THE RECENT rumblings of Pakistan Army chief Ashfaq Kayani and Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry seem to have created an impression as if the centre of power is shifting away from the military. Some of the pro-judiciary Twitterati were even challenging the country’s ‘liberals’ to admit that the chief justice had looked at the army chief “eyeball-to-eyeball” and questioned the power of the armed forces to intervene in politics. Watching the entire debate, I was reminded of a joke I had heard during my school years about a mouse falling into a whiskey bottle. As it came out, it looked around with bloodshot eyes, thumped its two inch chest and shouted, “Where is the cat?”
Having delivered a judgment on the 16-year-old Asghar Khan case, the Supreme Court and the chief justice’s fan club seem to be thumping their chests for definitively closing down the window for the military to come into power. The said case pertained to extortion of money by the then army chief Mirza Aslam Beg (1988-91) from a private entrepreneur, Yunus Habib, and its distribution through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to various politicians. The purpose was to rig the 1991 polls against Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto.
Many political actors are using the military-judiciary clash to their own advantage
The judgment is that the election was rigged, for which the Supreme Court held two retired senior generals responsible: Beg and ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani. Apparently, Durrani — one of the favourites on the India-Pakistan track-II diplomacy circuit — didn’t even wait to hear the judgment and left the court.
There is defiance in the voices of both the accused, with a general understanding that nothing substantial will happen in terms of an inquiry. Other issues such as the Pakistan Railways land scam, in which another former ISI chief, Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi, and two other generals are accused, surfaced following this decision. The land had been leased to a private company to build a golf course.
The series of events gave the impression that the genie of military power was being slowly squeezed into a bottle. However, soon there was the usual excitement in the air with Gen Kayani warning the stakeholders to keep well within their constitutional limits. He talked about the army making mistakes in the past, but also reminded the people of being thoughtful at a time when the army was facing tough conditions vis-àvis national security. Gen Kayani’s statement to his rank and file was followed by the chief justice’s statement to his own officers. While many tend to see the two statements as a sequence, these were technically unrelated as the chief justice made his comments before the media reported the general’s statement.
With 2014 well in sight and the decision for his own extension or choice of a new army chief pending, Gen Kayani is certainly in no mood to impose martial law. There is even less likelihood of an army feeling threatened by a judiciary, which has a huge skeleton in the cupboard in the form of the corruption case against the chief justice’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, which surfaced a few months ago. Although the case is still under investigation, it has established a perception that nobody is clean. Furthermore, by its intrusive behaviour in the Arsalan case, the Supreme Court seems to be in contravention of an earlier judgment of 1971, which established that the highest court should not influence an inquiry.
In any case, the court has not even scraped the surface in any of the cases involving the military. For instance, in the Balochistan missing persons’ case, the judges never found the strength for summoning the army or the ISI chiefs to the court as they tend to drag an elected prime minister to the court frequently. Even in the Asghar Khan case, it saved the army by affixing responsibility on two individuals rather than the institution, which is actually the one responsible for political intervention. In fact, the judges very smartly wriggled out of a situation where they had to go deeper by ordering the government to hold an inquiry through the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against the recipients of the ISI’s money, which in this case are mostly the politicians. Interestingly, FIA is an agency that the chief justice was not willing to trust in his son’s case.