The Pakistani military faces a complex and unusual situation. Traditionally, the military is the most powerful and autonomous state institution in Pakistan. However, a host of events in May-June 2011 have compromised its clout against the backdrop of aggressive criticism by political, religious and societal groups. The most interesting facet of the current propaganda onslaught against the military is that its traditional supporters, Islamists and the political right, are leading the anti-military drive.
The military finds itself in a difficult situation because the increased domestic criticism coincides with its criticism by the United States. The US administration views the Pakistan military and the ISI as faltering in their commitment to counter terrorism because of their selective approach and a policy of giving space to some militant groups, especially those based in North Waziristan. In other words, another ally has also adopted the policy of publicly reprimanding the Pakistan military.
The civilian critics of the military entertain the mistaken notion that the May-June developments have provided them with an opportunity to downgrade the military clout and assert civilian primacy. What the critics do not realise is that they cannot ensure civilian ascendancy only by sharp and persistent criticism of the military. They have to move beyond criticism and offer a credible civilian alternative to the military’s expanded role, address socio-economic problems to strengthen their popular credentials and redefine Pakistan’s strident security policy. Above all, the civilian leadership should find a solution to the terrorism related problems through political and economic means.
If Pakistan is to continue as a strident nuclear power with a strong military to confront India, assert its primacy in Afghanistan and liberate Kashmir, military considerations and priorities will dominate civilian considerations. There is a need to change the mindset and the vision of Pakistan from a powerful regional player to a humane democracy that gives the highest priority to the needs and aspirations of the common people at the operational level. The sole guiding principles should be welfare of the people and a secure future for them in a stable, tolerant and plural Pakistan under a democratic constitutional dispensation.
However, it cannot be denied that the military itself is responsible for some of the current problems. In a bid to sustain its primacy in Pakistan, it has engaged in shrewd manipulation of political forces. It is known for bolstering some political and religious groups. Now, all these groups and their Islamic discourses are haunting the military.
Three major factors explain why the Islamist discourse, including anti-American sentiments, pervades Pakistani state and society. First, the policies of the military contributed to strengthening the Islamic discourse. The army and the ISI have traditionally relied on Islamist and political far-right groups to pursue their domestic agenda. They also encouraged some anti-Americanism to assuage the Islamist/rightist populace and to counter American pressure. For example, when the contents of the Kerry-Lugar Bill became public in September 2009, the military top command was unhappy on the inclusion of some clauses that reflected negatively on the military and the ISI. The Corp Commanders issued a public statement expressing reservations on these clauses, encouraging the Islamist and the political right to pressure the Pakistan government on this issue. It was in the last week of September 2009 that the chief minister of the Punjab and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly had an unannounced meeting with the army chief. Subsequently, the PML(N) was in the forefront of the public protest against the Kerry-Lugar bill in October 2009.
The opposition to drone attacks became more widespread after the army chief publicly condemned the drone attack on March 17, 2011 on a jirga in North Waziristan. He spoke in the idiom of Islamists when he remarked on April 30 that “honour would not be traded for prosperity.” In the context of Pakistan-US relations, this statement supported what Islamist and the political far right had maintained since 2009.
The traditional sympathisers of the military gained enough confidence to take on the military after the May-June 2011 events. The Islamist parties thought they could force the military to stop security operations in the tribal areas. The PML(N) decided to cash on anti-US and anti-military sentiments for strengthening its support base.
The second factor that increased the military’s problems in Pakistan was the US policy of public denunciation of the Pakistan military from time to time. The US administration pursued a dual track policy of cultivating the Pakistan military but, at the same time, accusing it of harbouring some terrorist groups. The Raymond Davis controversy and the Osama operation caused much anger in the military and undermined its reputation in the domestic context. Naturally, the military reacted against American policy in order to deflect domestic Pakistan pressure.
Third, the civilian and military leadership failed to cultivate widespread support for countering terrorism as an alternative to Islamist discourse that opposed Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy. This perspective has seeped deep into official civilian and military circles that express a lot of doubt if the current counter-terrorism policies serve Pakistan’s interest. This has created disquiet among official civilian and military circles that hold the US responsible for terrorism in Pakistan. Though the Pakistan army, the air force and the paramilitary forces are deeply involved in fighting against terrorist groups in the tribal areas, their personnel express reservations about this policy.
The military, especially the army and the intelligence apparatus, needs to review its policies of selectively cultivating civilian circles for pursuing their agendas. It is their former allies that are leading the current campaign against the military and the US. This shows that the military should avoid building or cultivating civilian groups because such groups have a tendency to go out of control.
The army and other services should enforce their rules strictly for engagement of service personnel with civilian groups and especially political and religious entities. The personnel’s interaction with the civilian sector under the cover of Islamic dars or zikar as well as their participation in the annual congregations of religious and sectarian groups should be monitored closely and discouraged in unequivocal terms. These meetings provide a good opportunity to militant and religious activists to penetrate the armed forces.
The military needs to return fully to professionalism and reemphasise that Islam and professionalism go together. Any activity inspired by a religious group, even at the personal level is the negation of professionalism and weakens the military as a professional and disciplined force.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.