After the NRO

By Ayesha Siddiqa        Dawn 18 Dec, 2009 
Now that the NRO problem has apparently been resolved people are jumping with joy. There are some commentators who believe that this represents the strengthening of the system and democracy, that the Supreme Court verdict is a warning for presumptuous, overly ambitious and corrupt politicians.

The decision certainly is a milestone, but what does it mean for the overall learning process of the various stakeholders in the country’s power politics? And will it influence the future of Pakistan’s politics? These are two basic points to ponder.

Although it can be argued that the NRO was always controversial and people were eager to sort the matter out soon after it came into existence, there was always the possibility of the issue getting sidelined due to workable political arrangements.

It cannot be ruled out that if relations between Asif Zardari and the PML-N — more precisely, the Sharif brothers — had been better there might have been a possibility of an agreement being reached. Or perhaps if the president had not made the fatal mistake of trying to change the balance of civil-military relations and getting caught in the act, the different forces might not have aligned against him so cohesively.

Not that the present decision is not welcome. However, it is also a fact that some hidden forces were making a point of exposing the president’s questionable behaviour and decisions and hiding that of many others.

No wonder Asif Zardari cooperated in the NRO case and did not really try to hold back information. After all, there are others who were part of the NRO as well, including the MQM. Though the NRO pertained to cases of financial corruption, military dictator Pervez Musharraf had also included in the NRO criminal cases that did not technically belong there.

It will now be interesting to see if the Supreme Court actually takes the matter to its ultimate conclusion by also questioning those who pushed forward the NRO. Surely, it will take Musharraf and those of his close aides who had cobbled this questionable law together to task. Since the highest court has jumped into the fray of supporting state institutions before they crumble forever, the task should be completed.

One cannot undermine the significance of public perception. It is equally important for people to have faith in a judgment and not see it as driven by any political or other bias. Building faith in the judicial system is vital and calls for accountability of all other state institutions as well to strengthen the perception that the decision on the NRO was in good faith and to strengthen the rule of law.

But if a question is asked about whether the decision signifies the strengthening of the democratic process and civilian institutions, the answer must be in the negative. Since the perception regarding the decision is that it strengthens the armed forces and their ability to manipulate political stakeholders, it is not possible to see a major shift in the balance of power.

The decision does coincide with the growing anger of the security establishment against the civilian government for becoming ‘too big for its boots.’ Given the friction between Islamabad and GHQ over the Kerry-Lugar law and other issues, the military is certainly coincidentally, if nothing else, a prime beneficiary of the Supreme Court decision. A humiliated president has lesser possibilities with which to tackle a rival institution.

The presidency-GHQ tension denotes a third critical attempt by the political class to curtail the military’s power. The first attempt was made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who inherited a relatively weak army and had ample room to reduce its relative power. He partly tried to do it through building institutional mechanisms such as the joint chiefs of staff committee and the defence ministry and putting all service chiefs under the supreme command of the prime minister. However, he did not put spirit into his reforms and ended up strengthening the military.

Nawaz Sharif was the second leader to get a similar opportunity. It was hoped that he could make headway because he belonged to the most powerful ethnic group and had managed to infiltrate the higher rungs of the officer cadre. Probably the reason that the army views Nawaz Sharif with suspicion is due to his ability to partially and temporarily divide the officer cadre. The appointment of Gen Ziauddin Butt as the new army chief replacing Gen Musharraf appeared to be accepted by a number of senior army officers. However, Sharif blew the chance because of his final rash move.

Most recently, Asif Zardari also thought of undercutting the phenomenal power of the military by convincing the United States to support the civilian set-up versus the military. Zardari was instinctively right in assessing that he had time on his side in making the move. The army was seen in a bad light due to a decade of Musharraf’s rule and people were talking about strengthening political institutions and decreasing the power of the armed forces. Zardari’s formula: it would take the Islamabad-Washington partnership to do the job.

But President Zardari seems to have fallen victim to his lack of understanding of the military, its institutional dynamics and the importance of creating internal partnerships and institutional protective barriers to achieve this objective. For instance, he did not realise that the same civil society that protested against the military would stand up to defend the ISI and oppose provisions in the Kerry-Lugar bill to defang the military. Nor did he understand the worth of putting life into the available institutions if the power balance had to be corrected.

