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When the Pakistani interior minister went to attend a controversial court hearing on Oct. 2, the paramilitary force securing the area blocked him from entering. When he demanded to speak to a higher-up, he was told to wait.
The minister, Ahsan Iqbal, is the nominal boss of that paramilitary force.
In another country, it might just have been an embarrassing incident, a mistake by a soldier who did not recognize a top official. In Pakistan, many — including Iqbal himself — saw it as an act of rebellion.
“I cannot be a puppet interior minister,” Iqbal raged after the incident, according to the Pakistani daily Dawn. “Two states cannot function within one state.”
Two days later, the same paramilitary force withdrew its personnel from protecting the sprawling parliamentary complex in Islamabad.
“This was a message to the government: These are your limits,” said Daud Khattak, a senior editor at Radio Mashaal, a U.S.-funded Pakistani radio station. “It’s totally a question of insubordination.”
The incidents come amid months of tensions between the army and the country’s ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N). They also come just as Washington contemplates how it might pressure Pakistan to stop supporting militant groups.
Many in the ruling party believe they are being undermined by Pakistani military and intelligence officials, backed by what they see as a subservient judiciary. They believe the military and intelligence “establishment” controls defense and foreign policy, thwarting the civilian government.
Military dictators have ruled Pakistan for 33 of the country’s 70 years, wresting power from civilian rulers who were deposed, killed or forced to step down. Since 2008, civilians have led Pakistan, but mistrust of the military runs deep — particularly among members of the ruling party, headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif served as prime minister three times, his rule ending in tumult on each occasion. His second term ended when the military ousted him in a coup in 1999. Most recently, in July, the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from office following a corruption scandal that clouded his family. Sharif and his allies have since blamed the military’s influence on the judiciary for his ouster.
Iqbal, the interior minister, was on his way to attend a hearing against Sharif about those corruption charges when he was halted by the Rangers, the federal paramilitary force.
Sharif and his allies “in their homes, family and in their mind, believe that the Pakistani military is as much of an enemy to them as the Indian military,” said a civilian official who closely liaises with senior Pakistani military commanders and requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
“No,” the official said, correcting himself. “They believe the Pakistani military is more of an enemy.”
The loathing is mutual.
“From day one, Nawaz Sharif acted as a dictator,” complained retired Lt. Gen. Ghulam Mustafa.
At the core of the military’s displeasure is Sharif’s open defiance of its advice, particularly regarding his repeated, sputtering attempts to reach out to India.
“The generals advised him not to offer peace overtures to India in a way that does not suit [Pakistan’s] interests,” Mustafa said. “He does not listen.”
The military has insisted that the tensions are with Sharif, not democracy. But an election in September worried many liberals, because an independent candidate backed by a known militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was allowed to participate in by-elections for Sharif’s old seat in Lahore. A front organization for the militant group had tried to register a political party with Pakistan’s election commission.
The commission stalled on a decision about registering the party, after an outcry. So instead, Lashkar-e-Taiba went ahead and ran the independent candidate. (He came in fourth).
Some analysts and ruling party stalwarts saw this as an act that could only have been done with the military’s consent. Supporters of Pakistan’s military have said in recent months that they want militant groups to engage in politics as a way to keep them from violence, and at a recent press conference, the military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said, “Every Pakistani has the right to participate in the polling process.”
Back in August, Trump said Pakistan “often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror” during a speech that unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.
He was referring to the Haqqani Network, a powerful militant grouping that is partly based in Pakistan and fills the Taliban ranks. To squeeze Pakistan, some lawmakers and other U.S. officials are proposing options from denying visas to senior military officials and their families to revoking Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that the U.S. would try “one more time” with Pakistan, “and if our best efforts fail, the president is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary.”
But during a visit to Washington in the same week by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, the rhetoric was largely conciliatory: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized the “opportunity for us to strengthen that relationship [with Pakistan]. We’re going to be working very hard at all levels, from the State Department to the Defense Department to our intelligence communities, as well as economic, commerce opportunities as well.”
Still, supporters of Pakistan’s military say they believe Washington is trying to exacerbate tensions between the government and army, pointing to comments this week by the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.
“It is clear to me,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which is run by the military, “has connections with terrorist groups.”
Amid the current tensions, some worry the Pakistani military may double down against the U.S. – and its own civilian government.
Enough, said an editorial in Dawn, which said the conflict had paralyzed the government, already seen as bumbling and inept. The paper warned of a “systemic threat.”
“Who is in charge of Pakistan?” it asked. “How much of the governmental paralysis is self-inflicted? Is the military willing to not just accept its constitutional limits but also support the civilian apparatus unconditionally?”
Abdul Sattar contributed to this story.