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Who rules Pakistan?

by M B Naqvi, 18 August 2009

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The below article was published first in: The Daily Star, August 18, 2009

A seemingly minor incident was reported by India’s Hindu newspaper. It said that in a surprise move Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Director General of Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) indicated that the three Indian military attaches of the army, navy and air force could come and have a cup of tea in his office. This was a surprise move because protocol-wise such requests are made, and in the case of India, seldom listened to. The three went there on July 3.

What went on in the conversation is not fully known. According to the Hindu of July 23 General Pasha suggested, i.e. demanded, that in the next round of Indo-Pakistan dialogue ISI should be given a seat. For, after all, Pakistan’s India policy and much else is dominated, if not conducted, by ISI. He could have said that the entire orientation of Pakistan foreign policy is governed by the Pakistani army, the main talking arm being the ISI. The cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy is relations with the US. As a corollary, what goes on in Afghanistan has been ISI’s remit.

The importance of the army in Pakistan is shown by its budget structure. As a minister said recently, over 80 percent of Pakistan’s budget is exhausted by just two items; defence and debt servicing. The reality is somewhat more than this bald statement. Internal security as such is also within the four walls of the army’s duties-cum-privileges.

Indian authorities were pulled in two different directions by this demand. Realism would seem to suggest that there was substance in what General Pasha said. Why not give ISI a seat in the Indo-Pakistan dialogue? But the whole ethos of India’s political system is against it. In this respect, although there is some erosion at the edges, the Indian army is largely subordinate to the government.

No government is ever so foolish as not to take the views of the military high command as an input in their decision-making. But presence of an army general in inter-governmental talks would be a violation of the ethos of Indian politics. One does not know what the final decision of the Indians will be, but one will be mighty surprised if India accedes to this demand.

But what Shuja Pasha was saying is a reality insofar as Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan has had a recognised term for its government during the 1990s — troika. At that time, it simply meant that three persons count: the army chief, the president and the prime minister. But that system was the reality behind formal democracy. But what obtains today would require a new dimension to the troika. Now it has remained three: the Pentagon in Washington, President Zardari and the Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. The poor prime minister has been neither here nor there in real power terms, though he tries from time to time to assert himself and proclaim that he is the chief executive of the country. The very fact that he has to proclaim it shows that there are widespread doubts about it.

Some would be amazed by the inclusion of a foreign government’s agency, no matter how powerful it is. One includes it because of the extensive role that it is now playing in Pakistan. No week passes when a top general of the American army or Nato forces is not visiting Islamabad. They all come basically to meet the army chief and to get a briefing from him, and to brief him regarding what is needed. America’s role is not simply intrusive, it is also decisive. The military offensives in FATA and Malakand show that the American word is paramount.

As for President Asif Ali Zardari, he is truly in command of the National Assembly as well as many other organisations of the state like the Senate and the Sindh Assembly. The reason for it is that he is also the party chief of the Pakistan People’s Party; which he controls tightly. All the PPP deputies in various Assemblies take their orders from him. Thus, he has come to acquire a crippling control over the Senate and National Assembly. In NWFP and Punjab the PPP is a junior partner of a coalition that does not wish to remain a coalition. But the president wants the unwilling coalition to stay in Punjab. Therefore it stays in Punjab, NWFP and Balochistan; in Sindh it does not matter because the PPP is in the majority, though it has taken other parties as coalition partners to give substance to its refrain of reconciliation meant for ensuring a share in power in the other three provinces.

Insofar as the army chief is concerned, it is unnecessary to emphasise that his word counts, and it is sought in any difficult situation. The government of Pakistan has handed over the entire national security question to the army; army agencies control much else. In any crisis, such as the one on March 15 when the lawyers’ rally had swelled to impossible proportions, the army chief, probably on Pentagon’s advice, forced Zardari to surrender and do as the lawyers’ movement leaders said — to restore all the sacked judges without any conditions.

It was total surrender by Zardari because he was holding out against the restoration of the judges. What else lay behind his antipathy to the restoration of the judges is not known. Typically, it was the army chief who conveyed the government’s decision at midnight to the lawyers’ leader that the government had agreed to all their terms.

The democracy in Pakistan is fledgling at best. There are powerful vested interests such as the landed aristocracy. A vast majority of the members of the Assemblies are landed gentry; they do not pass any legislation that hurts big landlords, nor do they allow any taxes on themselves. Then there is the military; the government survives at the mercy of the army chief.

During the last 40 years three coups have taken place (one coup took place in 1950s when Pakistan was united). The army in Pakistan is definitely not a subordinate department of the government. At most, it can be said that it is coeval in political importance of the government on day-to-day basis but inheritantly stronger because it can throw any government into the dustbin anytime.

Pakistan’s troubles are due to two factors. One, it has no political class that understands its problem and is efficient enough to lead the country out of its troubles, while its government knows how to spend without being ready to increase tax-GDP ratio, or lead the country to produce more efficiently to cover the cost of imports. Efficiency in terms of cost, quality and packaging is not insisted upon.

On top of it all, the powers that be are dead set on running an arms races with India in all spheres — nuclear weapons, missiles and conventional armaments. Islamabad is on a borrowing binge, but donors are tired of lending to what they say is a failing state. When and how will Pakistan change its ways?

M.B. Naqvi is a leading Pakistani columnist.