Perhaps so much attention had never before been devoted to the visit of an Army chief to a foreign capital, as that of Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sharif to Washington, probably for three reasons, though the ultimate result will be seen later. It is worth noting that the overt object of the visit may have not yet been achieved, as that would happen in due course, as the course of action agreed on is implanted.

The primary reason for the importance given to this visit is the de facto position of the COAS in the country’s political situation: he is the ruler-in-waiting. Four of his predecessors have taken over the government and become President. This situation means that the government of the day may well be elected, but it holds office on the sufferance of the COAS. Both Turkey and Pakistan are large Muslim states with elected governments, and subject to military coups. While the present Turkish government has carried out trials of previous coup-makers, the present Pakistan government has not been able to do so, despite its recent attempt.

Another reason for the attention paid to this visit is that the COAS is due to retire next year. There is his predecessor’s precedent of a service chief getting a second term, and that too on American prodding. This adds to the speculation about the visit, which is not the first. It must be noted that the previous four military rulers were fervently pro-American, and each played some role or the other in the region to further American interests. Gen Ayub Khan was the American pillar in the region at the height of the Cold War. This was symbolized by the American U2 flights out of Badaber, which were only revealed (and stopped) by the shooting down of Gary Powers in 1962. It was also symbolized by Pakistan’s membership of both CENTO and SEATO, the adjuncts to NATO developed by the USA to ring the USSR. It should be remembered that India was unreliable for two reasons at that time. First, under the Fabian socialist Nehru’s government, it was not so obdurately opposed to the USSR; rather, it was allied to it. Second, it was part of the developing Non-Aligned Movement, which then consisted to decolonizing nations. Gen Yahya Khan played an important role in the secret diplomatic efforts that resulted in US President Richard Nixon’s epochal trip to China. Gen Ziaul Haq played a major role in the US effort to dislodge the USSR from Afghanistan, while Gen Pervez Musharraf provided crucial help for the USA’s own occupation of that war-torn country.

Therefore, not only is the COAS considered (almost ex officio) able to take over the running of the country, but he is also considered to need American blessing to do so. It is considered almost irrelevant that such a role is outside the scope of the Pakistani Constitution; in this respect, it seems, there is a tacit consent agreeing with General Zia’s dismissive ‘scrap of paper’ characterisation of the 1973 constitution. It is an interesting study of how the military considers the Constitution both easily put aside, but also sacrosanct. After all, neither Zia nor Musharraf abrogated it, holding it in abeyance instead.

It should be noted that the COAS cannot take over on a whim. He must carry along his juniors. Immediately, that might mean the corps commanders and the PSOs, but ultimately, it means that this decision must be endorsed, even if by nothing else than obedience, down the chain of command. The desire, or rather need, to take over, will depend only partly on seniors’ ambitions, but also on the influence of the perceptions of society at large about the performance of the civilian government. It has not helped that political governments have been feckless and devoted to narrow personal ambitions. The military’s image is not just that of an institution free of the corruption marring civilian governments, but of one that works. However, along with all this, it needs American approval.

It must not be forgotten that General Ayub was powerful even before his takeover, and had actually taken a Cabinet slot, the Defence portfolio, in the last civilian government, the one formed by Sir Feroz Khan Noon, serving six months before the final coup. However, he had been Army Commander-in-Chief since 1951, and had personally taken Pakistan into the Baghdad Pact, the precursor of CENTO.

If General Raheel will not take over, at least he can do something to rein in Pakistan’s nuclear programme, which brings up the third reason why this visit is being given so much importance. The Pakistani nuclear programme was founded because of a political government’s decision, but the military has been intimately involved with shaping it. Not only has the military been ruling directly for much of the time, but under civilian rule, it is the end user. Pakistan’s growing missile programme has meant that its nuclear weapons are to be fired by Army units. The most pressing issue, the growing Pakistani tactical arsenal, is designed for a very specific military purpose: the development of an Indian armoured offensive in the Rajasthan desert.

When Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was in Washington only a month ago, there was much speculation that he would be forced to sacrifice this arsenal in exchange for a civilian nuclear accord like India’s. Even at the time, it was expected that any deal would be confirmed only when General Raheel visited Washington. This would be his second visit this year, supposedly to get the Afghan peace talks moving again, and supposed to precede a visit to Brazil. That would explain why he met Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry in addition to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, CIA Director John Brennan and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. However, while there seems to have been a deal on the talks, with the implicit acknowledgement that the military controls the freedom fighters, not the civilian government, there has been no agreement on nuclear issues, though there again, the USA seems to have acknowledged the veto-role of the military.

However, it is possible that an agreement on nuclear weapons may unfold in future. There is tremendous pressure on the USA, from both Israel (which does not want any Muslim country to have nuclear weapons) and India (which does not want to face a Pakistani nuclear threat in addition to the Chinese one), to make its close ally give up its capability. That pressure is being applied, making it increasingly clear that the US alliance may be sustainable only at the cost of the aspirations of the people. The military General Raheel heads faces the problems inherent in its closest ally, the USA, growing closer to its perennial rival, India. It cannot really call on its other close ally, China, for help, and the tilt towards Russia, symbolized by the visit to Islamabad of the Russian anti-narcotics chief at the time General Raheel was in the USA, is not going to help.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.