Six Balls in the Air and Counting: A Perspective on the Rising Tensions Between Pakistan’s Army and Government

January 26, 2012 | By Isaac Kfir

As Pakistan strives to deal with the pressures of democracy and the ongoing controversy over Mansoor Ijaz’s memo (memogate),[1] there are heightened concerns that Pakistan is heading towards its fifth military coup.[2] Memogate has polarized Pakistani society, with the army and the government adopting conflicting positions (the army has asked the Supreme Court to investigate the memo and see if its existence is a threat to Pakistani national security, a position that the Gilani government strenuously rejects). The Court led by Chief Justice Chaudary, who is no friend of President Zardari, is now deeply involved in the political furor.[3] The Court however is no stranger to such a role, as seen during the tumultuous 1990s, when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were repeatedly sacked as prime ministers mainly because they clashed with the military.[4]  What lies at the heart of the crisis is control over the political system. The army has taken great offence to comments made by Prime Minister Gilani,[5] his decision to sack Lieutenant General (ret.) Khalid Naeem Lodhi, as defense minister[6] and a general unhappiness with the government’s desire to rein in the military.


Pakistan’s civilian-military relations are highly complex as they have many facets and elements,[7]which is why the aim here is limited to highlighting possible reasons as to why Generals Kayani and Pasha are so determined to resist the government.[8] Put simply, if Pakistan is ever to become a viable democracy, a stable relationship between the army and the government is essential as only when the civilian polity truly controls, directs and manages the military, a solid base for democracy can emerge.[9] Thus, to fully understand the tensions heightened by memogate, it is important to recognize that it is intimately linked to the challenges faced by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s Army Chief, and Lieutenant-General (ret.) Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the Director-General of the ISI.[10] The two face significant and complimentary challenges that begin with recognizing that both institutions are in desperate need of reform and that incessant interventions in civilian matters are undermining Pakistan’s standing in the world. However, the two must contend with tremendous internal opposition to the substantive reforms necessary, coupled with a history of mistrust vis-à-vis civilian politicians.


Over the last few years, made worse by the Raymond Davis incident and the bin Laden operation, the army has come to feel that its position in Pakistan society is threatened as the total support that it once received from ordinary Pakistanis and the United States is no longer guaranteed. This shift is, at least to the mind of the army, a product of foreign action that has led to the army’s honor and capabilities to be publicly challenged.[11]


A first issue that General Kayani has to address is the nature, structure and fabric of the army, which as an institution has failed to change its perception and nature. The main challenge comes from junior and middle-ranking officers whose views of Pakistan’s security concerns are largely anachronistic.[12] These individuals are seething over the bin Laden killing in May 2011 and the NATO incident that left 24 soldiers dead.[13] Junior officers express doubts and concerns if not clear rejection of Pakistan’s close relations with the United States, whom they feel malign them with claims of collusion with terrorists while not appreciating Pakistan’s sacrifice in the ‘war on terror.’ Thus, over the past few months, General Kayani has worked hard to address the anger of the junior officers, as well as that of the senior military officers. To that end, he has visited garrisons across the country and spoke to officers.[14] Kayani knows that even though the army is generally well disciplined, there is nothing to suggest that it is immune from the prospects of a junior officer-led coup, as history has shown that junior officers are able to overthrow governments.[15] Director-General Pasha faces a tougher challenge to that of Kayani in dealing with his subordinates. This is because the ISI follows an institutional framework designed to address Pakistan’s inherent insecurities, as since the late 1950s, the institution has been able to operate without any real restrictions, first because no other agency challenged its position, but also because various leaders encouraged it to grow and develop.[16] The ISI is an exceptionally intricate organization, well versed in the art of subversions and suspicion, a legacy of the war against the Soviets, which radically altered the ISI, encouraging Islamic conservatism within the organization and embedding a strong Pakistani-Islamic outlook that has grown with the passage of time.[17] Michael Hayden, the former CIA director claims that Pasha has become more suspicious of U.S. motives vis-à-vis Pakistan,[18]leading the ISI to focus more on reasserting its position as the preeminent intelligence unit in Pakistan while making it clear that the CIA cannot and will not operate independently in Pakistan.[19] This position resonates with the rank and file of the institution.


