Our civil-military muddle

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Babar Sattar

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Senator Raza Rabbani had a point when he said during the joint parliamentary session that there is an urgent need for an earnest dialogue between our political and military leaders. Notwithstanding who emerges as winner in the current political crisis, one thing has been laid bare: the roots of democracy and constitutionalism in Pakistan are skin-deep and a significant section of our political class and society still deems direct or indirect military intervention a viable and desirable means to effect regime change.

This is not a conversation about how things ought to be but how they are. Our military has a history of interfering in politics and no manifest appetite to endure civilian control. Our elected leaders seem utterly incapable of putting their own house in order, let alone rising to the multifarious challenges confronting our polity. And many in our society have been socialised into thinking that an adventurous military saving us from ourselves is a blessing.

The manner in which we approach and resolve our civil-military conflict is no academic matter. Pre­sently, our foreign, trade and internal security policies are subsets of our defence policy (which masquerades as a national security policy).

Our military believes that defining and implementing such a policy falls within its exclusive domain. The resulting civil-military conflict is a natural outcome of the mili­­tary’s articulation of its role and responsibilities.


Our polity continues to function on the premise that the military sits atop the food chain.


Those who think that our civil-military imbalance will be fixed either by trying a general or appeasing other generals must think again. Our history of military predominance has perpetuated certain institutional and societal norms that are more relevant to shaping the behaviour of both the military and political actors amidst a crisis than anything written in the Constitution. Reality is that our polity continues to function on the premise that the military sits atop the food chain.

Why should a prime minister backed by parliament ask his army chief to become the arbiter-in-chief in a political crisis? Why did he feel the need to demonstrate to the public that the army chief stood by and not against him? Why did Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri run helter-skelter to meet the army chief when summoned? Why did they wish to be on his right side? Was it perceived ‘national aspirations’ that prodded this wartime army chief to ‘sort out’ squabbling politicos?

We have had Gen Ziaul Haq declare that, “when political leaders fail to rescue the country out of a crisis, it is an inexcusable sin for the armed forces to sit as silent spectators…” We have had Gen Musharraf proclaim that with a government intriguing to destroy “the last institution of stability” (ie the army), the choice is “between saving the body — that is the nation, at the cost of losing a limb — which is the Constitution”.

We have recently seen Gen Sisi of Egypt successfully argue that political protests can lead to civil war and translate into a national security threat requiring military intervention. And further that while an elected government acquires legitimacy through polls, people can withdraw support through street protest and vest it in someone else. In other words, a street protest-based regime change model involving political protesters and a saviour military is no crazy idea.

So cynics imagine scriptwriters (to GHQ’s chagrin) because (i) there is no legal means to oust the government at present, (ii) Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri claim that the government has lost its legitimacy due to their protests and if left ‘unattended’ the situation could lead to civil war, (iii) military interventions aren’t a thing of the past (eg Egypt and Thailand), and (iv) our military has neither lost its ability to intervene nor its perceived overarching role as guardian of the state.

The Army and Democracy, an incisive analysis of military politics in Pakistan by old friend and accomplished scholar Dr Aqil Shah is a must read for thinking civil and military leaders. His main thesis is that the “military’s tutelary beliefs and norms, a legacy of its formative experience under conditions of geopolitical insecurity and nation-building problems, have profoundly shaped its political interventions and influence by justifying the authoritarian expansion of its role in state and society”.

Shah convincingly argues that the brand of military professionalism that has evolved in Pakistan drags the military into politics as opposed to keeping it away. And that the “Pakistani army … unaccustomed to the norms of civilian supremacy … has yet to unconditionally consider democracy the only game in town”.

Our political class that has failed to aggregate citizen interests, respond to our needs and shepherd us out of the woods is indefensible. But if a majority of this class is the outcome of military interventions of the past, what makes sane minds think that similar interventions will bear different results? Let’s throw out a rotten system. But what shall we replace it with? Isn’t our system rotting due to failed khaki experiments that have blown up in our faces and not despite them?

Even a functional government will find it hard to achieve smoother civil-military ties because the perceived roles of civil and military institutions at present are not complementary but overlapping and conflicting. So long as the military is the sheriff in town, it will remain politically expeditious for newer political players to seek khaki sponsorship. In short, Pakistan’s problems are such that eliminating opportunities for military intervention is no cakewalk.

Our civil-military divide is consuming us. To address it we need an honest dialogue between our political and military elites leading to a consensus over three foundational issues: what is our vision regarding the future of our state (ie welfare or security state internally; revisionist or conformist state internationally)? Who will do what (ie will defence policy trump foreign policy and who will have the final say)? What will be the accepted means of regime change (ie as laid down in law or street power)?

Once we have agreement on the overall vision and rules of the game, rethinking institutional norms and re-socialising emerging civilian and military leaders will be the easy part.

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