Temperature is rising in the country’s civil-military relations. Ever since assuming what is often described as the most powerful position in the country, Gen Raheel Sharif, the army chief, has ordinarily avoided issuing public statements. But on Monday, Gen Sharif caused a stir and sent ripples through the political landscape when he finally spoke. And he spoke loud and clear. “Pakistan Army upholds the sanctity of all institutions,” the army chief said while addressing Special Services Group commandoes at Ghazi Base in Tarbela, but warned the military “will resolutely preserve its own dignity and institutional pride.”
The statement portends a new turn in the relations between the civilian government and the military. It is too early to conclude that a tipping point has reached, but the delicate equilibrium is certainly shaken. The mantra of the cabinet ministers that the military and the civilian government are ‘on the same page’ has started to sound hollow.
Resentment has been bubbling across the military rank and file over the treason trial of Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler. Serving and retired military officials continue to express their deep resentment over how a former army chief has been dubbed as a “traitor” ad nauseam in the local news media and by the political parties, especially the ruling political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The fulmination against Gen (r) Musharraf by the hawks of PML-N — Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Muhammad Asif— have touched the raw nerve of the military.
The level of unrest and unease within the ranks has reached such a level that Gen Sharif was forced to convey the military’s concerns in his most recent meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Officials say the army chief, who was handpicked by the prime minister, sat stiff during the latest meeting with tension hanging thick in the air.
The prime minister responded by directing his cabinet ministers to refrain from issuing public statements about the treason trial. Obviously, the gag order by Prime Minister Sharif hasn’t satisfied the military as Gen Sharif felt compelled to issue the statement yesterday. It was also telling that the army chief chose to express his and his troops’ reservations in front of the SSG commandoes as Gen (r) Musharraf was himself a commando and takes great pride in his association with the hardened soldiers.
Adding a further wedge to the civil-military equation is the growing perception that the political government is ceding too much ground to the militants as it forges ahead in its dialogue with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Senior government officials also hint at the warnings that Taliban insurgents have given to the Sharif family as another important factor that has forced the civilian leadership to appear conciliatory and accommodating to the demands of militants.
It would be naive to imagine that Prime Minister Sharif was unaware of the perilous path he undertook when he announced to initiate treason proceedings against Gen (r) Musharraf. The prime minister was compelled politically, albeit by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry regarding the treason trial. Prime Minister Sharif is no stranger to acrimony with the military. His last two tenures were marked by deep strains and friction with the generals and eventually led to his sacking and subsequent exile.
The treason trial was always fraught with unintended consequences and political analysts had warned, right at the onset of the trial proceedings, of an impending turmoil.
The latest turn of events seems to be leading towards that dark alley. “Disquiet has developed in the military over Musharraf case and the talks with Taliban,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent defence and political analyst, said. “It can seriously undermine the civil-military relations. I expect a very difficult summer ahead,” Rizvi predicted.
–The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation in Islamabad.