ANATOMY OF SUICIDE – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
ANATOMY OF SUICIDE
Why did Nawaz Sharif do what he did? Why did he commit political suicide? This answer to this question may always remain a mystery.
I did my best to be cooperative as army chief I regularly asked Nawaz Sharif how the army could help to improve his sagging government. He asked me to help shore up a failing megacorporation, the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). I accepted this most difficult assignment. The army took over WAPDAs functioning, deploying 36,000 troops. We saved it from collapse. Nawaz Sharif also asked me to stiffen the back of a frightened judiciary in dealing with sectarian terrorists. I readily obliged. We opened several anti-terrorist military courts and placed some restraints on these terrorist groups.
Such cooperation notwithstanding, there were areas of difference from day one. I thought they were minor, but perhaps Nawaz Sharif took them seriously. Only a few days after I took command of the army, he spoke very strongly against two major generals whose loyalty he doubted and asked me to retire them summarily. It was a very strange request. I replied that I could not do so without being given a formal charge sheet against them and without inquiring into details, giving the officers a chance to explain their supposed misconduct. He persisted in his demand directly and indirectly through intermediaries for more than a month. Finally, I flatly refused to oblige him. I told him that major generals couldn’t be treated so arbitrarily on mere hearsay or suspicion.
The other disagreement arose a few months later, when the editor of
the Friday Times, a weekly tabloid, was apprehended on the orders of the prime minister. I was first told to take over the case and keep the editor in the custody of the Lahore branch of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). I did so with some reluctance, mainly to protect him from torture or mishandling by the police. I specifically instructed the ISI to keep him in a safe house, out of harm’s way.
The story did not end there. I was shocked the next day when the prime minister placed an abominable demand on me-to court-martial the editor. At first I almost laughed and thought he must be joking. But the prime minister had done his homework. He said a court-martial is quite legal in cases of treason. It was a shocking suggestion that gave me my first glimpse into the deviousness of the prime minister’s mind. Again, I flatly refused, explaining the adverse domestic and international consequences of such a rash action. My refusal ended in the release of the editor.
It could be that such affronts on my part made the prime minister realize his folly in selecting me for my position. He had probably thought that being the son of immigrant parents, I would acquiesce in his demands-that I would feel insecure and vulnerable and do his bid-ding. He couldn’t have been more wrong. For one thing, such parochialism does not exist in the army, where we are all Pakistanis. Neither did Sharif understand that the patriotism of those who voluntarily left everything behind and came to Pakistan is beyond question. Pakistan was built as a refuge and a homeland for the Muslims of India to escape Hindu economic and political domination and social discrimination. My family was one of those that sought refuge in their new country. We have a great stake in its survival and prosperity. For us to acquiesce in anything that we believe will damage Pakistan would be unthinkable.
The Kargil episode created the biggest divide between the prime minister and myself. We had both wanted to put Kashmir firmly on the world’s radar screen, politically as well as militarily. The Kargil initiative succeeded in doing so. Yet when external political pressure forced Nawaz Sharif to vacate the liberated area, he broke down. Rather than deriving strength through national solidarity, he blamed the army and tried to make himself look clean. He thought he would be more secure if he denied any knowledge of the Kargil operation.
All kinds of care-fully placed articles appeared, including a one-page advertisement in a newspaper in the United States, maligning the army and creating a divide between it and the government. It was in dealing with Kargil that the prime minister exposed his mediocrity and set himself on a collision course with the army and me.
Other than these visible disagreements between Nawaz Sharif and myself, I had ventured to advise him several times on how to improve his governance. This I did in response to a growing and widespread public outcry against the nation’s rapid slide, and to the intelligentsia’s specific pressure on me to react. Some people were even bold enough to ask me to take over, or to ask why I was not taking over to save the nation. While I agreed with their assessment, that the government was in bad shape, there was no institutional means or forum for me to raise issues and contribute toward rectification of the situation, especially after Nawaz Sharif had usurped all powers for himself, including the constitutional power of the president to dissolve the National Assembly. The president could thus no longer remove a prime minister and his government, so there was no check on the prime minister’s power, and I certainly had no intention of mounting a coup. Better to let the political process, such as it was, take its course.
It is not unusual in Pakistan for the general public and the intelligentsia to approach the army chief and ask him to save the nation. In all crises, everyone sees Pakistan’s army as the country’s savior. Whenever governments have malfunctioned (as has frequently occurred), when-ever there has been a tussle between the president and the prime minister (especially during the 1990s), all roads led to the general headquarters of the army. The army chief was regularly expected to put pressure on the prime minister to perform-to avoid corruption, nepotism, and sometimes, downright criminality. The army chief was also dragged in to mediate all disputes between the president and the prime minister.
