Sleeping with the Enemy

Civil-military relations fraught with mistrust

As the new Army Chief and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee nominations are shortlisted, approved and formalized by the President and Prime Minister, there is a general larger than life pretense of relief in political and media quarters; as if democracy has been saved or if a major clash has been averted. The reactions of all the stakeholders, invariably point out to the hard fact at place in the Pakistani politics that after 75 years, the civil and military elite remains strange; rather estranged, bedfellows. Surprisingly, the PTI which built its image as an anti-establishment force, did not take much time to announce a ceasefire with the establishment as well as its arch-rivals, the PML(N) and the PPP. The PTI. which boasted of an unparallelled one-page status with the military in fact was the one which was witness to the developing estrangement of the worst kind; the likesof which  in the political history of the PML(N) and PPP cannot be located.

To recall, the current crisis started with the single press release for the appointment of ISI chief last autumn that tore off the one page between the civil and military and ended a “favourite” government, bringing instead the not-so-favourites. At the core, it showed the fissures, which have been the legacy of the political system ever since the inception of the country after the British left. That has become a regular feature whenever an inning of military rule ends and finally the political rule is restored, many times in name only. The democratic interlude is characterized by constant jockeying for power, which in turn creates mistrust.

The way forward is correction, especially in terms of action, not press releases from the institutions which have a record of intervention. A country at the shore of economic meltdown cannot afford a narrow vision of anyone powerful. The will of unarmed masses needs to take precedence over that of the armed ones, who draw salaries from the former

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Practically the external world has learnt to live with it. In Turkey, they know whom to meet. In Iran, they request an audience as per the importance of the visiting leader or of the issue. In Pakistan, separate audiences with the Chief of Army Staff and the Prime Minister are requested as the world at large knows, which strings need to be pulled to get the work done. Actually, whenUS President  Trump ordered striking the Iranian General in Baghdad in January 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his tweet preferred to mention the COAS incumbent at that time of Pakistan, then the Prime Minister.

In the midst of these protocols followed by the external stakeholders; it has been practically the only period; during the stint of Democrats in Washington, when under the banner of Kerry Lugar Bill in 2009-2010, the Obama Administration gave what was due, weightage to the civilian government. Otherwise, it has been military, with whom even the Americans are comfortable to work with.

During the period under discussion, the Osama episode once again showed that the two strange bedfellows, the PPP government and the military, were not on the same page. While the Army was red-faced at what it tried to market as invasion of its enclave, the President of Pakistan, the ceremonial commander in-chief of the Pakistani defence forces and the chairman of the political party at the centre had already sent for publication an article condoning the US strike in Abbottabad.  During the same period, the Memogate affair was another point of deep conflict between the PPP and the GHQ.

The PML(N), which got a bitter taste of military coup in 1999, despite being partners in pressuring the PPP in 1990 and 1994, too had to be what can be said crops up with the ever-present Khaki shadows. Pakistan was witness to the pitch-dark flypast of PAF jets on 14 August 2014 in the clumsiest manner; when the polity and society was first held hostage to the mechanics of the establishment favourites, the PTI hordes in Islamabad. To make way for the 126-day dharna; the national day had to be pushed through at midnight. It was only the stand taken by the PPP and the insistence that parliamentary attendance be restored that the “revolutionary” politics of the PTI hordes was neutralized; the rest is history.

The ascension of the favourite politician to the post of prime minister was boasted as a time when the one-page doctrine was achieved and the two parties were never or were no more strange bedfellows. However, the gradual turn of events after the start of the third year of this happy marriage soon demonstrated that both the parties were actually ‘sleeping with the enemy’.  Again, the follow-up events are current happenings; which future historians will be in a better position to study and analyze.

The reasons for that continued mistrust between the civil and military, which has plagued the Pakistani polity and the economic and strategic planning has been the battle for control of the resources as well as the key decision making. The origins of that mindset emanate from the earlier days of the country, when the politicians from the vanguard party PML, were not in the position to run the country with consensus. That mismanagement helped create fissures within the system. The military trained in British traditions was more than ready to increase or enhance its influence in the polity. The appointment of Ayub Khan, a serving military officer, as the Defence Minister in an otherwise civilian cabinet was the first misstep in this context.

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The military coup in October 1958, for the time being swung the balance in military favour. However, the biggest fall-out of that arrangement was that while the military aspects and the administrative aspects were presumably dealt with in a superficial manner; the political aspect was completely ignored. The best example of how that proved costly was the separation of East Pakistan. The Bengali population’s disillusionment with the federation had started but the government due to its pure military nature did not detect the same.

One example of that lack of empathy was the 1965 war. While 200 or so jets of all categories were in West Pakistan for the defence of the air space, East Pakistan was left at the mercy of the  IAF stationed in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, and other Indian states surrounding East Pakistan. There were only 14, F-86 jets that were supposed to patrol the eastern flank’s airspace. By the time the dust settled, the East Pakistanis’ anger had crossed the prohibitive limits. Again, the government faced with protests in both the wings of the country could not understand the political demands and dealt with them with an iIron hand approach. The 1971 separation of East Pakistan was the direct result of that approach.

The ascension of Bhutto, if one follows the narrative of eminent political analyst Shuja Nawaz, in 1971 was made by the Army under duress; an act they would not have entertained under normal circumstances. However, Bhutto could not implement his programme as fully as he wanted, to maintain a sort of trust with the Army. Opposed to military pacts with the USA, he continued with the CENTO and SEATO arrangements during his tenure. During the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973/74, PAF pilots volunteering for combat were advised to do that on their own, meaning adherence to the above-mentioned pacts. The Zia years’ treatment of Junejo, the Ojrhi camp episode, the turbulent 1990s when successive PPP ad PML(N) governments were shown the door were the period when the mistrust escalated gradually. Lastly, the last six months and the turning against them of those the Army had trained as its allies, evaporated any semblance of any decency.

The way forward is correction, especially in terms of action, not press releases from the institutions which have a record of intervention. A country at the shore of economic meltdown cannot afford a narrow vision of anyone powerful. The will of unarmed masses needs to take precedence over that of the armed ones, who draw salaries from the former.

Naqi Akbar
Naqi Akbar
The writer is a freelance columnist


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