Pentagon’s anxiety had a reason. It stemmed from a series of statements by Trump’s close aides about his authority to impose Martial Law in the country.
When Donald Trump supporters stormed the Congress building on the Capitol Hill on 6 January, minutes after the joint session of the House and the Senate began counting votes for the Presidential election, the nervousness levels must have peaked in unexpected quarters—the Pentagon. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”, Trump tweeted a few days before, inciting his supporters to descend on the national capital. But the lax security at the Capitol Hill indicated that even the security establishment had not anticipated this ugly turn of events unheard of in the history of America. Roosevelt had described 7 December 1941—the Pearl Harbor attack day—as the “Day of Infamy” in American history. But 6 January 2021 turned out to be the worst day of infamy for the Americans. The outgoing President had later assured of a “smooth transfer of power” on 20 January, although not before wreaking major damage to the credibility of American democracy.
Pentagon’s anxiety had a reason. It stemmed from a series of statements by Trump’s close aides about his authority to impose Martial Law in the country. Things were already on a downward spiral ever since Trump unceremoniously sacked Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense just a week after the polling and filled up higher echelons of the Defense body with his hardcore loyalists. The “Martial Law” talk of Trump supporters reached such a crescendo that the Chief of Staff of the US Army, James McConville and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy were forced to come out with a statement declaring “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election”. Rather than reassuring the American public, this statement has only helped in further heightening anxiety in the Pentagon circles and elsewhere for its unusual nature. Imagine how odd we feel if the Indian Chief of Defence Staff were to come out with a similar statement.
Hardcore Trump supporters were quite vocal about the possibility of Trump invoking martial law powers. Gen Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor made a bizarre claim to a cable television channel that the President had powers to declare martial law and also to deploy military in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and others to conduct a “rerun” of the election at the point of a bayonet. The next day, the retired general was in the White House on Trump’s invitation to discuss about martial law possibilities.
The events prompted the Washington Post to write in an editorial that Trump’s actions over the next few weeks “could make the rest of his chaotic presidency look placid”. “The possibilities include strange orders to the armed forces…”, it added. Although it now seems certain that the transition would take place as scheduled, next two weeks would remain tense for the Pentagon, which would be fervently hoping that the mercurial President wouldn’t create any embarrassing situation to the US Army.
Seven thousand miles away, another Army too is tense, albeit for a different reason. In Pakistan too, the generals in the military headquarters in Islamabad are anxious, not because of their Prime Minister Imran Khan—he is anyway a puppet in their hands—but because of the ultimatum given by the combined Opposition of the country demanding the “puppet government” to quit before the end of January. Such demands from the Opposition are not new in Pakistan. But this time the combined Opposition is not only getting massive support from the Pakistani masses, but also openly targeting the military and its super powerful Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, something unheard of in Pakistan history.
In the last seven decades of its existence, Pakistan had lived under military rule for half the time, while the civilian governments that ruled the remainder were constantly under the thumb of their military masters. Civilian rulers never succeeded in exerting their authority before a military behemoth that controls a massive military-industrial complex and is the foremost employer of the country. When the ones like Bhuttos and Sharif tried, they were quickly “put down” by the mighty generals, sending a clear signal about who controlled the shots in Pakistan. Even the visiting foreign dignitaries knew clearly where the real power lied. For all their tall talk about democratic values, the visiting American officials routinely spend more time with personnel in uniform than with civilian leaders.
The military has enormous influence over the Imran Khan government. Many ministers in Khan’s Cabinet including the important ones like interior, finance, commerce and national security are either Army veterans or closely linked to the military establishment. General Bajwa controls practically every major decision of the government, from Covid management to Afghan peace talks, to FATF sanctions. He seems to be controlling even the country’s judiciary. The controversial decision of disqualifying Nawaz Sharif and some of his former colleagues from contesting elections by the country’s top court in the Panama Papers case in 2018 was seen by many as a decision manipulated by General Bajwa.
After the eight-year rule of General Musharraf ended in 2008 and President Asif Ali Zardari of PPP came to power, a combined and concerted effort was made by the two main parties, the Zardari-led PPP and Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N to curtail the powers of the military. The parties have succeeded in amending Article 6 of the Pakistan Constitution, declaring military coups “high treason” punishable by death. Restoration of civilian authority was attempted by removing presidential powers to sack democratically elected governments and transferring the power of appointing the Army Chiefs to the Prime Minister.
But the powerful military lobby hit back in the 2018 elections by propping up Imran Khan. Many believe that it indulged in serious malpractices. Nawaz Sharif was not only robbed of his mandate but also debarred from contesting elections. Ever since, Sharif is in London, ostensibly on health grounds.
Today, Nawaz Sharif is trying to turn the tables on the country’s military might by openly attacking General Bajwa from London. In a video address televised to the people at a massive rally of tens of thousands at Gujranwala in Punjab, Sharif targeted Bajwa by saying: “You rejected the people’s choice in the  elections and installed an inefficient and incapable group of people…General Bajwa! You will have to answer for inflated electricity bills, shortage of medicines, and poor people suffering.” Such statements are extraordinary as no mainstream politician has ever dared the Army so directly in front of such a large audience, that too in the Army backyard of Punjab.
The Pakistan Army has reasons to worry about this time. The combined Opposition, which gave the name Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is drawing huge support from the masses. More importantly, people are applauding verbal attacks on the Army. Will PDM succeed in taming the military tiger in Pakistan is a moot question. But that a traditionally military-controlled state is fiercely fighting back is a heart-warming scenario.
People in both Pakistan and the United States are worried about their respective militaries. Rule of law needs to be rescued from the military in Pakistan, while military needs to be rescued from the rules in America. Strange times for democracies!
(The article was originally published in The Sunday Guardian on January 9, 2021. Views expressed are personal. )