A second challenge is breaking relations with entities and actors that the army and the ISI have helped create. For decades, both organizations nurtured domestic and foreign entities that conduct subversive operations on the behalf or the behest of the army and the ISI under the guise of seeking to promote the interests of Pakistan. Thus, subversive groups emerged in Pakistani cities (many are engaged in sectarian violence), helping to foster sectarian tensions, and in such areas as Kashmir and along some of Pakistan’s borders.[20] These ties have become difficult to break as unofficial lines of communication and support have been establish, which means that even if and when orders are given to cease operation with these entities, it will remain difficult to ensure that the orders are obeyed.


Kayani and Pasha’s third challenge is contending with an increasingly angry Pakistani public, one that feels disillusioned at its own political system, whom it identifies as corrupt, decadent and supine in that it seeks to appease foreign interests as oppose to Pakistani ones. Between 2007 and 2009, the military establishment went through a difficult period, as public support was on the wane due to some of the policies of Pervez Musharraf. This may explain why the army and the ISI both kept a low profile in the February 2008 elections.[21] For the next 18 months, anger continued, as the military was unable to deal with the rising levels of domestic terrorism. The army’s engagement with the militants, whether in the way it conducted its military operations or the way it sought to impose its will, caused as much damage and harm to civilians.[22] Thus, the army being a pragmatic institution altered its approach and accepted a truce with the Taliban and Islamic militants.[23]However, the Taliban push, their brutal slaying of soldiers, police-officers and civilians coupled with the 2010 horrific floods have helped the army restore its tarnished reputation as it did a better job than the civilian leaders (President Zardari opted to continue with his trip in Europe).[24]


A fourth challenge faced by Kayani and Pasha is rising support to non-establishment groups and parties, as Pakistanis embrace regional parties and new actors. These actors adhere to a jingoistic, nationalist and anti-American agenda whereby the traditional parties and the government come under criticism for following the American line, supporting U.S. presence in Afghanistan and not addressing the rising levels of corruption and economic hardship that is paralyzing Pakistan. A good example of this potential shift is the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has been around since the mid-1990s. The PTI was never considered a serious political party, as although many respect Imran Khan due to his extraordinary cricketing career and philanthropic work he was mainly identified as a playboy. However, the PTI has spent the last decade engaged in social welfare programs, while Khan adopted a consistent, nationalist anti-American stance (opposition to U.S. presence in Afghanistan, negotiations with the Taliban and greater accountability, transparency and openness within the political system[25]). He has also positioned himself against the government and the PPP especially President Zardari,[26] winning Khan tremendous support, (in a rally in Lahore in December 2011, Khan drew between 70,000 to possibly 200,000 people[27]). Nothing seems to suggest that interest in the PTI is waning.[28]


Kayani and Pasha’s fifth challenge is finding a way to deal with Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. This has always been a key test for the Pakistani security establishment, which has become much more difficult due to conflicting interests of Pakistan and the United States, especially over Afghanistan. Kayani knows that U.S. policymakers are unhappy with the way in which the Pakistani government, the military and the security services conduct themselves. Washington’s demands begin with ending Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan; controlling the military’s interaction with domestic Islamists; and keeping the army from taking over the political system. These are simply things that take tremendous time and effort to accomplish and must be done diplomatically and quickly to ensure that Pakistani military honor is impinged.

