By now there is almost a national consensus that military interventions in the political process leading to the imposition of military governments on the people of Pakistan have been universally harmful for the country. At least in one case, the military regime directly led to an ignominious defeat on the battlefield and the dismemberment of the country. Generally speaking, the military regimes promoted lawlessness and corruption by undermining the sanctity of the constitution and law, aggravated political instability by weakening state institutions, threatened in some cases the integrity of the state by fanning separatist tendencies, and stunted the growth of democracy in the country. Because of these well-known adverse consequences of military regimes, the public opinion in Pakistan is overwhelmingly opposed to any repetition of the experiment of the military rule.

What is not, however, commonly known or understood is the damage which has been inflicted upon Pakistan’s body politic by the tendency of the army’s top brass to manipulate the government machinery and distort the political process from behind the scene to fulfill their ill-conceived designs or to suit their vested interests. The importance of the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Asghar Khan case lies primarily in highlighting this deplorable tendency and negating unequivocally its constitutional, legal or political justification.

The verdict of the Supreme Court has concluded that late President Ghulam Ishaq Khan with the support of former COAS General (r) Mirza Aslam Baig, former DGISI Lt. General (r) Asad Durrani, and others serving in MI supported the functioning of an “Election Cell” established illegally in the Presidency to influence the outcome of the elections held in 1990. An amount of Rs 140 million was provided by Mr Younas Habib, the then Chief Executive of Habib Bank Ltd., at the behest of these state functionaries. Out of it, an amount of Rs 60 million was distributed among a number of favoured politicians to influence the election results. Besides calling for action under the constitution and law against those guilty of this distortion of the electoral process, the verdict clearly lays down the following principles of law for future guidance:

i    The President of Pakistan in the present parliamentary form of government represents the unity of state and is expected to treat the citizens of Pakistan equally according to law without favouring anybody. Thus, the establishment of an election cell in the Presidency to favour some candidates and influence the outcome of elections in 1990 was unconstitutional and illegal.

i    ISI, MI or any other Agency like IB has no role to play in politics. Any election/political cell in the Presidency, ISI or MI shall be abolished immediately and any notification to the extent of creating such a cell shall stand cancelled forthwith.

i    Involvement of the officers/members of secret agencies like ISI, MI, IB, etc. in unlawful activities, individually or collectively, calls for strict action against them under the constitution and the law.

i    Any unconstitutional act by any officer/official of the armed forces calls for action against him under the constitution and the law without any discrimination.

In the past, some officers of the armed forces in complying with unconstitutional orders to overthrow democratically elected governments used the spurious argument that they were bound to obey the command of their superior officers in accordance with the discipline of the armed forces irrespective of whether the command was legal or illegal. Of course, this explanation, which was violative of both the constitution and the oath of the members of armed forces, was invalid from the legal point of view. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Asghar Khan case has set at rest any doubt that some armed forces officers may have had in the past on this issue. Henceforth, the commander of the 111 brigade must know that he is under no obligation to comply with the order of his superiors to overthrow a democratically elected government. If he still complies with such an order, he would be as guilty as the officer(s) giving him that command. Members of the armed forces must be clear in their mind that they are obliged to obey the legal commands of their superiors only if they relate to their professional duties.

Overthrowing democratically governments does not fall within the purview of the professional duties of the members of armed forces. This point has also been clarified in the Supreme Court verdict for the benefit of those armed forces officers who have an exalted notion of their role in safeguarding the security of the country. As pointed out by the Supreme Court, under article 245 of the constitution the “armed forces shall, under the directions of the Federal Government, defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and subject to law, act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so.”

It is the responsibility of the federal government to safeguard national security. Armed forces are one of the many instruments available to the federal government for ensuring national security. Admittedly in situations of war armed forces assume the most critical role but again under the command of the federal government. Short of that extreme eventuality, the federal government has available to it other instruments also such as diplomacy and economic means for safeguarding national security. This should be self-evident if one takes into account a comprehensive definition of national security covering its political, diplomatic, economic and military dimensions. Certainly the armed forces have no role whatsoever in “defending the ideological frontiers” of the country. That is the job of the people of Pakistan under the leadership of the elected federal government.

It is a pity that instead of appreciating the above mentioned features of this landmark decision of the Supreme Court in the interest of strengthening the democratic process within the country, the present PPP-led federal government is busy exploiting it to score petty points against its political rivals. It is true that both PML-N and PPP committed serious blunders in managing national affairs during 1990’s. It was in recognition of this fact that the leaders of both the parties signed the Charter of Democracy. The objective was to put the past mistakes behind them and instead look ahead by carrying forward the democratic process on healthy lines. This requires of both the parties a degree of restraint, commitment to public welfare and willingness to operate within the framework of recognized norms of democracy.

What one sees instead is an inclination on the part of PPP to use the Supreme Court verdict to target its opponents as if its own record is totally unblemished. May be it views in this verdict an opportunity to divert the public attention from its record of bad governance and corruption. However, the people are unlikely to fall prey to such subterfuges. They can see all too clearly the failings of the present PPP-led federal government. The country’s economy has virtually become stagnant thanks to the mismanagement by the federal government’s economic planners. The energy crisis, which has sapped the vitality of the economy, has aggravated. The percentage of the population living below the poverty level has increased significantly. Inflation and unemployment rates are unbearably high. The quality and coverage of education and health facilities is on the decline. The people will judge the performance of the PPP-led federal government at the next elections keeping in view these considerations rather than any attempts by it to gain political mileage by raking up the ugly past.  

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs. Email: