FROM CHIEF TO CHIEF EXECUTIVE – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
FROM CHIEF TO CHIEF EXECUTIVE
One night after dinner, on October 7, 1998, around seven-thirty PM, I was watching television with my wife in my house in Mangla when I got a call that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wished to see me. I said that I would get to Islamabad the next morning.
“No, sir, he-wants to see you now, as soon as possible, tonight,” insisted the prime minister’s military secretary. My back tightened. It is not normal for a prime minister to call a lieutenant general like that, and at night, when the army chief is available next door to sort anything out.
“OK,” I said. “Let me inform the chief.”
“No,” said the military secretary. “This is highly confidential. You just come without telling anyone.”
I sensed that there was something abnormal afoot.
“In what connection am I being summoned?” I asked.
“Sir, you will find out for yourself once you get here. Don’t talk to the chief.”
“Should I come in uniform?” I asked.
“Yes,” I was told, “and get here as fast as you can.”
I got into my uniform, summoned a military police escort, strapped on my favorite Glock 17 pistol (out of abundant caution), and started off for Islamabad, a good ninety minutes drive away. I had been told not to call anyone. I had no idea what was happening.
Just as my car was entering Islamabad, I received a call from Brigadier Ijaz Shah, a friend who was the ISI’s (Inter Services Intelligence) detachment commander in Lahore.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You are being made chief.”
“What nonsense are you talking?” I said. “Karamat’s term is not yet up. How can I become chief?”
“The chief has resigned,” said my friend. “It is all over the news.”
My mind raced back to the Corps Commanders’ Conference in GHQ some months ago, when General Karamat had announced that through a constitutional amendment Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had taken away the power of the president to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the government. He had also taken on himself the power to appoint the three service chiefs and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. I remembered that the color had drained from Lieu-tenant General Ali Kuli’s face. He was friendly with President Farooq Leghari, and it was more or less a foregone conclusion that he would be selected as the next chief But if Nawaz Sharif were to make the decision, Al bets were off. Some generals told me that my chance of becoming chief had returned, but I brushed the idea aside because I felt that before retirement the outgoing chief would propose Ali Kuli’s name. Despite the constitutional amendment, the president still had to sign the order of the appointment of the next chief, and so President Leghari still had some input in the matter.
After this there was open and utterly unseemly conflict between the prime minister on the one hand, and the president and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the other. As had become the norm, both sides dragged in the army chief to arbitrate. President Farooq Leghari tried to get the chief justice to claim that the constitutional amendment was unconstitutional. If the chief justice had done this, the president would have dissolved the National Assembly and dismissed the government of the errant Prime Minister Sharif
The prime minister convinced certain judges to take his side, and they passed a resolution against their own chief-justice. Then the prime minister got his party goons to storm the Supreme Court building while the court was in session. Their lordships had to hide in their chambers to avoid a thrashing, or worse. This was, to put it mildly, a very low point in Pakistani political history.
General Jahangir Karamat called a conference of the corps commanders to discuss the situation, since both the president and the prime minister had asked him to enter the fray as arbiter. The ISI con-
firmed that the president and the chief justice were in collusion to throw out the National Assembly and with it their real target, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
We considered our options. One was to send the chief-justice a message asking him to behave himself and remain neutral, neutrality being an imperative in his job. Some felt that Nawaz Sharif was using his brute majority in the National Assembly to bend the constitution to his will and was really damaging the country. Best to let him be thrown out before it went too far. Ali Kuli, for obvious reasons, said that in case the president lost the battle and was thrown out, so should Nawaz Sharif be-both must go and we should impose martial law. But I argued that what the president and the chief justice were doing was very wrong, that Nawaz Sharif had been elected and we must let his term take its course if democracy was to take root and mature. I was the strongest proponent of maintaining the prime minister in his position, and keeping the National Assembly in place. If there had to be a human political sacrifice, I felt, it should be the president and the chief justice. I remember that I gave a rather long analysis.
The next day General Karamat called a meeting of the principal staff officers. I was not there, but Ali Kuli was. I was later informed that Ali Kuli said a great deal, the import of which was that General Karamat should take over and impose martial law
After a few days the army chief called another meeting in Army House, at which some corps commanders including myself were also present. Ali in repeated that the army should take over, and send both the president and the prime minister packing. I had a small run-in with Ali then, because this was not fair play; it was self-promotion. Once again we considered sending a message to the chief justice to behave himself, but finally it was decided that the only way to break the impasse was that both the president and the chief-justice must be advised to go. The army supported the elected prime minister. Then we dispersed.
