Pakistan's Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations/Handout via Reuters
Pakistan's Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations/Handout via Reuters

As Pakistan proceeds into national elections scheduled for July 25, the Pakistan Army is maintaining its political neutrality. During a press conference on June 4, Major General Asif Gafoor, the army’s main spokesman, appealed to political parties not to drag it into the elections. He said that all allegations concerning its interference in the country’s political life had been proved wrong. Significantly, Gafoor refused to comment on former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s hostile comments on the army last month.

Is it true that the army is really neutral in these elections and has forsaken its interest in the politics of Pakistan?

Sharif accused the army of running a parallel government and of destabilizing him from the time he took office in 2013. He virtually held the army responsible for taking Pakistan into international isolation. He also raised the lack of progress in the trial of Lashkar-e-Toiba members for the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Stung by these comments, the army compelled Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to convene a meeting of the national security council. The council dismissed the former prime minister’s comments as fallacious, but an undeterred Sharif repeated them.

Sharif’s political opponents criticised him, for no party wishes to antagonize the army, though the military brass’s interest in Pakistan’s politics is indisputable. It is both a professional and a political force. It acts, sometimes openly and at other times subtly, but it has political preferences and does not hesitate to act to pursue its political agenda, even though it is not always successful. Sharif’s career highlights the army’s interest in the political fortunes of Pakistani public figures.

Sharif began his political career as the army’s protégé and became chief minister of Punjab with its blessing

Sharif began his political career as the army’s protégé and became chief minister of Punjab with its blessing. In 1990 the then army chief, General Aslam Beg, along with the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence, General Asad Durrani (more on him later), actively worked for his election victory. That led him to become Pakistan’s prime minister. However, when he fell out with then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the army ensured that both left office.

In 1997, Sharif was back as prime minister and had a strong mandate. He was determined to take charge of the country’s foreign and security policies. Initially, the army ceded space, but the Kargil disaster led to recriminations between Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf. When the former dismissed the latter, the army staged a coup. Musharraf took over as Pakistan’s leader and Sharif was arrested, jailed, and later exiled to Saudi Arabia. A recent book, From Kargil to Coup, which is attracting attention in Pakistan, gives fascinating details of events during this tumultuous period.

Sharif was back as prime minister for a third term in May 2013. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), swept the Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and politically most important province. Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader, who was widely believed to be the army’s choice, was defeated. The generals did not take kindly to Sharif’s victory. Differences emerged, especially on the treatment of former president and army chief Musharraf, who was charged with treason for staging the coup. Sharif insisted that Musharraf be tried while an embarrassed army sought to persuade the government and the courts to permit him to leave the country. Eventually, Sharif gave in.

Equally importantly, Sharif once again sought to gain control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, including its India policy. He visited Delhi for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in May 2014, against the army’s advice. The next year, he agreed to an India-Pakistan joint statement that omitted any reference to Kashmir and gave salience to terrorism. This angered the army. Finally, the generals were aghast when Sharif welcomed Modi on a drop-by visit to Lahore in December 2015, to felicitate the former on the occasion of his granddaughter’s wedding. This seems to have been the last straw, for the army remains simply unwilling to allow any interference by any elected authority in its control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policy.

The release of the Panama Papers provided the army with ammunition against Sharif. His family and he were accused of illegally holding properties and assets abroad. With the opposition baying for his blood, the army asked for across the board accountability. Sharif’s position as prime minister was challenged in court for violating the requirement of integrity. After tortuous proceedings, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in a harsh and contentious judgment, disqualified him from office for life and later held that he is unfit to head a political party. Now he is facing corruption charges in court and is likely to be convicted and jailed. Thus, the army and judiciary caught him in a pincer. But he still informally leads his party and is campaigning on its behalf.

The important fact is that the army while maintaining a façade of neutrality, would not like Sharif to exercise any influence over his party from behind the scenes. That would only be possible if the PML(N) loses the election. If he still wins despite the army’s interest, the relationship between the new government and the generals will be complex, though they will not allow any dilution of their hold on the country’s foreign and security approaches.

While the election campaign is ongoing, The Spy Chronicles RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace is creating waves in Pakistan. It records the conversations of Asad Durrani and former RAW chief AS Dulat on a wide range of issues and people. Durrani’s candid comments on many Pakistani policies and actions enabled Nawaz to question such revelations from a former army general. A red-faced army has ordered an inquiry against Durrani and put him on the exit control list. whether any real action will be taken against Durrani is still an open question.

Whatever the army may say, it remains part of Pakistan’s political process. That is unlikely to change.

Vivek Katju

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.