Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal and ISPR DG Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor introduced a bemused nation to a new concept of ‘proxy war.’ Both persons represented their respective chiefs in their quibbling over the state of the economy, which incidentally is one of the main selling points of Ahsan Iqbal’s erstwhile boss, Mian Nawaz Sharif. This coincides with an escalation of US interest in the region, with the release from captivity of a Canadian-American couple coinciding with US President Donald Trump upping the ante against Iran’s nuclear deal.

The spat over the economy represents an induction of Ahsan Iqbal into the PML(N)’s sniping against the military. Mian Nawaz had first of all been at the vanguard of this insinuation, regardless of the fact that he had appointed Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa COAS. It was thus of significance when his son-in-law, Capt (retd) Muhammad Safdar, made a speech criticizing Ahmedis for being in the Army, and for the renaming of the Quaid-e-Azam University’s physics center after Dr. Abdus Salam, the Nobel Physics laureate, and an Ahmadi. It was of significance not just because Ahmadis were being targeted, but also because General Bajwa’s opponents and detractors have made hints about his belonging to this community.

There are some reasons why this rumour may have gained traction. First, some Jats were converted. As the COAS’s surname says, he makes no secret, instead takes pride in, being a Jat. However, though many Jats, including Bajwas, converted (including from Hinduism and Sikhism), not all Jats are Ahmedi. Also, there was an era, dating back to the Raj, when some Ahmedis sought careers in the armed forces. First, they were encouraged by the British, as they thought that the anti-jihad edicts of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed inoculated them against any such venture as the 1857 Mutiny, which was deemed a jihad by many Muslim mutineers. This trend was ended by the declaration of the community as non-Muslim in 1974, and of the Ahmadis in service then, none would still be in service. Some Ahmadi officials, both civil and military, converted at that time to Islam. All told, Captain Safdar’s may well be the last hurrah of the rousing of anti-Ahmadi sentiment in the armed forces.

Ahsan Iqbal’s tigerish defense of the economy was not directly a rebuttal of General Bajwa’s remarks to a seminar in Karachi, but the DG ISPR’s. His remarks on the economy provided an easier target, but one which was more dangerous. It was one thing for the COAS to speak about the economy; it was another for a two-star general to do the same. Though General Ghafoor has defended himself strongly, his example would discourage officers from speaking about the economy. The Prime Minister’s sanction is not an encouragement, but a way of putting the lid on this latest example of civil-military friction.

The military’s increasingly public attention to the economy is an indication that it is increasingly worried about the way the relationship with the USA is going. The armed forces claimed the recovery of the Boyle family as a military success. Significantly, the recovery was made from the Haqqani Network, which had been mentioned by the USA precisely as one of the groups which Pakistani intelligence was supporting. The Boyles’ release might have assuaged US feelings to the extent that President Donald Trump said it showed that Pakistan no longer ‘disrespected’ the USA.

Ahsan Iqbal may feel strongly about the economy as it is Mian Nawaz’s favourite talking point. But also because he is likely to have an increased responsibility for it, as evidenced by him making a statement on returning from the USA, where he had gone to attend the World Bank’s annual meeting in place of the indicted Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. Ahsan Iqbal, who was Planning Minister before his current assignment was added, also took a lead role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, another area where the armed forces have committed themselves. The armed forces see the relationship with China, and thus the CPEC, as the main alternative to the one with the USA.

The USA is increasingly tilting towards India, the latest example being Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ comments about CPEC running through ‘disputed territory.’ Not only does this come from the Pentagon, which the armed forces had always thought was on their side as opposed to the pro-Indian State Department, but it targets push-button emotive issues, Kashmir and China.

It should be noted that the armed forces might subscribe, as General Bajwa said, to the view that the economy and security go hand in hand. However, they have not taken the position of many civilian economists, that military expenditure is too much for the economy to sustain. The size of the economy may well determine the size of the armed forces it can sustain, as well as the equipment they employ. However, the decision of how much security the economy needs is not related to the size or performance of that economy.

It is perhaps paradoxical that Ahsan Iqbal has plunged into this debate, for he not only started his politics in the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, the Jamaat Islami’s student wing, which is almost reflexively pro-Army, but his late mother, Apa Nisar Fatima, served in the 1985-88 National Assembly, and was a Ziaul Haq supporter. For him to take a stance even faintly critical of the military should be counter-intuitive. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that there are increasingly louder noises of the economy in trouble; mainly difficulties with foreign exchange. It must be worrying for the armed forces that the access that Pakistan needs to the international financial institutions is tightening because the USA controls those institutions, and is currently not pleased with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s establishment would like to help the USA, but for its veering towards India. This brings up the fundamental question of what would happen if the other superpower Pakistan wants to help it, China, was to end up supporting India. That might seem a remote possibility, as remote as the USA’s backing of India once did. At that point, the broad interest of the armed forces in the economy would not enable the country to have the security it needs.

It should be noted that the military has taken over four times in the past, and has not delivered a remarkably improved economy. The COAS mentioned the Ayub era, but not the Yahya era, when half the country seceded. The interplay of the economy under Ayub and the secession under Yahya need to be studied to achieve a correct understanding of the relationship between the economy and security. The Zia and Musharraf eras saw the regime repeat the Ayub experience of giving the bureaucracy its head, with diminishing returns. A paradigm shift is needed, and neither civilian nor military rule seems likely to provide it with.

It was one thing for the COAS to speak about the economy; it was another for a two-star general to do the same. Though General Ghafoor has defended himself strongly, his example would discourage officers from speaking about the economy.