Complexities of Post-Laden Politics in Pakistan and Implications


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

The recent developments in Pakistan’s politics particularly the relations between the civilian government and military, in the background of troubled US-Pakistan relations exacerbated by the November killing of Pakistan soldiers by US drones and killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, will have far reaching implications not only for Pakistan, but also for Afghanistan, South Asia, and far beyond. Though the controversies surrounding relationship of civilian government with military leadership is nothing new in Pakistan’s political history, but the recent developments in which the serving Prime Minister openly challenged the military on the floor of Parliament may be construed as a bold step and strong attempt to hold to reins of power despite the news of the military’s discomfiture over the ‘memogate’ and the developments aftermath.

One of the prominent newspapers of Pakistan, The Nation, in its report on 23 December 2011 covered in detail the speech of Prime Minister Yusuf Raja Gilani on the floor of Parliament on 22 December 2011, in which he took strong position in pronouncing the policies of his government and its approach towards the army. Gilani, known for his cool demeanor and conciliatory approach took a strong position and declared that Pakistan people cannot tolerate, ‘a state within a state,’ which was an indirect reference to army. He argued, “If they (the military) say that they are not under the ministry of defence, then we should get out of this slavery, then this parliament has no importance, this system has no importance, then you are not sovereign.” He strongly pitched his case for a civilian government by arguing, “Nobody is above the law, all the institutions are subservient to the parliament.” The same day he told at the National Arts Gallery in Islamabad, “I want to make it clear today that conspiracies are being hatched here to pack up the elected government,” and made the resolve of his government, “to fight for the rights of people of Pakistan whether or not we remain in the government.” History stands witness that no democratically government in Pakistan has completed the usual mandated five years in office; hence the determination of the current government to stay in power might have emerged in the background of recent tussles between the military establishment and civilian government which came to power in February 2008.

In fact the tussle started aftermath of the killing of bin Laden on 2nd of May last year, but that remained more latent than active. The beans were spilled in October this year when the Pakistani origin US businessman Mansoor Ijaz revealed that the civilian government had sent a memo to the US General Mike Mullen seeking US support in case of an army takeover, as the killing of Laden was interpreted differently by various quarters in Pakistan. It had certainly eroded the credibility of the army, which had claimed to emerge as a crucial partner in the global war against terrorism. The same businessman also revealed that Pakistan’s Intelligence agency Chief, General Ahmed Shuza Pasha travelled to the Persian Gulf after the killing of Laden to garner support for a coup in Pakistan. Former Pak Army Chief, Ziauddin Butt, who was appointed by Nawaz Sharif but remained in office for few days as Sharif government was overthrown and taken over by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, told in one of his recent interviews to Pakistan Urdu daily Jung that Laden stayed in Abbotabad in full knowledge of the army and of Musharraf. It may be a rational conjecture that a high profile figure like bin Laden could not have stayed in the military garrison town of Abbotabad, not far from Islamabad, without the knowledge of army or at least some influential segments in the army. The killing might have emerged as a challenge to the formidability of some sections of army establishment which were sympathetic to Laden, but that might have as well dented the credibility of the army which fought militants in Waziristan and claimed to have played major role in the global war against terrorism.

However, this revelation famously called memogate shook the government apparatus in Pakistan and sent into tizzy the relationship between civilian government of Zardari and the army headed by Ashraf Pervez Kayani. Heads started rolling, the first being the Pak Ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, who allegedly played a key role behind this memo. He was replaced by Sherry Rehman. Similarly, the visit of Zardari to Dubai early December 2011 also shrouded with speculations, which ranged from his sickness to his exile. But all those speculations were unfounded as Zardari returned safe to Pakistan. In meantime, the developments like the Judicial Commission enquiring into the killing of bin Laden raising issues of visas to Americans, and the demand of Army Chief Kayani and Intelligence Chief Pasha that the memogate must be enquired into by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, might have further unsettled the relationship between the civilian government and the military. Taking queue from the Judicial Commission, which raised the issue of visas to Americans, Gilani argued, “I want to ask how was someone (bin Laden) living here for the past six years? On what type of visa was he living here? Why was security not taken care of, if he entered Pakistan without a visa?” This argument indirectly but strongly cast aspersions on the army behind Laden’s sojourn in Abbotabad for six long years.

Gilani further argued, perhaps in a way to reflect the earlier amicable relations between the civilian government and the military, that ‘“In OBL (Osama bin Laden) case, we also stood by the establishment. Though we had some differences but we supported them. After Mumbai attacks, we also supported them and even fired General (Mahmud) Durrani.” Mahmoud Durrani was dismissed on the insistence of the army, which did not like his comments on Mumbai attacks and allegedly involvement of Pak based terrorist groups in the attacks. The Nation rightly pointed out that “the impression which the government tried to create of General Kayani’s meeting with the Prime Minister and his phone call to President Zardari that all the differences have been largely removed was incorrect.” The army’s retort early this month that the pronouncements and actions of the civilian government may lead to ‘grievous consequences’ will further vitiate the relations between the civilian government and the army.

The differences in approaches of civilian government and the military will likely affect Pakistan’s domestic policy as well as foreign policy. While the recent US drone attacks killing many Pak soldiers could bring the two together and strengthened their determination to put a strong face against drone attacks, resulting in the closure of Khyber Pass for NATO vehicles for supplying materials to Afghanistan, the recent differences will spiral Pakistan further down towards instability. It will be difficult to say whether army will take over power, or promote other opposition parties to take over power from Zardari government, but the differences point out two things clearly: that the civilian government has appeared stronger to point out its differences with army in unequivocal terms, and the army appears to have given up ambitions to topple civilian government despite strong differences. In this understanding lies the strength of Pakistan’s democracy, otherwise any instability and chaos will severely jeopardize its capabilities to put a united face in Afghanistan, or even for a stable Pakistan.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Jan 2012.

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