Establishment ahead of Elections: Judicial Coup & Mainstreaming of Terrorists


An accountability court in Pakistan on 6 July sentenced deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), to ten years in prison for owning assets beyond his known sources of income. His daughter and political heir apparent Maryam Nawaz was also sentenced to seven years and his son-in-law retired Captain Muhammad Safdar to a year. The expectation amongst observers was that Sharif and Maryam, who are presently in the United Kingdom (UK) attending to Sharif’s ailing wife, would choose the soft approach in the face of the all-out attack against them by Pakistan’s military establishment and remain back in the UK. That would have been the decision that the establishment anticipated and preferred. Sharif, unpredictable and with little to lose, took the defiant decision to return to Pakistan on 13 July, where immediate arrest awaits him. Maryam in a recent statement made it abundantly clear that she and her father were not going to cave in to the establishment and were prepared for the big fight. She stated: “We will address our workers after leaving the airport. It is time to end the war that has been going on for 70 years. It’s no longer the 1970s or 1980s when you could dictate everyone. Allah knows best about our return”

The 2013 general elections in Pakistan were an aberration as they were the first instance in the country’s 66-year history of a democratically elected government handing over power to another. All the earlier elected governments, whose reigns were interspersed with coups and long spells of military rule, had been overthrown mid-tenure by the domineering military establishment. Sharif, who himself had been booted out of the position of Prime Minister on two previous occasions, in 1993 and 1999, stormed back into power in 2013 defeating his main rival parties - incumbent Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) by a huge margin. Soon after this electoral victory Sharif threw down the gauntlet to the establishment, his erstwhile backers till General Pervez Musharraf made a mockery of Sharif’s sizeable majority in the National Assembly by unceremoniously overthrowing him in a military coup in 1999. Sharif avouched in 2013, that “civilian supremacy over the military is a must”, adding that “the Prime Minister is the boss, not the army chief. This is what the constitution says. We all have to live within the four walls of the constitution”. He followed this up in 2016 with a statement to the media that exposed and highlighted the military establishment’s robust resistance to all attempts by the civilian government to rein in the various terrorist groups created by the establishment that operated with impunity against Pakistan’s neighbours from Pakistani soil. Sharif underscored that this was leading to increasing international isolation of the country. In May this year in an interview with the ‘Dawn’ daily, Sharif directly accused the military establishment of perpetrating the horrendous Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 and of stalling the trial of the accused Pakistani terrorists responsible for the attacks for over ten long years. 

To the military establishment, habituated over the last seven decades to most democratic leaders meekly towing their line on account of genuine fears of reprisal by the establishment for any perceived transgression into their turf, Sharif had emerged as a poisonous thorn that merited urgent clipping. The pressing hurry was on account of the fast approaching general elections of 25 July for which Sharif’s party appeared to be the front-runner. However, the climate, both within Pakistan and internationally, had over the years become increasingly intolerant of gun-toting uniformed men violently usurping power. A new strategy needed to be evolved in which at least overtly the establishment could shield itself from direct involvement. The pliant judiciary, equally petrified of the wrath of the military and with one eye on the gains it could derive by collaborating with it, proved to be the perfect tool. The judiciary provided the end-result desired by the establishment without the latter having to get its hands dirty. 

In what has been widely termed as a judicial coup, Pakistan’s Supreme Court in July 2017, in a case involving disclosures in the Panama Papers of property owned by the Sharif family in the UK, disqualified Sharif from holding any public office. This resulting in Sharif being toppled from the post of Prime Minister. Instead of a legal trial as would be warranted in a corruption case, the Supreme Court formed a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to investigate the alleged financial misappropriation by Sharif and his family. The JIT included representatives of Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence, integral components of the military establishment. Rather than proven corruption, the Supreme Court relied on Articles 62 and 63 that had been inducted into Pakistan’s constitution by General Zia ul Haq when he held power through a military coup in the 1980s with the express intention of using them against politicians who proved difficult to handle. The Articles require politicians to be ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’, i.e. truthful and trustworthy. Ironically, General Zia ul Haq was the political mentor of Sharif. 

The removal of Sharif through these Articles has set a dangerous precedent. PTI leader Imran Khan, who is the current blue-eyed boy of the establishment and is receiving its patronage and backing just as Sharif did in the 1980s and 1990s, could find out the hard way if he comes into power that hobnobbing with the deceitful and entirely self-serving establishment could prove to be a double-edged sword should he disagree with it or ever cross the extremely narrow red line that the establishment invariably draws for politicians that it promotes as its stooges. 

Sharif may, indeed, have amassed wealth during his various terms in office, especially during the period that he enjoyed the confidence and backing of the establishment. Corruption, which is widespread in Pakistan, is by itself not an issue that the establishment takes umbrage to. After all, the establishment controls about 70% of the country’s budget with little accountability. No army general has ever been hauled up for financial or political corruption. The problem arises only when politicians choose to confront the hegemony of the establishment. Equally pertinent is the differential treatment meted out to politicians and members of the establishment and its supporters who are guilty of far graver crimes. General Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and imprisoned the judges of the Supreme Court. He also allegedly transformed his financial situation for the better during his nearly decade-long rule. Despite the scope and magnitude of crimes committed by Musharraf, the establishment has protected him against all odds. 