In fact, what numerous politicians have failed to understand is the need to put life into the ministry of defence, to build its capacity and ‘civilianise’ its power or decision-making structure. Since the defence ministry is the only institutional cushion between the political government and the military, its capacity is critical. Politicians in Pakistan fall prey to their insecurity regarding lack of time and miss the point.

Now, the president can think about extending the deadline for repealing the 17th Amendment to be able to play a role in the extension or appointment of the army chief. That’s his last but temporary lifeline. He could buy some time by giving a cold shoulder to the US, but these are temporary mechanisms. It will be a while before another opportunity comes along for the civilian stakeholders.



Filed under Army, Democracy, Justice, Law, Pakistan, state, War On Terror, Zardari

13 responses to “After the NRO

  1. jman

    Brilliant write. Well done.

    I will ask two questions though.

    1)why are the shareef brothers immune to the nro? Havent they stolen money from the taxpayers pocket?

    2) Now that the judicary is finally wearing the trousers in the country, will they try and straighten out other institutions? The court system. Police. etc

  2. Ex-Muslim

    Simply its Kiyani Vs Zardari or GHQ Vs Sindh.
    Everyone in the good books of Army/judiciary is safe.People like Bugti will remain in search for a honourable burial.
    GHQ/Judges/Shareefs are the power brokers(and mafia) of the future.They have Punjabi rightwing ideology in common, making them the self-proclaimed Defenders of Pakistan.

    Half-baked justice will alienate Sindhi, Baluch and later the heirs of Bacha Khan the secular.

    YLH wrote a great rebuttal to Kiyani,who thinks himself as the Saviour of Muslim ideology of Pakistan.

    The best Zardari can do now is plan a safe exit saving his foreign currency assets, otherwise ZAB ,BB ,Murtaza (which Zaradri himself is also a accused) is the future. Zardari doesnot have the courage or the vision of the Bhuttos to sacrifice his own life for the Peoples.

  3. sharafs

    I terms of law, NRO may be a landmark judgment, but its political implications could be disastrous and damaging.

    Somehow all debates on the subject are focused on Zardari. The reason is not love of law but the notoriety of Zardari a household name. This negative perception and his name being linked to the death of his wife also serves to demonize him.

    But coming to accountability, as Ayesha points out, what of others? I feel if that is not done, then this exercise will be yet another farce and damage the federation. All thieves and beneficiaries inside and outside of NRO have to be identified and taken to task. Who does not know that the once NAB later became a tool of political convenience.

    Courts have to move beyond this NRO to illegal emergency rule, PCOs and Judicial murder of Bhutto.

    I wish to register my reservations because justice does not seem to have been done. It will only become credible when NRO becomes the start point for national accountability.

  4. hoss

    I am glad that Ayesha agrees with me (see my article the Power Struggle) that Zardari’s biggest mistake was agreeing to the KL bill with all the conditions that were pointedly against the Army. He clearly agreed to them on Ambassador Haqqani’s advice. Haqqani has a JI background and even though he was right in his conclusions that the army is the biggest hurdle in establishing democracy in Pakistan, he like most of his JI friends has no clue about how to go about limiting the army involvement. A few conditions laid out in an aid bill would not deter the army. The Zardari presidency is so weak that he needed to avoid a direct confrontation with the army. He best possible way was to build the civilian institutions and wait for his time. He dragged his feet on the judges’ restorations issue, he was and still is reluctant to repeal the 17th amendment, and he is not willing to fight the Hadood Ordinance and many other amendments in the constitution including the Ahmedi amendment. When you avoid taking a stand on all the things that strengthen the civilian institutions and the rule of law, you become vulnerable to intrigues and palatial coups.

    I agree with Ayesha that the court ruling will indirectly help the army. The army really had no way to remove Zardari. It has already effectively cut him off from decision making as far as the war on terrorists is concerned but the army would not have interfered, if he had taken up some other popular causes.

    He lost that opportunity. If he was so interested in passing the NRO, he had plenty of time after he became the president and before the CJ Iftikhar was restored. Justice Dogar’s SC would have helped him but he missed that opportunity.

    I don’t think Zardari’s exit would stop the juggernaut of political awakening in Pakistan. The fact is, it will add some more democratic workers from the PPP that were restrained so far, to join the ranks.

