Amidst the war of words that surrounds PPP Co-chairman Asif Zardari’s statement has been hidden the reason for the statement, though the importance accorded the statement is an acknowledgement of the importance of the two organisations it involves, the PPP, whose Chairman made the statement, and the Army, about which the statement was made.

It was not expected that the leader of any major party would be so foolhardy as to challenge the Army the way Zardari did, and it was particularly not expected from Zardari who has portrayed himself as the upholder of the Politics of Reconciliation. At the same time, this should not disguise the fact that the PPP has never had a very comfortable relationship with the military. It is not free from its shadow, because its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rose to national fame under the military, during the Ayub Martial Law. Bhutto replaced the military, and even was briefly Chief Martial Law Administrator, before being overthrown by it in 1977, and hanged in 1979. Gen Ziaul Haq made an alliance with the Pir of Pagaro, which yielded Muhammad Khan Junejo as PM, but his own protégé was Mian Nawaz Sharif, who became PM in 1990, and was overthrown in 1999 by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Mian Nawaz had alternated with Bhutto’s daughter, and after her assassination during the 2008 election campaign, the PPP was taken over by her widower, Zardari, who became President that year after Musharraf resigned.

Musharraf had two possible alternatives, Shaukat Aziz, who was his Prime Minister, and Umar Asghar, who was a member of the Cabinet he headed personally, but neither emerged as had Bhutto and Nawaz. However, Imran Khan made his mark, though he had never held office under any martial law. Imran and his PTI have been an interesting study, as they seem to be working to bring about military rule.

It must be realized that the Army has made itself controversial by its interventions in politics, interventions, which have not just meant military coups, but the country having spent more time under military rule than civilian. So Zardari was merely expressing a view of the Army that has currency and has been brought about by its own actions. However, it must also be understood that political forces do not want a neutral military. They want it to be firmly on their side. The Army has had to go back to the barracks because it failed to solve the problems of the country. However, it is almost as if rather than ensure than any party ruled, it would rather rule on its own account. The military manfully kept the regime in office despite protests, but finally carried out a coup when the government asked how it would react to orders necessitating the slaughter of protesters. Similarly, in 1999, there was a coup only after the COAS was sacked, a year after the previous one.

The military would like the politicians to govern, but also be under control. Therefore, anything that makes politicians look bad is stressed by the military. And Imran Khan. Like election irregularities or corruption. It is also noticeable that the USA backs military regimes more than civilian, whether they tilt right (like Mian Nawaz) or left (like Bhutto). That has meant that political parties try to find friendship with the USA. The PPP has been experienced at this, and it cannot escape notice that Zardari’s statement has come at a time when the USA does not need Pakistan as much as before in Afghanistan. It is also a time of new challenges, for the military is facing new pressures on Yemen, at a time when Bashar Assad is losing ground in Syria. There is also renewed muscle flexing by the Indian BJP government.

Another problem for the USA has been that China has continued to rise, and its inclusion of Pakistan has strong military backing. It would make sense for the USA to use one willing tool against another. Zardari as President worked on the relationship with China, but he was not able to wrest away its direction from the military.

It should be noted that the tiff also comes before the impending local government elections, both in Punjab and Sindh. It seems that Zardari needs to shore up support in Sindh, which does not have a strong service tradition, and where there is a strong current of opinion which sees the military as ‘Punjabi’ rather than national, a current which feeds into the PPP. The PTI has not done all that well in the local body elections that have taken place, but it remains the main challenger to the MQM in the province’s urban areas. It was almost as if Zardari was reminding voters in the party’s stronghold of the PTI’s nebulous links with the military.

There is also the factor of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s return to Pakistan. There has even been some speculation that Zardari’s outburst was a means of exiting from politics and handing over the reins to Bilawal. The problem with that is that it is needless. If Zardari was so willing to hand over the party, he would not need any excuse. At the same time, Bilawal has been saddled with those remarks, and mending fences with the military will involve an upfront test of his leadership skills.

However, one result of Zardari’s remarks has been the coalescing of the opinion of the military around the COAS. This has happened to the extent that it might well be thought a deliberate attempt to bolster support for him. That feeds into the fighting on the side of the Saudis in Yemen, for if there is to be a decision to join the Saudis, the personal prestige of the COAS will have to be very high.

It should also be noted that so far, the unity of the political class against extra-constitutional deviations has kept the military away. However, this episode may well have created cracks in that unity, and it is now possible that the very challenge that is being posed will cause not just a perception of disunity, but it does not constitute a sufficient reason. The nation seems trapped in a cycle. The military doesn’t solve people’s problems, so it hands over power to a civilian party. That is one on the left, the left doesn’t solve them, then there are elections, and the right wins, but it doesn’t solve them either. Then the military comes back.

However, now there are out-of-the-box solutions floating around, which threaten not just both the PPP and the PML-N, but also the military, for if they are implemented, there will be no room for any of these parties.