A sixth challenge faced by Kayani and Pasha is Afghanistan. It is becoming clear that Pakistani policymakers do not know how to proceed when it comes to Afghanistan. The two share a turbulent history. Traditional military strategy holds that Pakistan needs Afghanistan for strategic depth. From Afghanistan, the Pakistani army would launch counter attacks against the Indians.[29] Increasingly, the quagmire in Afghanistan has led to new worries for Pakistan one of which is what would the Afghan non-Pashtun population do should President Karzai broker a deal with the Taliban. Pakistanis and others are concerned that following such a move the Afghan non-Pashtun population may decide to break away from the Afghan state leaving the various Pashtun groups to fight among themselves.[30]


Generals Kayani and Pasha and whoever replaces Pasha when his term ends in March 2012, have many challenges before them as they arguably strive to introduce the concept of accountability to institutions that have never known such boundaries before. Pakistan’s weakness stems from endogenous and exogenous factors, which on the one hand demand radical reform. However, radical change is dangerous in a fragile state leading established stakeholders to oppose the change as it normally comes at their expense. Ultimately, as tensions rise and lines are being drawn, instability in Pakistan will also rise, which is often a precursor before a coup occurs. Nevertheless, the military must be aware that the worst thing that could happen to Pakistan at this stage is another military coup, which may explain why General Kayani has discounted such a thing.[31] Yet, the notion of a judicial coup remains a possibility. This would greatly harm Pakistan and add to the fragility of the state, as it an effect would mean that the Court has sided with the army, which in all probability wants to see Gilani and Zardari out of office. Pakistani leaders must come to some sort of an understanding that would allow the Gilani government to fulfill its term and enable Pakistan to hold new elections. This would be enormously important, as it would be the first time that a Pakistani civilian government completed a full term, emphasizing that Pakistan can develop a democratic tradition and that tensions between the various branches can be resolved without resorting to a coup.


[1] Ijaz’s memo refers to a memo allegedly sent by President Zardari via Hussain Haqqani, the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States at the time, to the US government. In the memo, President Zardari offered to assert more control over the ISI and the army in return for a guarantee for U.S. assistance in forestalling another military coup.

[2] These have been abated following a meeting between Prime Minister Gilani and Generals Kayani and Pasha. Salman Masood and Declan Walsh, “Pakistan Leader Softens Criticism of Army and Spy Agency,” New York Times, January 25, 2012. <>

[3] Declan Walsh, “Pakistan Court Widens Role, Stirring fears for Stability,” New York Times, January 22, 2012. <>

[4] In 1990, Ishaq Khan using the controversial Eight Amendment sacked Bhutto in August 1990, 18 months after she became Prime Minister over allegations of corruption and for her attempts to question the powers of the Army.  Bhutto was replaced by Sharif who was also sacked by President Khan for largely meddling in affairs that the army deemed to be ‘army-business.’ In 1997, President Leghari dismissed Bhutto’s second government on charges of corruption, incompetence, and lawlessness leading to Pakistan’s fifth election in 12 years.

[5] On December 22, 2011, Gilani in a speech at the National Arts Gallery in Islamabad attacked the military on an unprecedented scale, accusing it of hatching conspiracies to undermine the government as well as failing to understand that it must operate at the behest of parliament and not as an independent entity. “There cannot be a State within a State: PM Gilani,” The News International, December 22, 2011. <>

[6] According to the prime minister’s office General Lodhi was fired for “gross misconduct and illegal action which created misunderstanding” between state institutions.” “PM sacks Secretary Defence; COAS Calls Emergency Meeting,” Dawn, January 11, 2012. <>

[7] See for example, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005); Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2007); Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008); Brian Cloughley, A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Stephen P. Cohen,The Idea of Pakistan (Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2004); Mazhar Aziz, Military Control in Pakistan: The Parallel State (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[8] The numerous works of C. Christine Fair have been enormously helpful as her various studies of the Pakistani army help understand the institution. See for example, C. Christine Fair, “Increasing Social Conservatism in the Pakistan Army: What the Data Say,” Armed Forces & Society, [published on line November 18 2011 <>; C. Christine Fair and Shuja Nawaz, “The Changing Pakistan Army Officer Corps,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2011), pp. 63-94.

