The South Asia Channel

Is Pakistan's military out of politics for good?

Last week, three senior members of the Pakistani security establishment - including Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, the country's most powerful military official - stated that the military will not interfere in the country's upcoming national elections. (Observers take note - when the Pakistani military plans to take over, it will let you know.)

Indeed, of the numerous challenges over the last five years to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government's authority, the more overt ones came from Supreme Court efforts to remove President Asif Ali Zardari on corruption charges; flaky coalition partners like the Muttahida Quami Movement, whose frequent departures from the government threatened the coalition's viability; and the pro-regime change march led by Canada-based preacher Tahir ul-Qadri in January.

Still, observers could not help but ponder the possible military connections to each challenge - a state of mind that is second nature in a place like Pakistan, which has spent nearly three decades under military rule since its independence in 1947. The obsessive speculation also suggests a deep-seated expectation in Pakistani culture for the military to come to the country's rescue from a corrupt, inefficient government, even at the expense of democracy.

Those days seem to be over for now. With less than two weeks before its term expires, the PPP is still in charge, with no signs of an imminent hard or soft coup. Nor is there a clear path for significant military poll rigging, especially with a newly independent and neutral Election Commission, thanks to the 20th amendment passed in 2012. We can be sure, however, that the military, like other stakeholders and constituents, is watching the elections process closely, assessing ways it can exert its influence and preserve its interests in the next government. Keeping civilian involvement limited in key national security issues, such as India, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons development, and even relations with the United States will be a priority for the military.     

The world, too, will be watching Pakistan with interest on March 16, when the PPP-led government's term expires. It will have been the first civilian government to complete a full term in the country's history. Any challenge to this history in the making will see diminishing returns. Even though the military remains the most popular institution in Pakistan, there is zero public support for overthrowing the civilian government or intervention in elections. No doubt the generals in Rawalpindi understand all of this.

But more than international scrutiny, internal leadership problems and ideological divides in the security establishment have inadvertently strengthened civilian rule. The military's cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan has come under fire from its lower ranks, a reality with violent consequences. Frequent attacks on military installations, like last year's incident at Kamra air base, can only happen with internal assistance, and imply some level sympathy within the military for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated groups. More specific discontent lies among the most senior officials, the Corps Commanders, some of whom reportedly missed their chance at promotion when the government extended Kayani's term by three years. Whispers of Kayani's family receiving lucrative government contracts have also attempted tarnish the general's standing with the public and within his institution. 

The military has rightfully chosen to focus on its own problems rather than take on those of the civilians. Staying uninvolved while protecting its interests will not come easy, though. The combination of internal leadership and ideological challenges, lack of public support for elections interference, and intense scrutiny by the international community will simply force the military to pursue more indirect means to influence the elections process.

Ultimately, the Pakistani military does not need to lead a coup to interfere in elections. Its checkered past of political engineering speaks for itself. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had illegally financed politicians running against the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the 1990 national elections. In 2002, when General Pervez Musharraf held a referendum to legitimize his coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and extend military rule, domestic and international observers called it "blatantly" rigged.  

Despite 2008 reports that the ISI shut down its political wing, known for "spying on politicians" and "making or breaking of political parties," rumors persist of military support for the purported indefinite extension of the impending caretaker government, as well as for the formation of the Defense of Pakistan Council (DPC), a coalition of conservative and extremist Islamist organizations aiming to be politically viable, possibly in this year's elections.

General Kayani said last week that it was his dream for Pakistan to have free and fair elections. Relatively speaking, it is possible that the elections could be rigged less than previous polls and with less military involvement. But the security establishment's enduring interest in a pliable and cooperative new government that does not interfere in its dealings will guarantee continued military involvement in politics - not the other way around.

Pakistan's military establishment will not always be this hesitant to get directly involved in politics. Over time, and especially as the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down, the military could become less consumed by internal challenges, regaining political space to engage more directly. Additionally, public and institutional appetites for military intervention usually rise, peak, and fall over a period of 8-11 years; the governments of military rulers Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf both lasted this long. If there is indeed a "generational" quality to military rule in Pakistan, then another five years of a poorly performing civilian government could create opportunities for an unpopular military to reenter Pakistani politics.  

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

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