Soft Coup in Pakistan

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Pakistan witnessed its first democratic transition in the 2013 general elections and is in all probability heading for a second such transition of power in 2018. The continuation of the democratic system may seem to suggest at least a comfortable status quo between the civilian government and the security establishment, if not the gradual ascendancy of civilian authority. This, however, is not the case in Pakistan where the existence and persistence of the democratic system has not been able to perpetuate the norms that assert civilian primacy over the military. Instead, a system in reverse is gradually being institutionalized. The security institutions in Pakistan are not confining their role to simply having a veto on foreign policy and security-related issues, but asserting themselves over civilian institutions in what amounts to a soft coup. The military has adopted this softer approach for enhancing institutional power to avoid risking international opprobrium, particularly from the United States.

Security Agencies in Ascendance

The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), an influential player in the political landscape of Karachi, is accused of some serious violent crimes and mobocracy, with its leader Altaf Hussain under a self-imposed exile in London. MQM has been bearing the brunt of a crackdown against criminal and militant elements. However, since Altaf Hussain’s diatribe against the state of Pakistan, the crackdown against MQM has seen resurgence with the Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary force which acts at the behest of the Pakistani Army, shutting down and demolishing illegal offices and arresting its leaders.

Reportedly, the MQM leadership, which is lodged in London, had offered human intelligence on the Taliban and ‘jihadi elements’ in Karachi to Britain. That would certainly cause some discomfiture in the Pakistani security establishment, which likes control over such issues. A disturbing implication of the crackdown is that the Pakistani Rangers Sindh, which has taken over policing responsibilities in Karachi, can go after civilian political outfits if it so chooses. In one particular case, a police official arrested an MQM lawmaker who is also the leader of the opposition in the Sindh Assembly. This was done without any notification to the speaker of the assembly though procedural requirements necessitate such an approval in case of an elected lawmaker. The lawmaker was later released and the police official suspended.

nawaz sharif-raheel sharif-pakistan

The rise of the Pakistani Ranger force in domestic municipalities elucidates the growing role of the security establishment in civilian spheres. The Ranger force is divided into Rangers Sindh and Rangers Punjab and has segregated chains of command.  Although both Rangers Punjab and Sindh fall under the purview of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), most current and former senior appointees of the force have been from the army. The Punjab government is facing pressure from the army to incorporate Rangers Punjab into municipal law enforcement, like the Rangers Sindh in Karachi. If the Rangers takeover everyday policing in Punjab, they will effectively be in a position to control political activity in the name of policing, something that has been seen in the case of MQM in Karachi.

China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): A Security Conundrum

The CPEC project is witnessing its own turf war. Security for CPEC has been tasked to a Special Security Division (SSD), but the implementation hangs in balance because of wrangling over the terms of reference (TOR) that define the scope of the SSD’s authority. Dawn reported that the military wants the SSD to “advise, guide and ‘indirectly control’ the civilian law enforcement agencies in issues related to the security of CPEC projects.” In contrast, the civilian government is unwilling to concede and prefers that the MOI be in control. The three services chiefs were to be inducted in the apex governing body for CPEC, but this was shot down by the government. These moves by the military for widespread control over CPEC signals that the military wants authority over what is essentially a civilian-led program. Although the Chinese seem to favor such an arrangement because it works for them, this is at odds with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s civilian government, which wants to project CPEC as solely its own achievement.

Entrenched Institutional Power

The army in essence has bolstered its institutional power within the country to an extent where a coup is needless. In fact, a coup will bring it to the foreground, make it directly responsible for events in the country, and in general, make its role explicit. The present civil-military stasis favors the military because all ills are blamed on the formally elected government and the civilian institutions, which are seen as ineffective and corrupt. The military operates in the shadows with little or no accountability, and the ambit of its power is expanding. By providing itself a fundamental role in civilian institutions and not just in traditional foreign policy related issues, the need for a direct coup is obviated. Who succeeds General Raheel Sharif as the Chief of Army Staff after November and the general elections in 2018 is therefore of little consequence, since institutional power is entrenched, and entrenched institutions don’t have a favorable disposition towards relinquishing their turf.

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Image 1: Muhammad Ahmad, Flickr

Image 2: Aamir Qureshi-AFP, Getty Images

Posted in , Civil-Military Relations, Pakistan

Joy Mitra

Joy Mitra

Joy Mitra is a graduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs, where he is pursuing a Master's degree in Diplomacy, Law and Business. Currently he is affiliated with Wikistrat as a research analyst at the South Asia Desk. Prior to this he was associated with Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi and has contributed articles to FPRC journal, ICS Analysis, International Policy Digest, and Eurasia Review among others.

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