    People who talk of coup can still use the term in an empirical sense but the chances of the army boots in the president house are next to nothing in the current Pakistan. That does not really mean that army has lost its power or the ability to bring down governments. It will take a while before the civilian institutions are established enough to finally relegate the army to the background.

    As long as the War in Afghanistan and the right wing/Islamsits/mullah coercion in the shape of suicide bombing are going on, the army will continue to influence the political discourse in Pakistan.

  5. AZW


    Among all this hoopla about the alphabet soups, NRO, GHQ, and NAB, I have the following important question:

    Where did the “p” go??

  6. hoss

    Well I stopped drinking a while ago so the P was redundant.
    Mostly it’s Black berry’s memory lapse.

  7. Hayyer

    Whether you don’t pee now or dont drink now, how was one to know which or even any?
    I am all admiration for the sangfroid with which Pakistani readers of PTH are taking the Supreme Court Order. The need to throw out the baby has put the bathwater at risk as well.
    More specifically my doubts are as follows and I would be grateful if any reader could set them at rest. Of-course my inadequate knowledge of the political and legal situation comes in the way of grasping what may be obvious to common Pakistanis.
    1. Pakistan now has a President and many elected office bearers undergoing criminal prosecution. We have had that experience in India and lost nothing but any pretence to ethical governance but never has the head of state been under this sort of cloud.
    Won’t this further undermine the moral authority of the state vis a vis the army?
    2. Is the PM’s defence that Z already having undergone imprisonment should be excused from further prosecution not tantamount to accepting guilt.
    3. If Zardari has to leave office, will PPP be able to hang together? Will the government survive or will there be a new sort of coalition with NS.
    4. Would there have to be fresh elections? And will that put an end to the PPP.
    5. What if the SC now goes after Musharraf? Can he brought back, and will the army stand for it?

  8. In the December 18th New York Times publication, an article Pakistan Ministers Are Called Before the Courts was written by Jane Perlez and Salman Masood. Though the article does state the annulment of the National Reconciliation Ordinance and the repercussions of the decision taken by the Pakistan Supreme Court, it has given an image portraying the Pakistan Army as an anti-democratic institution. Understandably the Pakistan Army is going through a turbulent phase. The army is currently engaged in a battle against militants who are adamant in bringing down the current democratic set up in Pakistan. However, one must not forget that many of these militants have grown up in the same neighborhood as the army soldiers, and regardless of allegiance, it is always difficult to take up arms against a childhood acquaintance. n-government/

  9. PM

    The court decision in no way strengthen the army. In fact it may force them to clean their own house. The problem for Zardari arose from the fact that he was supported by Ambrits and his non-serious attitude towards governance. He tried things which were basically wrong and then he back down at the last moment.
    He had one good opportunity to reduce army power when application of article six to Musharaf came up. He should have fired that shot using PML and courts shoulders. I think that with public support army would have been contained. He did not have American support on this but he would have come out as his own man. He has failed at so many things, I’m afraid he would destroy people’s party if he continues.
    Anybody who stands against Rule of Law is a loser.

  10. Mustafa Shaban

    I disagree with the Ayesha when she says that the ruling on NRO weakens democracy. The Army will not interfere and NRO greatly weakened democracy, allowing crooks to get to the highest positions of power. In Britian or in any other western countries if anybody was accused of even half or less of the curroption that the ruling politicians are accused of then they would have to resign. I am happy the NRO has been made null and void by independant judiciary, and soon even those criminals who are not included in NRO wil be dealt with soon as well. Pakistan and its people are changing and want more accountability. I think this is the starting point unlike other people who claim this to be just selective justice. I think things will change now that we have an independant judiciary.

  11. Natasha

    The court asserted it’s independence by dumping an ordinance passed by an ‘army chief’.What message is the court conveying to the military?

  12. Bloody Civilian


    Ayesha Siddiqa could not have answered your question more carefully than she already has done:

    The decision does coincide with the growing anger of the security establishment against the civilian government for becoming ‘too big for its boots.’ Given the friction between Islamabad and GHQ over the Kerry-Lugar law and other issues, the military is certainly coincidentally, if nothing else, a prime beneficiary of the Supreme Court decision. A humiliated president has lesser possibilities with which to tackle a rival institution.