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Return of the jackboot

The inevitable has happened. For over two years Nawaz Sharif had misused his brute majority in the National Assembly to pursue his vaulti...

Written by Gurmeet Kanwal |
October 15, 1999

The inevitable has happened. For over two years Nawaz Sharif had misused his brute majority in the National Assembly to pursue his vaulting ambition. Benazir Bhutto had warned him that he was riding a tiger and was headed inexorably for a disastrous end. Emboldened by the graceful exit of General Jehangir Karamat in October 1998 (the then army chief was called upon to resign), Nawaz Sharif was perhaps led to believe that he now enjoyed unbridled power and that the Pakistan army would continue to dance to his tune. But he failed to appreciate the magnitude of the undercurrents of anger generated by the stepping down of General Karamat for what the military establishment considered a piffling indiscretion.

Pakistan’s resounding military defeat at the hands of the Indian Army on the barren mountaintops of Kargil brought matters to the boil and the ghost of Kargil came to haunt both Sharif and the military leadership. Sharif felt betrayed at not having been told the whole truth about the massive scale of thedoomed operation and the complete involvement of Pakistan’s regular army. The prime minister had possibly been told that the army would merely assist the so-called Mujahideen. On the other hand, the army chief continued to publicly insist that the prime minister had approved the operation. The army was angry with Sharif for having forced it to undertake a humiliating withdrawal. Playing politics with generals is invariably fraught with risks and Sharif’s antics in attempting to divide the corps commanders ultimately led to his sacking of the army chief in absentia and the army’s counter-dismissal of a prime minister who had crossed the limits of interference in matters military.

While the ill-conceived Kargil misadventure was the catalyst that hastened confrontation between the members of the power troika in Pakistan, the origins of the conflict lay in Sharif’s diplomatic overtures towards India and the Pakistan military leadership’s discomfort with his Kashmir policy. Pakistan’s military establishment wasunable to come to terms with the fact that more than ten years of its concerted efforts in destabilising India through its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir had yielded almost no tangible gains. The Lahore peace process was seen as a stumbling block and moves towards the acceptance of the Line of Control (LoC) as a permanent border were viewed by the military establishment as a disgraceful compromise. The annexation of Kashmir by the Pakistan army is expected to assuage the bitterness of the 1971 defeat. Peace with India would also have inevitably led to a diminishing role for the army in Pakistan’s affairs and this prospect caused immense concern to the military leadership.

Pakistan’s generals have traditionally enjoyed and exercised complete control over three important functional aspects and Sharif appeared to be encroaching on their turf in all of them. These include Pakistan’s Kashmir policy, control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and an unquestioned say in the defence budget. Hence, though thestage was set for a confrontation, the military leadership was willing to tolerate Sharif due to Pakistan’s economic bankruptcy and American pressures to desist from rocking the boat. The generals had apparently learnt to enjoy power without responsibility and did not wish to earn a bad name by getting involved in governance, as they knew that only Allah could pull Pakistan out of the abyss that it had sunk into. However, Sharif committed the cardinal sin of dismissing an army chief for the second time within a year and had to be put in his place. The charade of civil supremacy had simply gone on for too long in the view of the military leadership.

What are the portents for India? As soon as the military regime in Pakistan has consolidated its positi-on, it will seek to further enhance the scope and magnitude of its proxy war with India. While the Pakistan army is unlikely to attempt another Kargil-type incursion in the near future, it will definitely continue its efforts to keep the LoC more active thanusual in order to raise the bogey of Kashmir as an international nuclear flashpoint. The Pakistan army has failed to keep its promise made during the discussions between the two directors general of military operations at Wagah in July 1999 to pull back its troops at least one kilometre behind LoC in Kargil district and such duplicity will continue to mark its dealings with India.

Unless the presence of security forces is further stepped up and the people in the rural areas are simultaneously empowered to organise themselves to ensure their own security, J&K would be in for another `hot’ winter. Any further moves towards a permanent solution of the Kashmir issue will be put on the back burner for a long time to come. However, the Pakistani generals are not likely to be averse to discussing confidence building and nuclear risk reduction measures and it would be in India’s interest to agree to do so. Though the fears of a Taliban backlash are gradually gaining ground in Pakistan, the military rulers can beexpected to persist with their policy of active intervention in Afghanistan in aid of the Taliban militia. India must continue its efforts to build an international consensus for an amicable resolution of that war-torn country’s nightmarish problems in the interest of regional stability.

The clearest lesson to emerge from this civil-military imbroglio in Pakistan is that, as long as the Pakistani armed forces remain far more powerful than the country’s legitimate security considerations warrant, the spectre of repeated military coups will continue to hang over Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. The well-wishers of Pakistan in the West who have consistently, and rather naively, been supporting the Pakistan army ostensibly to strengthen democracy in Pakistan, including premier think tanks like the Washington-based Council for Foreign Relations, need to re-assess the warped calculus of their analyses. Pakistan is now recognised as the world’s champion nation in spreading the cult of Islamist fundamentalismthrough state-sponsored terrorism. It has achieved this dubious distinction because of the machinations of its unjustifiably large army. That army must be cut to size through concerted international efforts in the long-term interest of Pakistani democracy and regional stability.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi

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