Written by Ramesh Balakrishnan.

When former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office by the country’s judiciary a few months ago, speculation swirled around the role of the military in his ouster. Prominent political watchers who monitor Pakistan’s internal political dynamics opined that Sharif’s removal was nothing short of a “judicial coup” which was engineered with the active connivance of the military that wanted to get rid of him.

If this indeed is an accurate reading of the situation, why did the military decide to remove Sharif? The military’s motivations are intriguing particularly because terrorism related violence in Pakistan has dropped precipitously over the past three years under Sharif’s watch (although the military takes credit for it), the euphoria over the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project is at an all-time high and the economy is on an upward trajectory after many years of anemic growth under the previous Pakistan People Party’s (PPP) government.

Although Sharif attempted to wrest control, one by one, the military thwarted his moves. The military scuttled his outreach towards India by staging a terrorist attack against an Indian Airbase in Pathankot; it intervened from behind the scenes to give safe passage to General Musharraf to leave the country without having to face trial; took unilateral action to go after the TTP without waiting for policy direction from the civilian government

Civil-Military Relations Under Nawaz Sharif

Civil-military tensions surfaced almost instantly as soon as Nawaz Sharif took his oath of office as Prime Minister in May 2013. First and foremost, he was confronted with the task of prosecuting many pending cases against former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, a prospect that was anathema to the military. Secondly, he favoured dialogue with the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan who were attacking targets inside Pakistan, while the military vehemently disagreed with his approach. Third, Sharif wanted to reach out to India to initiate a dialogue process and towards this end, he took the bold step of attending the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in June 2014. The military was not particularly pleased with Sharif’s overtures toward India.

Finally, known to be a “doer” and someone who has demonstrated an alacrity for the execution of large scale infrastructure projects in his previous stints at running the federal government, Sharif wanted to assume control of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. As an important player in Pakistan’s political economy, the military is an integral part of CPEC, a $62 Billion long term investment plan often billed as Pakistan’s economic saviour.

Although Sharif attempted to wrest control over all of these crucial matters by tilting the balance of power decisively in his favour, one by one, the military thwarted his moves. The military scuttled his outreach towards India by staging a terrorist attack against an Indian Airbase in Pathankot; it intervened from behind the scenes to give safe passage to General Musharraf to leave the country without having to face trial in special courts; took unilateral action to go after the TTP without waiting for policy direction from the civilian government, and established military courts to try civilians accused of perpetrating terrorism. To prevent a full-blown showdown, Sharif reached a “modus vivendi” with the military and relinquished control over all of these contentious matters for fear of facing the military’s wrath. While these issues were in one way or the other resolved in favour of the military, providing much needed respite for Sharif to focus on the economy and the chronic energy shortage, it is CPEC which turned out to be Sharif’s “Achilles Heel”.

Because CPEC was intrinsically tied to Pakistan’s economic growth story and Sharif’s 2025 economic vision, relinquishing control over CPEC was not an option. Therefore, control over CPEC was essential for Sharif’s political longevity because of the stakes involved, both in terms of demonstrating to Pakistan’s impatient electorate that his government was delivering on infrastructure, but also to deflect attention away from the mounting corruption charges that were being pursued by an activist judiciary. Moreover, both the civilians and the military have been at loggerheads over ownership and control of various CPEC projects, some of which were designated as “early harvest” projects. Any loss of control over CPEC meant that Sharif’s grip on the economy would gradually erode over time since Pakistan’s future economic growth hinged on CPEC.

As CPEC projects gathered momentum in 2014 and 2015, the military envisioned a more direct supervisory role in administering CPEC projects through a new institutional mechanism called the “CPEC Authority”, with the civilians playing a subservient role to that of the military. Such blatant attempts to subvert the authority of a democratic government could be construed as a direct assault on Sharif’s freedom of action to steer the economy in a direction that his government saw fit, without having to deal with a military veto on economic matters. From the military’s perspective, CPEC is at the heart of Pakistan’s future economic security. This requires that the military secure a dominant role in determining its future course.

Centrality of CPEC to Civil-Military Relations

Therefore, it is the ongoing “tug of war” between the all-powerful military establishment and the Nawaz Sharif Government over the control and funding of CPEC related projects that may well lie at the root of the recent political upheaval in Pakistan. For all practical purposes, CPEC serves as the fulcrum around which Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy priorities, economic growth strategy and elite interests converge in the long term. Pakistan’s ability to translate its geopolitical heft and ambition into tangible outcomes on the regional stage in South and Central Asia rests on the successful execution of CPEC projects. Besides solidifying an existing defence and military partnership with China in concrete terms, CPEC provides economic ballast to Pakistan’s long term geopolitical ambitions. The rapid and successful implementation of CPEC is increasingly viewed by the military not just as the silver bullet that would extricate Pakistan from its decades of economic underperformance in South Asia, but as a “geo-political bulwark” against India, a rising power with whom Pakistan has been engaged in an intractable conflict for seven decades.

Although both the civilians and the military broadly agree on the strategic imperative of using Chinese assistance to bolster Pakistan’s economic prospects in South Asia, it is not entirely clear if they have a shared world view on the broad contours of how this economic development should unfold over the years, and how the benefits stemming from CPEC should be distributed amongst the interest groups within the country. In particular, the Pakistani “military business” is a prime contender for such largesse. While the military would like to garner the lion’s share of the investment for road infrastructure and port development in Gwadar, the civilian government’s immediate focus is on making investments for developing Pakistan’s energy infrastructure – power plants, LNG terminals, solar power projects, and investing in industrial parks.

With Sharif out of the way, the military hopes to be in the driver’s seat in prioritizing CPEC projects, channeling funds towards its own pet connectivity projects in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan administered Kashmir and in investing in the infrastructure necessary to fast track development of its geopolitical lynchpin in the Indian Ocean – the strategic port of Gwadar. The military has also sought to “securitize” CPEC by raising a contingent of 15,000 Pakistani troops to provide security to the project.

Could Nawaz Sharif have been removed from office for standing up to the military for control over CPEC? Based on available evidence, it’s hard to definitely say if that is indeed the case one way or the other. However, with CPEC emerging as the single biggest bone of contention that is expected to determine the trajectory of Pakistan’s political economy for many decades, it’s hard to dismiss the “CPEC factor” as a possible explanation for the recent turn of political events in Pakistan, including the ouster of Nawaz Sharif.

Ramesh Balakrishnan received a MSc. (Strategic Studies) from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in July 2017. Previously, he was a Baillie Gifford Fellow (2014-15) at the India Institute, King’s College. He can be reached at ramesh008@e.ntu.edu.sg. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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