Six Points of the Army’s Engagement

While viewing itself as a valid player in Pakistan’s national security matters, Pakistan’s army leadership in times of democracy has nearly always opted for a back room role for its unconstitutional interference in politics . Not any longer. In this military-managed democracy, under its present chief General Parvez Musharraf key elements within the army are openly engaged in political affairs on different fronts. Increasingly as internal disorder takes precedence over external threats on security the army finds cause for internal engagement. Much of the current internal disorder, prompted by a strategic shift in Pakistan’s national security policy revolves around armed and disillusioned groups in confrontation with the State. There is also the political disorder involving mainstream political parties including PPP, PML and to some extent the MMA.

It therefore logically follows that dealing with these internal sources of security and political disorder must rest on those who exercise maximum control over the affairs of security and politics. Meanwhile the question of the legal validity of the army’s control is on the one hand a settled issue as per the Constitution and indeed through Pakistan’s practical experience. Yet from the standpoint of Pakistan’s current reality in which the army leadership finds politicians as its partners and beleaguered interlocutors than a group united against its expanded role, the legality of the army’s engagement in national security and politics becomes a peripheral issue. At the Centre remains the army’s handling of the many existing plus potential flashpoints.’ Six are noteworthy.

First, in the tribal areas the army is engaged through heavy force deployment, proactive political negotiations with the tribals directly and through bipartisan political support from politicians elected from the area. The Corps commander in an unprecedented move himself leads the political dialogue with the militants. Military leadership’s political engagements combined with heavy force deployment and application, has yielded local resentment as well as gradual cooperation by the locals with the army. Another ‘peace agreement’ between the political negotiations between the army and the local Mehsud tribe is on the anvil. This time they hope that under a six point agreement Abdullah Mehsud and his aide Baitullah Mehsud would lay down their weapons and the tribe would not give shelter to any Pakistani or foreign suspected militant while providing aid to security officials.

Second is the army’s engagement in the troubled Baluchistan province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. Since August the army has been engaged, at varying degrees, in responding to Baluchistan’s dangerously deteriorating security situation. Despite its instincts to opt for force-first and often force-alone especially when confronted with sabotage and direct attacks , Chaudary Shujaat the leader of the ruling Muslim League has proactively engaged in dissuading the army leadership to opt for a force-centered approach. Barring the absolutely unwarranted statement regarding the Baluch leader Sardar Akbar Bugti, recently made by the ISPR spokesman, army and the related security agencies have adopted the dialogue-first approach in handling Baluchistan. Similar to the tribal areas, in Baluchistan too the army has both a real and perceptional legacy which it needs to overcome. In sections of the army leadership there is a realization that their institution’s reputation with the politicized section of the Baluch population of being an anti-Baluch force needs to be replaced with a more Baluch-friendly. In the complex problem of Baluchistan, with the danger of growing alienation among sections of the Baluch people, the possibility of a deteriorating security situation and the exploitation by external elements of what appears to be Pakistan’s ‘soft under-belly,’ the army is confronted with the stark reality of the limits of muscle power.

Third the army leadership is engaged in managing the relations between the Centre and the NWFP and Baluchistan provinces where the Opposition governments are in power. While the COAS-president establishes the broad parameters for the Center’s interaction with the two provinces, the Prime Minister, the Governor, the State Bank , the National Finance Commission and the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) etc manage the specifics of the relations. The COAS-President, while establishing the Constitutionally defined parameters for Centre-province relationship, has adopted a pro-active role in monitoring and controlling closely the development programs and the ideological reforms that the MMA governments are adopting or planning. For example the Hisba Bill has been under governor’s and now the CII’s scruntiny. In running a coalition government in Baluchistan the army has deepened it political engagement with a section of the MMA. It has also learnt to operate in the ‘grey’ of politics. While at the Centre the MMA and the army’s political divorce seems to be irreversible, they are collaborating with the MMA in Baluchistan.

Fourth the army’s central leadership, led by its Chief and also President with a majority vote of the parliament, has been engaging the Opposition leadership. It is now engaged in a sustained dialogue with the PPP leadership on possible areas of political cooperation and convergence. With the PML-N matters may move beyond indirect dialogue with Shahbaz Sharif. Ultimately to both the PML-N and the PPP, the army will have to concede political space in accordance with their electoral strength. Beginning dialogue is a necessary first step.

Fifth the ruling coalition is also managed by the military leadership. It is an unwieldy coalition with its many strands of the many Muslim Leagues, the break away factions of the PPP , the MQM and even some break away factions of the MMAs. While Chaudary Shujaat as the PML president manages the problems within the party and the Prime Minister administers the federal government, the army chief and his selected team deals with the other coalition partners. The ruling coalition, with the unpredictable MQM and position-seeking coalition partners is fairly ‘high maintenance .’ !

Sixth in dealing with the political extremism within individuals, political parties and State institutions, which the military leadership in the eighties itself encouraged as part of its national security strategy, the army leadership recognizes that a mere ‘law and order’ approach does not suffice. It understands it requires a political dialogue with those who believe that Pakistan’s policy shifts have amounted to surrender of religion and State to US interest.

The cumulative pattern that emerges from the army’s handling of these security and political flash-points is the army’s central role in containing a difficult security and political situation. In most of these six situations the army has contributed to their becoming a flash point or a near flash-point. However the army now by virtue of its conciliatory approach on all from appears to be beginning to undo the damage of the past. But these are just stepping stones. The military leadership will ultimately have to function under the requirements of the Constitution and the disciplines of institutions requirements.