Far from ideal
Stable civil-military relations are a pre-requisite for political stability and democratic continuity in Pakistan because the military has over the years acquired reasonable political salience. However, the elected civilian government has gained some political ground in the recent past for deflecting some, if not all, military pressure. This is not because of the increased credibility or better performance of the civilian government which continues to be abysmal. However, the complex and uncertain domestic socio-political factors and dynamics of global politics, especially the terrorism issues, restrain the Pakistan military from sweeping aside the elected political institutions and processes.
The military stands a better chance of wielding influence on key policy decisions and allocation of resources from the sidelines. This saves the military from hazards of direct assumption of power and gives space to elected civilians.
Civil-military relations are flexible in nature and the space available to civilians varies from issue to issue. It also depends on the context within which an issue is taken up. It is a bargaining relationship where both sides accommodate each other on reciprocal basis, although the military is sensitive on certain issues and does not like civilian interference in these matters.
Governance becomes a balancing act for the prime minister. He has to balance the demands of democratic politics with the imperative of maintaining good relations with an overconfident military top brass.
The military has one clear advantage over civilian leadership. The military is an integrated, disciplined and hierarchical institution with a well-defined command structure. It can deal with the civilian leaders as a cohesive entity. However, civilians are not an internally cohesive entity with one authority structure. It is amorphous in nature comprising diverse, often conflicting, political, economic and societal groups. They complete with each other for power and influence.
The civilian government is never sure that all civilian groups and parties would support it when it asserts its constitutional primacy over the military. In the present day Pakistani context when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani took an exception to the disposition of the military and vowed not to allow a “state within a state,” not all opposition parties supported him. The PML(N) took self-contradictory position. While Nawaz Sharif declared that he would oppose direct military intervention, Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar Ali criticized the prime minister’s hard hitting comments about the military. Others wanted the prime minister to take action against those military officers who defy the federal government.
The virtual anarchy in the political domain enables the military to apply pressure on the civilian government. The divided political domain also becomes vulnerable to manipulation by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). During the years of Musharraf rule, the Military Intelligence (MI) also carved a role for itself in domestic politics. This causes distortions in the political domain and fragments the already weak political and societal forces.
The PML(N) is not supportive of strengthening the position of the civilian government, although it vows to oppose the military’s expanded role in the political domain. At the operational level, the PML(N) is working towards weakening the civilian institutions because it wants to dislodge the PPP-led federal government. As the PML(N) does not have the required vote in the National Assembly to remove the government, it describes the parliament as an irrelevant institution. It has gone to the Supreme Court for the memo issue and does not support the investigation by the parliamentary committee on national security.
Unless the political leaders and parties (both in power and out of power) rely on civilian institutions and processes, they would never be able to assert their primacy over the military.
The federal government’s position vis-à-vis the military is weakened because of its poor performance and the pressures of keeping the coalition together that requires some political compromises. Further, it faces strong opposition from the PML(N) and other political parties.
Prime Minister Gilani’s hard hitting speech in the National Assembly was an overreaction that could have been avoided. However, he was under pressure not only by the aforementioned factors and the situational factors like the pressures built by the Supreme Court in the memo case filed by the PML(N) and the defence secretary’s statement to the Supreme Court without authorisation from the federal government.
In a normal democratic political order, the defence ministry oversees the defence services and serves as the ‘proper channel’ between the federal government/prime minister and service headquarters. In Pakistan, one important consequence of ascendancy of the military in the political domain was the militarisation of the defence ministry by the induction of serving and retired military officers to key positions. During 1997-2011, Pakistan had 7 defence secretaries; all except one were retired Lt Generals. In April 2007, General Pervez Musharraf appointed a civil servant (Kamran Rasul) to this post. This civilian defence secretary was replaced with Lt-General (r) Syed Athar Ali in November 2008 on the recommendation of the army headquarters. In the first week of December 2011, Athar Ali was replaced with another retired Lt-General (Khalid Naeem Lodhi).
As a matter of courtesy, the civilian government appoints defence secretary on the recommendation of the army headquarters and the defence secretary often listens to the service bosses rather than civilian authorities. The army headquarters/army chief often interact directly with the prime minister and the president. The defence minister (Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar) hardly matters in the chain of command.
It was not surprising that the defence secretary (Lodhi) did not feel the need of going through his civilian bosses; for filing his response to the Supreme Court whose contents surprised most people.
It would be interesting to see how the civilian government deals with the defence secretary without alienating the top brass. Even if the defence secretary is removed, the military will continue to be the most formidable political player unless the political leaders join together to create a credible civilian alternative, agree among them to strengthen civilian institutions and especially the parliament, address socio-political issues. Above all, they need to redefine Pakistan’s profile from a security state focused on fighting terrorism, pursuing conflict-prone relationship with India and demonstrating miniature colonialism in its relations with Afghanistan to a state devoted to human and societal welfare as well as economic development.
Such a change is going to be a difficult task as the military can find strong allies among Islamist-militant groups and far right political spectrum for a militarily strong profile of Pakistan. The main victim of this policy is going to be democracy, civilian primacy and the welfare of the people.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.