Civilian control of the armed forces -Express Tribune

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My last piece related to the topic was “Unconstructive criticism and military morale” published in this space on September 10, 2020. In this age of madar-pidar azadi, free-wheeling environment, ushered in by an uncontrolled and unregulated social media, general public has become cynical and addicted to seeing this or that domino fall. We tend to believe what is juicy, grapevine and scandalous, even if it is not true. Our political culture is shaped by hyperbole, small and mostly irrelevant skirmishes on a daily basis. The result is frequent ‘storms in our national tea cup’ on totally irrelevant, at times non-issues, wasting nation’s time, energy and resources. And sadly, this proclivity afflicts the highest tiers of our decision-making.

Let’s be honest. There is a prevalent political sentiment across political parties that want the military to be hands-off from internal affairs of Pakistan. But paradoxically, they want military to intervene in the ongoing political process, only once they cannot take on the might of the incumbent political party/government through political process. Our political cadre — ironically — has always forced the military’s hand, as in 1977 (Nau-Sitarey vs ZA Bhutto’s PPP), 1999 (Musharraf vs Nawaz Sharif) or the ‘guided democracy’ subsequently. The politicians of all shades look towards Aabpara and Rawalpindi for mentorship, sponsorship and support to come into power to ‘serve Pakistan by serving themselves first’. One was amazed at the sycophancy of our political class, as witnessed firsthand during interaction with my senior in the Paltan, Gen Ehtisham Zameer Jaffery (late) — during his stint in the ISI — the jewel of Pakistan’s security establishment. It was amazing to see the lines of worthy politicians seeking this or that favour on a regular basis.

So, where does the debate of civilian supremacy of the armed forces boils down to? The politicians’ viewpoint first. They complain that the military is too intrusive and controlling; it does not allow them a free rein; it engineers scenarios and manipulates domestic environment to serve ‘military-preferred policy’ options; it jealously guards its security turf when it comes to policy towards India, US and/or Afghanistan etc in particular. That democracy — as any opposition complains — is ‘guided’ at best.

Military feels (without me claiming it to be institutional input whatsoever), like most common Pakistanis, that the politicians win elections through filibustering and demagoguery promising moon to the electorate and raising unrealistic expectations; that political cadre barring very few, has no real appreciation and/or team to deal with Pakistan’s myriad complex issues (economy, security, inflation and foreign relations, etc). Military rank and file feel that the motive behind winning elections is power grab and resources exploitation, with politicians-elect generally having no plan for sustainable development and poverty alleviation. That, in dealing with opposition of the day, the party in power holds no bars exhibiting dictatorial propensities, even at the cost of damage to the state. Run up to 1971 East Pakistan saga, 1977 Movement against Bhutto or the political mayhem of 1999 before Musharraf’s takeover, are some cases in point.

That political government — given the nascent maturity of our political cadre — treats other state institutions like the civil and military bureaucracy, judiciary, etc rather poorly, often making unpopular, unconstitutional and whimsical decisions. One can cite removal of Gens Jehangir Kiramat and Musharraf, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, etc or appointment of Gen Kallue as the ISI chief after his retirement. Military understands the latent hostility of the political class that arises from a confused mix of grudging admiration for the military machine’s timely, effective and precise delivery during any national crises; military being the bulwark guarding Pakistan’s ideological and geographic frontiers against bigger and more powerful enemies; and military’s all time high approval rating among common people, etc.

The reality lies in plain sight. Military leadership is schooled in ‘the elements of national power, strategy and administration’ in at least two year-long mandatory courses at Service Staff Colleges and National Defence University, besides extensive interaction/experience in dealing with administrations at local, provincial and national levels. A young politician, sometimes with a forged degree, winning an election through money and political/dynastic backing thus cannot compete with state bureaucracy, when it comes to the exercise of authority beyond rhetoric. But it is equally fallacious to reject the entire political cadre under the ‘hubris’ of rank and appointment. There are wise, competent, patriotic, honest and able politicians, even if a few and far between.

Wanting to resist, one cannot avoid commenting on the PTI leadership’s two bruising brushes with military. One during the extension of the present COAS and second recently during appointment of the new DG ISI. In both cases, procedural violations were/are cited. In the first case, such anomalies were rectified on Court injunctions and this time around, PM Imran feels he was not consulted while sending the incumbent DG ISI to Peshawar. PM, reportedly, wants the incumbent to stay as head of the ISI for ‘some time’ for ‘unspecified reasons’. When there is an unwarranted spectacle at the highest level, with no ‘plausible’ explanation and/or clarification, the rumour mill understandably goes into over-drive.

In the first case, if PM Imran was hesitant to grant an extension, why did he succumb to whatever ‘pressure’ given his ‘principled’ credentials touted so loudly? Why did he not say so and step aside? And in present case, why must he insist upon the incumbent DG to stay on? Did he not know, albeit through media (if one believes the Government), about the change in the offing for professional reasons, like all military postings? Reality does not meet the eye. Forcing an error on the military (appointment of the DG ISI without PM’s concurrence), then asking for the process to be followed (perfectly legalistic but with repercussions) and, thereafter, keeping the summary and making the DG ISI appointment controversial in the process, is not helping the civilian supremacy of the armed forces. It further erodes it. COAS is never a person.

One understands the frustration of our political class for military’s interference in the so-called “guided democracy”. However, the battle for civilian supremacy of our military and ISI cannot and will not be decided in such egotistic machinations. It will be decided in the streets of Pakistan, once deliverance is visible, credible, irreversible and lasting by those in power yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2021.