Sharif’s decision to return to Pakistan with the stated purpose of ending the 70-year old dominance of the establishment is a well thought out strategic move. In addition to diverting attention from the corruption charges against him, his return would also enable him to capitalize on the victim card fully. When imprisoned, Sharif and Maryam would stake a claim to be the mascots of resistance to the establishment. An electoral victory for the PML-N has the potential to enable Sharif’s legal and political rehabilitation. The prospect of him obtaining bail from a higher judicial authority would be more realistic with the PML-N in power. The establishment is well aware of this, and fears that the presently wounded Sharif may well recover to bounce back and become a major threat to the establishment’s supremacy. 

Sharif’s return, therefore, is quite naturally bound to send jitters down the spine of the establishment. It is likely to put a spoke in the wheels of the establishment’s efforts to decimate the PML-N through threats and intimidation, promote Imran Khan, and simultaneously facilitate the political mainstreaming of terrorist organizations by ensuring their participation in the elections. Through such steps the establishment is looking to ensure a pliant and submissive parliament that would enable it to retain its stranglehold over the authority, policies and finances of the Pakistani State. If Sharif had sought refuge in the UK, these plans would have gone through unimpeded. On the other hand, Sharif’s return has the potential to alter this scenario and usher in unexpected permutations. The establishment is dominated by representatives of the Punjab province. Sharif, simultaneously, still remains a popular figure in his party, especially in his home province of Punjab. The PML-N has already announced a huge rally in Lahore to welcome him back. A real cause for concern for the establishment is that the opposition and antagonism to its overbearing back-door rule that has been visible among a large and growing section of the population of the province could boil over to unmanageable levels. The only leader in Punjab capable of orchestrating and exploiting this is Sharif. 

Sharif is ostensibly punching well above his weight in taking on the powerful establishment head on, but a shrewd and seasoned politician like him would have weighed his options carefully. Staying back in the UK may have been the comfortable option, but one that would have all but finished Sharif’s political career and severely dented that of Maryam. On the other hand, the riskier and infinitely more difficult proposition of returning to Pakistan would give Sharif a shot at history and glory if he succeeds in his mission of sending the military back to the barracks, where it rightfully belongs. If he fails, he will forever be the hounded martyr that bravely took on the establishment for the sake of democracy. 

The decision of the establishment to mainstream terrorists through their participation in the forthcoming polls is as deplorable as it is dangerous for Pakistan, and has the potential to backfire on the establishment as such brainless schemes often do. Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed, a United Nations designated terrorist who enjoys the patronage, support and protection of the establishment, has formed the Milli Muslim League (MML) with the intention of contesting the elections. Deeply concerned at this development, the major political parties in May held a meeting with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and demanded that banned terrorist outfits be prohibited from contesting the elections. The ECP subsequently rejected MML’s application to register as a political party. Undeterred, the MML announced that it would field over 200 candidates at the forthcoming elections under the banner of lesser known Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party. 

The case of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan Ya Rasool Allah (TLP) chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who is fielding 152 candidates in the general elections, clearly demonstrates the serious pitfalls that such mainstreaming inherently has. At a media interaction at the Karachi Press Club last week, Rizvi referring to the controversial Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders’ proposal to hold a cartoon competition depicting the Prophet Mohammad, threatened to "wipe Holland off the face of this earth" with an "atom bomb". Pakistan is a nuclear State with a dismal proliferation record. Responsible democracies, including the United States, have on numerous occasions expressed their apprehension of tactical nuclear weapons in Pakistan falling into terrorist hands. These fears will certainly become more real and pronounced in a situation where the terrorists are seated comfortably in Pakistan’s National Assembly, taking decisions on security issues of national and international significance, and not hiding in some remote cave. The irrefutable linkage of TLP with the military establishment was brought out in EFSAS’ commentary of 11-05-2018 - a video clip of a senior Pakistan Army officer handing over money to TLP members had been circulated widely on social media soon after the November 2017 anti-blasphemy protests spearheaded by the TLP. 

The scant regard that the establishment has for its international obligations and responsibilities is starkly brought out by the fact that even as Pakistani Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar was presenting Pakistan’s 26-point proposed action plan to curb financing of terrorist outfits at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris last month, the establishment ordered the lifting of the ban on Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and de-freezing of the assets of ASWJ chief Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. He had till then been listed in the Fourth Schedule of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). The ASWJ has repeatedly been involved in anti-Shia terrorist attacks. The FATF meeting officially put Pakistan on the ‘grey list’ of countries that deserve close monitoring. The next FATF meeting is scheduled for February 2019, by which time Pakistan would have to demonstrate action taken against terror financing and illicit movement of currency, as well as implement of sanctions against UN designated terrorists. Failure to demonstrate action by February 2019 would result in Pakistan joining North Korea and Iran on FATF’s ‘black list’, and would face economic sanctions and global banking isolation. 

Analysts believe that the mainstreaming of these terrorists reflects the lackadaisical attitude of the establishment towards terrorism. Such mainstreaming is aimed both at rewarding and protecting the establishment’s ‘strategic assets’ in the face of concerted international pressure to act against them, and at preventing the possible return of PML-N to power by dividing the votes in its stronghold of Punjab. It is precisely such myopic and treacherous policies aimed at the limited, self-serving and short-term goal of preserving the establishment’s pre-eminent position, even if at the expense of the welfare of the country and its people, that is proving to be the bane of Pakistan. Even when confronted with the prospect of ‘black-listing’ under the FATF and the ensuing diplomatic seclusion, it is the establishment’s interests, not the nation’s, that prevails.