The politicians and the military

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The former not as sinful as painted; the latter not as saintly

If one were to begin listing Pakistan’s structural problems – problems that have prevented the country from becoming a well governed state – rule of law would feature right at the top.

Much has been written about this issue, with the popular narrative blaming the political elite for their failure to implement rule of law uniformly. The narrative paints them as corrupt, opportunistic, and defiant of rules and regulations.

Those who talk about fixing the problem – including the politicians – talk of accountability and transparency, of anti-corruption measures, and of exemplary punishments. Imran Khan is the latest example of that.

There is little doubt that the political class has failed this country and must be held accountable. But one fact is conveniently overlooked in this discourse: the political elite are only one part of the puzzle and have never truly been in charge. It is the military establishment that has not only escaped any talk of accountability throughout the country’s history but has also created and promoted specific narratives of incompetence and corruption against politicians at will.

I do not wish to restrict this argument to corruption alone. The point here is a broader one, i.e. unless all pillars of the state operate at par, the status quo power institution – in this case the military – will retain a free hand to paint situations as it wishes. And since, like any organisation, it has its own vested interests to defend, we will always end up with the civilian sector looking much worse than the military (and than it really is).

To be sure, I make this contention not as someone pathologically opposed to our military establishment but as a citizen who is interested in seeing rule of law being established across the board; who knows that mature democracy cannot come about until the civil-military playing field is levelled; and who feels constantly entrapped between poorly performing politicians and an overbearing and self-interested military.

It has become amply clear over the years that it the military that has been in the driving seat when it comes to shaping the political environment. Throughout military dictatorships and in the 1990s, the military establishment tailored political parties and actors to its liking and in turn used the failures of these pseudo-leaders to point to civilian failures.

Can one truly blame all politicians, or better yet, democracy for these failures?

Perhaps the list of questions to ask should be slightly different then usual: is democracy really about creating hand-picked political parties and leaders? Has the Pakistani public ever been given a chance to let the democratic process mature so that incompetent politicians are weeded out over time? Have the politicians been as corrupt as believed? Is there no corruption in the military? Does the military establishment submit itself to the law of the land any more than the civilians? Are narratives targeting the civilian elite really representative of the popular sentiment or are these actively shaped by the powers that be?

Just look at the events of the last year.

The year has been full of allegations of civilian corruption. The Supreme Court has been in overdrive, as have pundits on the media in pointing to gross anomalies on the part of the political elite.

Fair enough. But are we to believe that there have been no incidences of corruption involving military officials at any level? Of course, we don’t know as these are never brought out. However, military officers would themselves tell you, proudly, that while incidences do happen (they would say these are exceptions, not the norm), internal actions are taken to punish individuals involved. Here is my question: isn’t this defiance of the law of the land? Why are these cases not brought out in the public domain; why are they not taken up by NAB and the Supreme Court; why are internal mechanisms that essentially amount to cover ups allowed; and if this is the most effective way to do it, perhaps every ministry and government department should start doing this as well?

Examples of the power of the military in creating narratives as it wishes were on display throughout last year as well.

The Raymond Davis affair was quickly turned into an issue of the civilian government allowing visas to unauthorised Americans. Then despite the fact that the ISI played a critical role in getting him released, the blame was laid on the politicians for being weak.
May 2, perhaps the most embarrassing episode for the Pakistani nation in recent years, was quickly turned into an issue of sovereignty instead of the incompetence of the military. The civilians were put on notice to back the narrative in “national interest” or, as one politician of the ruling coalition told me, “risk being declared pro-American and unpatriotic”.

Drones have become the moniker of Pakistan’s quest to re-establish sovereignty in 2011. The army chief has led the charge on this. One wonders through why he has not introspected on the reasons the military establishment agreed to the drones and continued to cooperate – notwithstanding their denial now – with the Americans on their use.

To their credit, the PPP government has tried to stand up to the rhetoric as was evident in some of the statements by the prime minister over the past month. The military’s power however was on display once again as it successfully diverted attention of the people to the memo issue, to the civilian government apparently reaching out to other countries to raise concerns of a potential coup – notwithstanding Gen. Pasha’s own infamous Gulf visit – and to the NRO issue, among others.

I could go on but my point is fairly simple. Pakistan desperately needs rule of law and the state’s writ to be pervasive. And while one does not seek to defend anyone unnecessarily, maligning politicians alone to absolve the military from all wrongdoing is the biggest impediment in achieving this.

For years, civilian governments have been forced to operate within the limits set by the military establishment. In such an environment, they will never be able to deliver on rule of law issues. And without rule of law, hoping for mature democracies is absurd.

The writer is a research analyst at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad