1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Army 'destabilizing' government

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 1, 2014

Pakistan's powerful military has said it will step up efforts to resolve the country's weeks-long political crisis. But analyst Aqil Shah tells DW, the army is fueling the turmoil in a bid to send a signal to PM Sharif.

Parlamentswahlen in Pakistan
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Pakistani security forces have secured the headquarters of the state television channel PTV in Islamabad after a crowd of anti-government protesters stormed the building on September 1 and temporarily took the channel off the air. The move was followed by Defense Minister Khawaja Asif's announcement that the administration was preparing to launch a selective crackdown against anti-government demonstrators seeking to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to Reuters.

Pakistan has been facing political turmoil over the past several weeks ever since opposition politicians Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri led mass demonstrations against Sharif and his government, whom they accuse of incompetence and rigging last year's parliamentary vote.

Over the weekend, clashes on the streets of Islamabad turned violent leading to three peopled dead and hundreds wounded. PM Sharif came to power in 2013 in the first democratic transfer of power in a country which has seen three coups since gaining independence in 1947.

Pakistan's military, which initially appeared reluctant to get involved in the political turmoil has seemingly changed tact by inviting opposition leaders Imran Khan, a hero cricket player turned politician, and Tahir ul-Qadri, a firebrand cleric, for talks to resolve the crisis.

Aqil Shah
Aqil Shah says the military's actions and rhetoric reveal that it has strategically placed itself as the arbiter of the fate of the governmentImage: privat

However, in a DW interview, Aqil Shah, Pakistan expert and visiting professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, says that the military establishment is stirring up violence to send a signal to all political parties: "don't mess with the army or you will get into serious trouble."

DW: What role is the Pakistan's powerful army playing in the ongoing crisis?

Aqil Shah: I strongly suspect the military is using spoilers like Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri to stir up violence and destabilize the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Whether they want to knock Sharif down or just put him in his place for daring to cross swords with the generals, for instance, by trying former President General Pervez Musharraf for treason, they want to send a signal to Sharif and by default, all political parties: don't mess with the army or you will get into serious trouble.

What strategy is the Pakistani army following?

The strategy is simple: divide and control.

Why has the army decided not to intervene directly?

Although the military has not yet seized government, it has intervened directly in the political process by openly meeting Khan and Qadri, issuing formal warnings to the government to desist from using violence against protesters, and reportedly leaking misinformation to selected media outlets to keep the government guessing.

While direct military rule is discredited both internally and externally, that does not mean a coup is completely out of the question even if it takes a somewhat different form, like Bangladesh in 2007 when the military adopted a civilian façade to rule from behind the scenes.

How willing is the military to take control of the situation and possibly the government?

The military's actions and rhetoric reveal that it has strategically placed itself as the arbiter of the fate of the government while trying to create the impression amongst the public that it is absolutely neutral and acting in the public interest.

Javed Hashmi, whom Imran Khan summarily removed yesterday from the position of party president because he opposed storming the parliament, has just spilled the beans in a press conference.

Hashmi confirmed widely held suspicions that Khan and TUQ are acting in collaboration with the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has encouraged them to follow a slash and burn policy till the government relents.

He has also asserted that the army has promised Khan new elections after Sharif's ouster. This seems to be a repeat of the 1977 political crisis when an Islamist-dominated opposition alliance was protesting against alleged electoral fraud committed by the PPP government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and reportedly received a similar assurance from the generals.

How likely is it that PM Sharif will resign as a result of the protests?

Sharif has and is likely to resist any demands of his resignation. And he should: he is the democratically elected prime minister and has the right to rule unless he is legally removed by a no-confidence vote in parliament.

Raheel Sharif und Premierminister Nawaz Sharif
Shah: The military establishment is stirring up violence to send a signal to all political parties not to mess with the armyImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

In fact, the army tried to extract a resignation from him after overthrowing him in the October 1999 coup to make it look like he had voluntarily ceded power, but Sharif stood his ground. With most parties represented in parliament backing him, he is unlikely to throw in the towel in a rush.

Aqil Shah is visiting professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and author of "The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan" (Harvard University Press, 2014).You can follow him on Twitter @AqilShah_.