[9] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 80-86.

[10] Kayani has repeatedly sought to attest his democratic credentials and was instrumental in brokering a rapprochement between President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif over the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry

[11] This may explain why senior Pakistani military officials want to see as change in US-Pakistani relations. Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard, “As U.S.-Pakistani Relations Sink, Nations Try to Figure Out ‘a New Normal’,” The Washington Post, January 16, 2012. <>

[12] Christine Fair, a leading scholar on Pakistan recalls meeting number of junior Pakistani officers, whom she notes told her that they enlisted because they wanted to kill Indians and not Pakistanis. C. Christine Fair, “Policing Pakistan,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2009.

[13] Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Chief of Army Fights to Keep His Job,” New York Times, June 15, 2011. <>

[14] Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Chief of Army Fights to Keep His Job,” New York Times, June 15, 2011. <>

[15] Kamran Yousaf, “Winter of discontent: With ifs and buts, Kayani quells coup rumours,” The Express Tribune, December 23, 2011. <>

[16] Major-General William Cawthorne who following Partition served as Pakistan’s Army Deputy Chief of Staff established the ISI. The organization was meant to supplement existing military intelligence. By the late 1950s, the ISI focused on three main issues: 1. Safeguard Pakistan national interests; 2. Monitor political opposition; 3. Sustain military rule. Shaun Gregory, “The ISI and the War on Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 30, No. 12 (December 2007), pp. 1013-1031.

[17] On the role of the ISI during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and how it changed the ISI see Mohammad Yousaf, Silent Soldier: The Man Behind the Afghan Jehad, General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Shaheed, (Lahore: Jang Publishers, 1991).

[18] Michael Hayden, “The 2011 Time 100,” TIME MAGAZINE, April 21, 2011. < >

[19] Omar Waraich, “Why has Pakistan Targeted Informants who helped Track Bin Laden?” TIME MAGAZINE, June 16, 2011. <,8599,2077838,00.html>

[20] “The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 95, April 18, 2005. <>

[21] Larry P. Goodson, “The 2008 Elections,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 4 (October 2008), pp. 5-15; Aqil Shah, “Praetorianism and Terrorism,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 4 (October 2008), pp. 16-25.

[22] Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, “Pakistan Army Said to be Linked to Swat Killing,” New York Times, September 14, 2009. <>

[23] Jane Perlez, “Pakistan Makes a Taliban Truce, Creating a Haven,” New York Times, February 19, 2009.

[24] Saeed Shah, “Pakistani Floods: Army Steps into Breach as Anger grows as Zardari,” The Guardian, August 8, 2010. <>

[25] See for example, Imran Khan, “How to Save Pakistan,” The Guardian, November 2007. <>; Imran Khan, “A Vote against Voting,” The Guardian, February 17, 2008. <>; Imran Khan, “Pakistan will Implode if the US does not leave Afghanistan,” The Observer, January 8, 2011. <>

[26] “Govt. sabotaging courts to hide inefficiencies: Imran Khan,” The Nation, January 16, 2012. <>

[27] Atif Salahuddin, “Imran Khan’s Political Inning,” PakTribune, December 8, 2011. <>

[28] Yasir Hashmi, “Youth supporting PTI because of its Manifesto – Javed Hashmi,” News Pakistan, January 23, 2011. <>

[29] The negative view of India does not exist only in the military. In the latest Jang Economic Session in January 2012, the Senior Vice President of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry Kashif Younis Mehr said that Indian bad intentions are preventing better relations between the two countries. “Pakistan Can Play a Role in Regional Trade Promotion,” The News International, January 25, 2012. <>

[30] Thomas Barfield, “Afghanistan’s Ethnic Puzzle,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 5 (2011), p. 63.

[31] “Army Wants Zardari out but not a coup: Military sources” The Express Tribune, December 23, 2011. <> “Pakistan army chief dismisses coup rumours,” BBC News, December 23, 2011. <>

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