There is a familiar saying that while every country has an army, it is in Pakistan alone that an army has a country. Few in democratic India understand the extent to which the army controls national life and destinies of the people of Pakistan. Just after the Lahore Summit, Benazir Bhutto noted that despite the façade of civilian rule, Pakistan is run by a “military, mullah and madrassa complex”. She was right, as even while A B Vajpayee was undertaking his Lahore visit, the Pakistan military was consolidating itself on the Kargil heights.
The political class in Pakistan has largely been dominated by its rural landlords, who had contributed little to the creation of the country. Its founding fathers like Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan were not sons of the soil, but imports from India. Culturally, the Punjabis who labelled themselves as a “martial race” held others like Bengalis in contempt. The military soon took over with American backing. Civilians were held in contempt and India derided. This arrogance continues, despite the disastrous conflicts with India in 1965, when the myth of Pakistani military invincibility was shattered. In 1971, the army lost half the country and India took 93,000 Prisoners of War. The 1999 Kargil conflict, planned and executed by the army, was a military and diplomatic disaster.
Democracy was never given a chance by the Pakistan military. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted and executed barely six years after the army’s Bangladesh debacle. This coup was the turning point in Pakistan’s political evolution, as the military ruler Zia-ul-Haq forged an alliance with Wahhabi-oriented Islamic parties, with benign American support. This period also saw the emergence of the military’s economic/business empire in Pakistan. The army in Pakistan today owns the country’s largest bank, the Askari Bank. It owns the largest transportation and construction networks. It is the largest real estate company in the country, owning defence housing societies, which allot lands primarily to its officers for subsequent sale to others, at huge profits. It has a significant stake in sectors ranging from fertilisers and sugar, to communications and schools.
Nawaz Sharif was ousted from office as PM by the military in both his previous terms. He is today not in a position to have any significant say in controlling relations with India, Afghanistan and the US. Even the Saudi monarchy, which is close to Sharif, remains in touch with the military. Sharif’s domestic limitations were thoroughly exposed when the military commenced operations in the sensitive Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, with extensive use of the air force, even as Sharif was trying to bring the Pashtun Tehriq-e-Taliban to the negotiating table.
The military has a record of brutalities against non-Punjabis. Three million Bangladeshis perished in its crackdown in 1971 when it deliberately targeted and killed the ‘intellectual, cultural and political elite’ of what then was a province of Pakistan. Since then, the military has been regularly at war with Baloch tribals in conflicts between 1974-78 and 2004 to date. Over 12,000 Baloch have died in such conflicts. Worse still, scores of young Baluchis have “disappeared” after being taken into custody by ISI personnel. Even the Supreme Court of Pakistan is helpless in enforcing military accountability to secure their release.
While the Punjabi-dominated military may have ruthlessly suppressed Bangladeshis, Baloch, Sindhis and Muhajirs in the past, questions are now being raised about the wisdom of the operation launched by Gen. Raheel Sharif in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. These operations have rendered around one million Pashtuns homeless and angered. The recent bomb explosion in Wagah was designed as retribution of Pakistan army operations against Pashtuns. Historically, a Punjabi army has only once succeeded in quelling Pashtuns. This was when the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh led by Hari Singh Nalwa quelled the Pashtuns and retained control of Peshawar. Raheel Sharif is most definitely not a Hari Singh Nalwa.
The writer is a former diplomat