Civilian control over the armed forces is a sacrosanct principle of democracy but has never been practiced in Pakistan. Even When Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over in the aftermath of the military debacle in East Pakistan he could not rein in the army. He first succumbed to its demand that a film showing the surrender of Pakistani forces to India be withdrawn from PTV. Later, keeping the sensitivities of the army in mind, he decided to put the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report in cold storage. Ultimately he was ousted and hanged on trumped up charges by his handpicked army chief, Gen Zia-ul-Haq.
Much later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, heady with a heavy mandate, tried to emasculate all institutions, one after another. He got away with sacking Gen Jehangir Karmat just a few months before his term was to expire as army chief. But when Nawaz tried to sack Gen Karamat's successor, Gen Musharraf, he had to pay the price by being ousted by the army. Had his American and Arab mentors not pleaded with Musharraf to send him into permanent exile, he would have met the same fate as Mr Bhutto.
Under the Constitution Nawaz Sharif was perfectly within his rights as prime minister to sack Gen Musharraf. He made Gen Karmat resign for issuing a statement critical of his "insecurity ridden policies." But this time the army was well prepared against the prospect of another army chief facing this kind of humiliation. It is indeed ironical, coming from Mian Shahbaz Sharif now, that the nation is fortunate to have a pro-democracy army chief in the form of Gen Kayani, after Gen Jehangir Karamat.
In the past few months a perception has developed that the present military setup is bent upon getting rid of President Zardari. Despite protestations to the contrary by the military high command that it has no such intentions, rumours about Mr Zardari's imminent departure refuse to die down. In fact, after the Supreme Court's unanimous verdict declaring the NRO ultra vires of the Constitution, they have gained further currency. Some circles insist that the army and its intelligence apparatus are trying to undermine Mr Zardari and force him to quit the presidency.
The military, through its spokesmen in-off-the record conversations, insists that it is too bogged down in dealing with the existential threat within from the Taliban and the external threat from India to engage in an exercise to destabilise the government. Nor is it working towards the so-called Bangladeshi model that, apart from being extra-constitutional, has not even worked in Bangladesh.
They also make it plain that the army chief and his intelligence apparatus are on the same page and that there is not a single instance where the ISI director general could be accused of destabilising the government. Neither is there a trust deficit between the military and the government, as the military fully believes in supporting democracy. Despite such clarifications, rumours that started a few months ago with the corps commanders issuing a statement critical of some clauses of the Kerry Lugar Bill, refuse to die down. Military spokesmen claim the army was forced to take the unusual step of going public about its reservations about the bill when certain security clauses were added without consultations with it, the ISI or the Foreign Office. The government, on the other hand, insists that the military was fully on board on the matter. In fact, it claims the Kerry Lugar Bill was posted on the web for all to examine.
In order to defuse the situation and clear the present air of uncertainty, the ISPR could go public by issuing a statement reiterating the army's firm belief in the democratic system and that it has no trust deficit with the present government. Although Gen Kayani has reportedly assured both President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani that nothing is amiss, such a statement is not forthcoming from the army. Perhaps it has its own reasons for not doing so, primarily because it wants to be seen above the political fray.
Pakistan has remained a national-security state since its inception. Hence, it is not surprising the army has its own worldview and strategic thinking, not necessarily the same as that of the civilians, who are its masters only in theory. Left on their own, perhaps the politicians would by and large like to move away from the confrontationist mode with India. Some of the statements of President Zardari soon after assuming power did not endear him to the army top brass.
A relationship too close to the USA is another irritant not only with the army but also with a majority of the people of Pakistan. Tales of corruption of the present leadership, poor governance and a lacklustre economic performance have not earned the present ruling lot any brownie points.
Strictly speaking, in an ideal democratic system, such matters do not fall in the purview of the armed forces. However, where other democratic institutions are weak and military rule has been the norm, an awkward relationship exists between the civilians and the military. The army can argue that the performance of the government directly impinges upon its defence capabilities, especially when it is fully engaged in fighting an internal insurgency.
In a situation where everything is in a flux, the ideal thing would be for the politicians to close ranks to strengthen the system. According to a spokesman of the army, it would have liked the PPP and the PML-N to work together in a coalition to strengthen the system. Unfortunately, this has not happened; confrontation and incremental trust deficit between the two major parties have reached a critical stage.
By declaring in an interview with Geo that the PML-N does not trust the president, Mian Shahbaz Sharif has joined the fray by saying publicly what he and his brother have long expressed in private. Similarly, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, otherwise a balanced person, has repeated this ludicrous media report denied by all parties concerned that Shahbaz Sharif had surreptitiously met the chief justice of Pakistan.
While President Zardari is ensconced in the Governor's House in Lahore on a long overdue visit to Punjab, the Sharif brothers are away from the country. Although this absence could be purely coincidental, it harks back to the political polarisation of the nineties when Mian Nawaz Sharif, as chief minister of Punjab, would be reluctant to receive Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has openly shown his reluctance to support a resolution in the Punjab Assembly expressing confidence in Mr Zardari's leadership.
According to military sources, no political issues were discussed in the recent meeting between Mian Shahbaz Sharif, Chaudhry Nisar, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, and the COAS. It is claimed that the meeting related purely to the current wave of militancy and terrorism in the country, with special reference to its resurgence in southern Punjab. The Zardari camp, however, is deeply suspicious of these contacts, and Mian Shahbaz Sharif has not cleared the air by stating recently that such meetings are not forbidden.
The onus of bringing the situation back from the brink primarily is on President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani as they have more to lose in the present state of confrontation. A concerted effort should be made to bring the Sharifs on board, and demands such as the repeal of the 17th Amendment should be met without further procrastination.
Mian Nawaz Sharif has time and again reiterated his support for a democratic system. But words should be matched with deeds. Both sides will have to rein in their hawks, whether it is Mr Salmaan Taseer or Mian Shahbaz Sharif. Mian Nawaz Sharif, as a leader in waiting, has everything to lose if extra-constitutional forces move in. Hence, he has to tread carefully.
Issues relating to governance and transparency should be resolved without further foot-dragging, as not only the army but the media and the public at large have strong reservations about the manner in which things are being run by the present rulers. The dream of even a modicum of civilian control over the armed forces can be realised only if our politicians set their house in order instead of refusing to look beyond self-interests and power-grabbing games. If the squabbling protagonists yet again fail to learn from past blunders they will have no one to blame but themselves for their being judged harshly by history.