The next day, with none of us present, a desperate Ali Kuli played his last card and insisted that Nawaz Sharif must go if the president went, and that the army must take over the country. General Karamat did not agree, and he threw his weight behind the prime minister. President Farooq Leghari decided to resign. The chief justice followed soon after, having lost the support of many of his fellow judges. And so the “battle for the Supreme Court” came to an ignoble end. The army chief had been dragged into it, as usual, by the politicians, but this time he did the right thing.
I was in some turmoil as I entered the prime minister’s office. He was sitting on a sofa and smiling a victorious smile. He told me that the chief of the army staff had resigned and that he had appointed me instead.
I asked him what had happened. “I demanded his resignation and he gave it to me,” said the prime minister. I was taken aback. General Karamat’s “mistake” had been to make some suggestions during a speech at the Naval Staff College, about how to improve the governance of the country, including setting up a national security council. Nawaz Sharif had taken his scalp for it. at shocked me even more was the meek manner in which General Karamat resigned. It caused great resentment in the army, as soldiers and officers alike felt humiliated.
I know that in western democracies, military personnel on active duty, especially the chiefs, are not supposed to make political statements. But then, in western democracies neither do the heads of government and state perennially drag army chiefs into politics. In a country where such a practice is rampant, an army chief cannot be blamed for getting involved, if he acts sensibly.
I thanked the prime minister for reposing confidence in me. While pinning on my badges of rank he said, “One of the reasons why I have selected you is that you are the only lieutenant general who never approached me, directly or indirectly, for this job.” I saluted the prime minister and left.
The first thing I did was to drive straight to Army House and meet General Jahangir Karamat, now my predecessor. “Sir, what happened?” I asked him. He didn’t tell me anything. Not to this day has he told me why he resigned. He only congratulated me. at could I say? “Sir, I’m sorry for you and happy for myself”? I was with him for only about ten or fifteen minutes and then left.
I went to the Armored Corps mess for the night. Obviously, the first people I called were my wife and my parents. Needless to say, they were thrilled. A short while later I got a call from Ali Kuli, who was now my chief of general staff (CGS) and would be looking after my appointment ceremony the next morning. Imagine my surprise and pain when, after Ali expressed some lackluster congratulations-“Pervez, congratulations”-he informed me in the same breath, “I have to go to Peshawar tomorrow for a wedding.”
I said, “OK, go if you must.”
Then Ali added, “Maybe I won’t come back.”
“Ali, it is entirely your choice,” I replied, trying to hide the disappointment in my voice. “I want you to continue to come to the office, but if you don’t want to, it’s up to you.” Ali never did come back. He retired from the army. He even stopped talking to me. He also refused to respond to my dinner invitation for all my army course mates. His behavior was odd, to say the least. After all, he was a lieutenant general, the chief of general staff, and, above all, my friend and course mate. If nothing else, he should have been glad that his friend had become the chief and that he was my CGS. Obviously, our friendship soured. He needed to remember the old adage, “Man proposes and God disposes.”
There was even greater resentment in the army than I had imagined over General Jahangir Karamat’s forced resignation. An overbearing prime minister with a huge parliamentary majority, he had been busy gathering all powers in his office. Through constitutional amendments he had silenced dissent, not only within his parry but in parliament as well. His party goons had physically attacked the Supreme Court, and the whole sordid episode had been caught on film by the security cam-eras. He had bribed and coerced judges. He had also tried to muzzle the press and had arrested and mistreated a number of journalists and editors. By reducing the president to a mere figurehead, he had removed the safety valve that could get rid of corrupt and inept governments without intervention by the army. With that safety valve gone there was nothing to stand between a prime minister on the rampage and the army. Nawaz Sharif had axed the army chief simply for speaking up.
One of the first things I did was to tell the army that our job was to assist the government in all possible ways, particularly in areas where it asked us to help. We should stop brooding over the forced resignation of General Karamat and get on with our jobs. We would not allow another humiliation to befall us in case the prime minister tried some-thing like this again, but we would only react, never act unilaterally.
I was army chief for only a year before the army had to react against Nawaz Sharif. My working relationship with him was perfectly good in the beginning, with some minor disagreements over the sacking of two major generals, the appointment of two lieutenant generals, and his request to me to court-martial a journalist for treason. I must say that I was quite amused by his style of working: I never saw him reading or writing anything.
Our relationship soured only with the Kargil episode and Nawaz Shard’s sudden capitulation before President Bill Clinton in Washing-ton on July 4, 1999. That episode was so fraught with tension, and so dangerous-the first clash of India and Pakistan since we both had detonated nuclear weapons-that it demands its own chapter in this account.