Folly of Military Intervention

Gulf News , November 28, 2007

The return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to a popular welcome after seven years of exile, on a special plane provided by the King of Saudi Arabia, serves as a reminder of the folly that is military intervention in politics.

Sharif should have been allowed to return to his homeland when the Supreme Court ruled that he had an inalienable right to do so. But soon after the Supreme Court’s judgement, the government unlawfully bundled Sharif out of the country.

Having failed to implement the law of the land, President General Pervez Musharraf has belatedly enabled the same outcome that would have resulted from implemented the apex court’s ruling. Quite clearly, international factors are more important in the eyes of Pakistan’s ruling generals than Pakistan’s own institutions.

Musharraf took power in a 1999 military coup after toppling Sharif. After first jailing and then exiling the ousted prime minister, the general vowed that he and another popular former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, would never be allowed to return to Pakistan’s politics.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18 to a tumultuous welcome and now Sharif has also returned. Apologists of military rule ridiculed this columnist – and many others – for repeatedly advocating the return of both major party leaders.

Now it is our turn to ridicule those who think that a coup-making general’s “vision” trumps the fundamental rules of politics.

Politicians with a support base can never been kept out of a country’s politics forever. If only Pakistan’s generals and the oligarchy that supports them understood that, Pakistan would actually get on with normal politics with all its flaws and weaknesses and get somewhere. Right now, we are simply going around in circles.

Sharif’s return should end the unjustified attacks on Bhutto for negotiating her return to the country. Every politician must know how to negotiate and Sharif has leveraged himself with the help of his mentors just as Bhutto effectively deployed Western public opinion in her favour to create political space.

It is already apparent that at least one segment of the Pakistanis establishment now wants Sharif to work towards reunification of the two factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

Less acceptable

Sharif might be less acceptable to Musharraf personally but there is greater acceptance among Pakistan’s conservative military-intelligence establishment for him than for Bhutto and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Bhutto’s welcoming rally was targeted for a suicide terrorist attack and the government has yet to investigate that crime. Fortunately, Sharif faced no extremist threats and the civil-military bureaucracy appears keen to look after him.

If Sharif can avoid the temptation of trying to upstage Bhutto and stay true to his new image as the establishment’s rebel, the Charter of Democracy signed by the two major party leaders last year can be implemented.

If, on the other hand, the establishment is able to work its magic and revive the spirit of Islamic Democratic Alliance or calls for PML unity, the traditional pro and anti-establishment divisions in Pakistani society would stand revived.

As important as the domestic dimension of Sharif’s return to Pakistan are the external factors quite obviously at play in Pakistani politics. Since its inception, Pakistan has been mired in global great power politics at the expense of building up domestic institutions and internal cohesion.

Pakistanis must ponder why international actors have to mediate domestic political issues and instead of blaming our foreign friends should blame the ruling oligarchy that makes such intervention possible.

The way Pakistani military officers are trained, they believe they have the right to give orders to subordinates and an obligation to take orders from superiors.

In the view of Pakistan’s ruling generals, all Pakistanis are their subordinates. The only people superior to the Pakistani generals in their own eyes are those who pay for Pakistan’s militarisation and development – the aid donors and investing countries.

Pakistanis must learn to conduct their politics within their country.

Alternatively, if Pakistan’s external patrons and friends make it clear that they do not want Pakistan to become Myanmar-like, a nation politically dominated by the military forever, Pakistan’s military would start negotiating with the country’s political parties and civil society instead of dictating to them.

Then, Pakistan could emerge as a normal country with predictable patterns of political change. And rulings of Pakistani courts as well as the wishes of Pakistani voters would carry more weight than the intervention of foreign diplomats and potentates.