On my way from Karachi airport to the city three weeks ago, I noticed large portraits of General Raheel Sharif at almost each crossing. That was a sign of a public-relations offensive that was as systematic in the media: One channel shows him comforting families of victims of terrorism, another broadcasts images of Raheel Sharif celebrating Eid al-Adha with soldiers in Khyber Agency. 

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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This development is taking place at the expense of politicians, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not as visible in the public sphere. When he became PM, Nawaz Sharif had three points on his agenda, which were not to the military’s liking: He was determined to bring former army chief Pervez Musharraf to face the courts, he wanted to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and he was willing to improve relations with India. 

The army opposed this agenda, and none of these objectives were realised. Not only because Raheel Sharif, who took over as army chief in late 2013, objected to some of them, but also because the generals were able to use other politicians to weaken the government. This was evident from the August-September 2014 anti-Nawaz Sharif demonstrations that were overtly orchestrated by Imran Khan but covertly benefited from the ISI’s support. 

The political fate of Nawaz Sharif was subsequently sealed in the aftermath of the Peshawar tragedy, in which 134 sons of militarymen were killed in December 2014. Indeed, the National Action Plan (NAP) that was shaped in reaction envisaged a major role for the army. Parliament amended the constitution to create military courts. “Apex committees”, in which the military had the upper hand, were created in each province as well as at the Centre for implementing the NAP. 

The army’s growing influence in the public sphere is particularly obvious in Sindh, where the “Karachi operation” is entering its third year. Its official goal was to fight criminals, but its primary target was the MQM, to which most of the city’s “ordered disorder” — to paraphrase the title of Laurent Gayer’s book — was attributed. In March, the Rangers raided the party HQ, known as “Nine-Zero”. During this raid, not only was the head office ransacked but a party functionary, Waqas Ali Shah, died mysteriously. Since then, the MQM HQ has been raided again once in July and its leaders as well as members in charge of Karachi localities are routinely sent to 90-day custody for interrogation. Altaf Hussain denounced the “illegal arrests and enforced disappearances”, but his followers could not mobilise effectively. He then asked the army for an audience in August 2015 — in vain. Eventually, MQM representatives resigned from the national, regional and local bodies — before taking back their resignations recently, in spite of the repression. 

The PML(N) and PPP, the party governing Sindh, endorsed the Karachi operation. Nawaz Sharif even claimed he had launched it in 2013 and that it had received the approval of all parties. The PPP, after getting the MQM’s support in March 2015 for the chairmanship of the Senate, also supported it. But PPP leaders started to feel the heat themselves when the Rangers director general, briefing the Sindh Apex Committee in June, “revealed the involvement of political parties, district administration and the police in criminal activities in the city”. Among them were PPP leaders. On August 26, the Rangers arrested Asim Hussain, a senior PPP leader, on charges of terrorism. The day after, the PPP’s Khursheed Shah, opposition leader in the National Assembly, declared there would be “war” if Asif Ali Zardari were apprehended. He was not, but he preferred to go to Dubai for a meeting with his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and other party leaders for organising the resistance. The MQM could then tell him he was reaping what he had sown. But the PPP was not the only party supporting the Karachi operation. Besides the PML(N), the PML(Q) was doing the same: Once again, civilians had failed to cope with a military offensive unitedly. 

The army is targeting the media as well. In August, the information ministry issued a code of conduct that made it a condition of a broadcaster’s licence to not air material that “contains aspersions against the judiciary or armed forces”. The Lahore High Court banned all coverage of Altaf Hussain. One of the most popular Pakistani journalists, Kamran Khan, on Dunya News, suggested that there was “a growing public clamour for General Sharif to be given a second term” — he is supposed to retire in November 2016. 

What impact has the the NAP made on Karachi and the country? In March, the first report on the NAP’s implementation provided a lot of details about the Karachi operation — and hardly any on its effectiveness in Punjab, the other province mentioned in the plan (and the Sharif brothers’ stronghold). It argued targeted killings were down by 57 per cent, extortion by 37 per cent, murders by 36 per cent and robberies by 24 per cent. In July, the Rangers announced the end of the first phase of the Karachi operation, claiming that they had conducted 5,795 raids in which 10,353 suspects (including 826 terrorists, 334 targeted killers and 296 extortionists) had been apprehended and 7,312 weapons recovered. Also, 364 suspected criminals had been killed in 224 “encounters”. The Rangers finally declared that “Stage II will be more severe than Stage I as the main task is to hunt down land grabbers, target killers, extortionists, kidnappers, terrorists”. 

The army is pursuing the same policy because it is clearly popular: Karachiites appreciate that crime has declined and that Islamists have been targeted. In Karachi, not only has the TTP lost its visibility, if not its presence, but others have been under attack elsewhere. Malik Ishaq, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni sectarian group, with which the PML(N) worked at the time of elections in Punjab, has been killed, probably in a “staged encounter” — and the sons of the Lal Masjid cleric, who was killed in the assault on the mosque in 2007, have been arrested late last month. 

While Pakistanis appreciate the military intervention, they show some attachment to democracy as well. According to a recent survey by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, while 64 per cent interviewees “believe that democratically elected governments constitute the best system for Pakistan”, the army remains the most trusted institution, with an approval rating of 75 per cent — while political parties remain popular at 35 per cent only. 

Pakistan may make perennial the present arrangement whereby the façade of democracy allows the army to exert real power — if Nawaz Sharif is prepared to “behave” and the army is not interested in seizing power officially, at a time when a coup would be costly in terms of sanctions. Doesn’t the US give a lot of money to the Pakistani army for fighting Islamists and isn’t the IMF helping the country too? And Nawaz Sharif will be in Washington later this month precisely for getting some more financial support and discussing the possibility of a civil nuclear deal. These are surely not subjects the White House could discuss with a man in uniform.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.