Exchange of fire
21 April, 2014
By M.A. Niazi
The furore occasioned by the exchange of statements between COAS Gen Raheel Sharif and federal ministers Khwaja Asif and Khwaja Saad Rafiq is not so much over the fate of Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, or of his trial for high treason, as over the crux of the trial, which is the army's right to rule.
One of the most vocal objections by Musharraf's supporters to the trial is the charge of high treason (which he went to great lengths to avoid having read to him). The objection may seem a quibble, but for military men it is important. Killing another human being is universally condemned, but soldiers are trained to do exactly that. In place of inflicting violent death, the worst crime becomes betrayal– treason. To have a meritorious act described as high treason, seems just plain wrong to a military mind.
It must not be forgotten that, when Musharraf carried out his coup, it was seen by him and his supporters as meritorious, as a required intervention against a corrupt system unable to solve the problems of the people. The problems of the people are invoked even now to argue that the trial should not be held, and attention paid to other issues. The irony that is lost on all is that Musharraf's supporters and Islamic militants share the same attitude towards the Constitution, i.e. they do not regard it as sacred, and view it as something liable to be overthrown if it does not solve the problems of the state.
On the other hand, those who argue for the continuation of the present trial claim that it is necessary to maintain the rule of law. 'Rule of law' is a concept that should be familiar to the militants, for their objection to the Constitution is that it provides for elected representatives to make laws. However, the military in Pakistan has apparently gone beyond that, and is ready to impose its own rule. It can do so, because it enjoys the monopoly of force in society. It has done so, on four occasions in the past and only on the fourth occasion has it been questioned by a succeeding government. Musharraf is not on trial for the same offence as Field Marshal Ayub Khan or General Yahya Khan, but for something he is accused of having done after he became a constitutional President. Still, the whole trial is seen as being about the military's right to rule.
Along with his alleged abettors, whom he wants tried also, Musharraf has thrown out the loyalty principle: that of protecting one's juniors. That too is under trial, and is the single most important component of the ethos that allows military rule, and which is opposed to the civilian democratic ethos, where ministers scramble over their superiors to become heads of cabinets.
The military's ability is not under dispute. That ability exists, and has been demonstrated often enough. More to the point, no changes have been made to reduce that ability. It should be noted, that the ending of the President's discretionary powers may have changed the motives of the takeover, but has not reduced ability.
One of the important factors of the takeover is actually very simple. The COAS is, amongst other things, an articulator of opinion, whose expertise consists of gauging the opinion of his juniors, and acting accordingly. It should never be forgotten that while the COAS carries out the coup, and does what is necessary after, it is only because the entire officer corps wants him to. After a coup, while the entire officer corps may not benefit, a number of officers get improved prospects, with post-retirement life meaning more than a pension and benefits (admittedly substantial), with an often lucrative second career.
However, one of the conditions that the COAS must consider is impunity. This is exactly what hurts them so much about the current trial: it is the impunity with which martial law used to be imposed that is under threat. Apart from the difficulties of the situation, future coup makers will have to take into account the possibility that they might be tried. If Musharraf gets away without a trial, it will only be at the cost of having to go into exile.
It is too often thought that a COAS wants to take power. However, what is not given due consideration is that a COAS who does not want the bother of running the whole country, or the odium that inevitably attaches itself to any coupmaker, wants not so much the power of carrying out a takeover, as the personal benefit of it.
Therefore, of course the military backs Musharraf. Every future COAS (and there are many in every rank, from junior lieutenant-generals to newly commissioned second lieutenants who will be eligible in 2045) would want the unchecked power to declare a coup. Part of the power to stage a coup is the widespread belief that politicians are inept, corrupt and deceitful. This provides the justification for the violation of the Constitution that brings them into office.
Many would take heart from the example of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who was selected and then overthrew Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, and who is now poised to become the Egyptian President in the coming election. Al-Sisi, like Musharraf, is a commando. He is about to replace Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow was seen as closing the door on military rule. However, Al-Sisi is more a reversion rather than anything else. He seems a throwback to the 1950s, when the US tried to prevent a Communist takeover in its backyard, when it fomented military coups in South America.
The US has used bouts of military rule in Pakistan for its own objectives. The Ayub rule it used in the Cold War, the Yahya Martial Law for the rapprochement with China, the Zia and Musharraf eras in Afghanistan, first to oust the Soviets and then the Taliban. It can thus safely be predicted that future military rule will depend partly on US needs. That Al-Sisi is taking over even after Mubarak's trial is indication enough for the ambitious. It will be indication enough for those worried by the Musharraf trial.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan's claims that there are no differences, and that progress is being made on the TTP talks front, fosters the impression that the army's focus on the trial is not just about Musharraf, but also the talks. This might be useful in creating the image of an institution concerned about more than just its right to rule. The government must be wary of the fear of a takeover, lest it prove self-fulfilling.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.