As early as the late 1960s, Pakistani officers tended to think that their army should not govern the country but that it “should be formally inducted into the policymaking structure because of the role it had acquired in security and internal policymaking”, to cite an expert in this matter, Hasan-Askari Rizvi. For these officers, military coups were no solution because to govern implied micromanagement of the economy and diversions from the army’s main missions.
How to rule, and protect one’s interests, without governing — this was the question that the Pakistan army asked itself as early as 1969 when Yahya Khan took over from Ayub Khan and created the National Security Council (NSC) that was intended to secure a role for the army in the power structure. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not happy with it and established, instead, a Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) under the PMO. But Zia-ul-Haq promoted the NSC, which, under him, included the president, prime minister, chairman of the senate, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, chiefs of staff of army, navy and air force, as well as the four chief ministers.
When democratisation took place again after 1988, chiefs of army staff (COASs) often tried to undermine the prime ministers who alternated in power, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a strategy that resulted in political instability. Eventually, COAS Jehangir Karamat suggested in 1998 that instead of this tug of war, the civilians should officially recognise the army’s role.
In his famous speech of October 1998 at the Naval Staff College in Lahore, he claimed that the creation of “a National Security Council or Committee at the apex would institutionalise” the role of the army in the decision-making process. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took exception to this idea and forced Karamat to resign two months before he reached retirement age — a first in Pakistan.
One year later, Pervez Musharraf took over from Nawaz Sharif but he revisited Karamat’s project and a new NSC was established in 2004. After 2008, the PPP government ignored this NSC and promoted the DCC again.
Nawaz Sharif discarded this policy after his electoral victory in 2013, accommodating the army in the power structure of Pakistan for the first time under a non-military regime. The NSC was reconstituted in August 2013. More importantly, the 2014 Peshawar tragedy, which resulted in the death of 134 sons of armymen, legitimised the transfer of additional responsibilities to the military in the framework of the new anti-terror National Action Plan (NAP) that the government, parliament and army drafted together. Not only was the constitution amended in order to legalise military courts, but apex committees (ACs) were created to supervise the implementation of the NAP.
The ACs in the provinces and at the centre are supposed to bring together civilians and armymen under the chairmanship of the chief ministers and prime minister, respectively. But the strong men of these committees, given their security-oriented agenda, are those in uniform, the corps commanders at the provincial level and the COAS at the centre. After all, their creation was announced by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing on January 3, 2015, and three days later, the first meeting of the Punjab Apex Committee took place in the Lahore army corps headquarters in the presence of the COAS and director general, ISI.
The ACs were not part of the NAP and they have not been established through any official notification defining their terms of reference. Even their composition is not clear: A former chief minister of Balochistan and former President Asif Ali Zardari have taken part in some committee meetings. In these meetings, the armymen have lectured the civilians, asking them to implement the NAP more effectively to choke terror financing and reform madrasas.
One of the missions of these ACs consists of sending to the interior minister cases to be tried in military courts. But the initiative often comes from the armymen of the committees and the final decision is in the hands of the army. Executions are cleared and often made public by Raheel Sharif himself. Among those who have been executed (176 in the first six months of the NAP’s implementation), there were many “criminals” who were not charged with terrorism. Not only do trials take place in camera but there is hardly any possibility to go in appeal before a non-military court.
In Sindh, the AC has become a parallel government in the context of the Karachi operation that the Rangers started in 2013 to fight not only terrorism but also corruption and other rackets. The MQM headquarters were raided in 2015, one senior PPP leader detained, and the ex-chairman of the Fishermen Cooperative Society arrested. If Raheel Sharif engages with the media systematically at the national level to explain to Pakistanis what the army is doing to implement the NAP, the chief of the Rangers also publicises his actions, criticising the PPP state government and its police publicly.
When Zardari warned the army against “stepping out of its domain” in June 2015, Nawaz Sharif called Raheel Sharif, who was then on an official visit to Russia, to distance himself from Zardari’s criticism of the armed forces.
The attitude of the PM is unexpected: The man who rejected Karamat’s “plan” in 1998 is now making it possible. The army may be in a position to rule without governing — Nawaz Sharif is offering them a façade of democracy that is most convenient. After all, the military would not receive so much money from the US and the IMF if Pakistan were not a “democracy”.
This arrangement may last because the civilians do not seem to be in a position to do as good a job as the army in terms of internal security: The police lack resources and the judiciary, which has a low conviction rate (because of fear of the judges and the witnesses), was not unhappy to let the army take over from them. Last but not least, China wants security for its investments in the framework of the China-Pakistan Corridor and a “proposal for a consultative forum on the pattern of apex committees is currently under discussion between the civil and military leaderships”, according to Dawn.