In October 1999, the nation was fast headed toward economic and political collapse. Under these trying circumstances, I was working to shore up the prime minister and help him perform better. It was unfortunate that he distrusted my good intentions. Though he was a city boy, his mental makeup was largely feudal-he mistook dissent for disloyalty. His misplaced perception of my loyalty, coupled with the suspicion that I was planning a coup, must have led to Nawaz Shard’s paranoia.
There are three basic theories about why Nawaz Sharif did what he did. Possibility 1: It could be that Nawaz Sharif planned to have me as army chief for only a year, though the normal term is three years. After a year I could be shunted aside to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. A pliable general (like Lieutenant General Ziauddin) could be promoted to ensure that he played a “positive” role in the national elections in 2002.
Possibility 2: As I said, perhaps Nawaz Sharif expected me to be more pliable, since my family had migrated from India at the time of Partition. But when he realized his error, he decided to get rid of me. Action against me, he may have thought, would establish his ascendancy over the army as well as please the Americans and the Indians.
Possibility 3: He feared a coup by me. His associates, including Lieutenant General Ziauddin, may also have fanned and fortified his paranoia. By this theory, he was trying to preempt me.
Whatever the reason, Nawaz Sharif committed political suicide. I have thought about it a lot and have come to the conclusion that whereas there was more than one reason propelling Nawaz Sharif toward the precipice, the most outstanding must have been that he wanted a pliant army chief for the next elections.
Our lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, had already passed the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, which was called the Shariat Bill. It would have made him as all-powerful as a medieval monarch. Through three constitutions, Pakistan has always styled itself an Islamic republic, but we have tried to maintain some distinction between governmental and religious authority. This amendment would also have consolidated all authority for enforcement of religious law in the hands of the prime minister. All that remained was passage by the upper house, the Senate. Nawaz Sharif was waiting for the Senate elections in early 2000, which would have guaranteed him a two-thirds majority in the Senate as well because of the nature of our system. All four of our provinces are represented equally in the Senate, and members are elected by their relevant provincial assemblies on the basis of the proportion of seats various parties have in that assembly. Since Nawaz Sharif’s party had the largest number of seats in the four provincial assemblies combined, the result was a foregone conclusion. Once he had that, the Senate would have ratified the amendment.
Nawaz Sharif had already emasculated dissent in his parliamentary party through amendments to the constitution and had also taken away the power of the president to dissolve the National Assembly under certain circumstances. All he needed now to effectively make him a civilian dictator was to become “commander of the faithful.”
Lieutenant General Ziauddin probably sensed what was on Nawaz Sharif’s mind and cleverly urged him along, at the same time suggesting that he, himself, Zia, a loyal Kashmiri, was my best replacement. Ziauddin used the Kargil affair to frighten the prime minister into believing that I would remove him from office. His word as the director general of Inter Services Intelligence carried great weight.
The army’s reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s attempted coup has to be seen not only as a response to another humiliation by a prime minister, but also as a response to the abysmal political, social, and economic condition that Pakistan had reached. We stood at the brink of being declared a failed state, a defaulted state, or even a terrorist state. Economic growth had come to a standstill. The central bank was bankrupt, with only ten days’ worth of imports in foreign exchange remaining. Nawaz Sharif had to freeze private foreign currenry accounts after $11 billion of deposits went unaccounted for. Over one trillion rupees, around $20 billion, had been invested in development over eleven years, but there was almost nothing to show for it except a solitary 230-mile (370-kilometer) highway. Sectarian terrorism was on the rise, with Shias and Sunnis being killed regularly.
The police were totally demoralized, lawlessness was rampant, and the law courts were overwhelmed. The public was also demoralized and beginning to display signs of hopelessness in the future of the country. The people had lost their honor and their pride in being Pakistanis. They were yearning for change. With the fifteenth constitutional amendment Nawaz Sharif wanted to usurp all power and become Ameer ul Momineen, “commander of the faithful,” with dictatorial temporal and religious powers.
The spirit of loyalty is instilled deeply in all ranks of the army. At the lower ranks loyalty is toward the commander, and his word is to be obeyed without question. At the senior command level there is a larger sense of loyalty to a common cause or toward protection of the nation. The senior commanders had to decide whether their loyalty to a blundering prime minster was stronger than their loyalty to their own chief and their patriotism and love for the nation and its people. I am glad that at the moment of truth they took action in favor of their higher sense of loyalty to Pakistan and in accordance with what the nation would have desired them to do. I am proud of my army and the spontaneous support displayed by the Pakistani masses, who placed their trust in me to steer the nation to safety and prosperity.