Over-enthusiasm on the part of any one institution to rectify all ills of the society can destabilise the political system
The military has traditionally been the most formidable political force in Pakistan. The four periods of military rule enabled it to expand its role in nonprofessional domains. However, its role has somewhat diminished over the last five years because the army chief since November 1997, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made a conscious effort to pull back from an interventionist approach towards politics and society, gave some space to civilians and devoted more attention to retrieving the army’s reputation that had suffered during the last two years of the Musharraf rule. The circumstantial factors also did not support the expanded role of the military.
Though the military continues to possess organisational capacity and discipline to displace the civilian elected government but its problems pertain to sustaining an exclusive and extended military rule at a time when Pakistan is increasingly becoming ungovernable. Conscious of the changed circumstances the military pursues its professional and corporate interests from the sidelines. This results in a complex civil-military interaction. The elected civilian government enjoys some autonomous space and shares decision-making with the military in foreign and security affairs. It may not take unilateral decision on key security and foreign policies but it is also not subservient to the military. It is a bargaining relationship in which civilian input depends on the professional capacity of the foreign minister and the senior staff of the Foreign Office as well as the trust of the military enjoyed by the foreign minister.
Unlike the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence is militarised. Most key positions are held by retired and servicing officers, mainly on the recommendation of the army headquarters. Since 1997, retired lieutenant generals have served defence secretaries. There are two brief exceptions to this practice. One, the defence secretary was removed by the federal government in January 2012 against the backdrop of the memo case. The position of defence secretary was given temporarily to a civilian bureaucrat. Within a couple of months the tension between the civilian government and the military eased on the memo issue and a retired lieutenant general returned to this position. The position of the defence minister is ceremonial at the operational level. The service chiefs and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee interact directly with the prime minister and the president.
The top brass of the military are more sensitive on the issues that they perceive as central to their interests and they want the civilian leadership to avoid interference in these areas. These include the budgetary affairs and its disbursement, perks and privileges, economic and business activities, internal organisational and service affairs like transfers and appointments.
In case the top brass of the military, especially the army, feel that their interests are deliberately ignored or undermined, they apply direct pressure on the civilian government or invoke their informal linkages with selected political forces to apply additional pressure on the civilian government. The military does not have permanent civilian allies but it cultivates temporary partnerships with reference to its interests. It may have good working relations with the civilian government at one time but it may adopt a tough attitude towards it in another context.
Whenever the military top brass express their displeasure against the civilian government openly or tacitly, the opposition parties do not support the civilian government. They attempt to cash in on the tension between the military and the civilian government by increasing their own pressure on the civilian government. The opposition parties do this not to help the military but they view this as an additional opportunity to cow down the civilian government.
Unlike in the past, the military has been more forthcoming in giving briefings to the top political leadership and the parliament on security issues. Their appearance in the parliamentary committees has also increased.
The growing internal security threats, especially the increased terrorist activity, have also changed the civil-military equation. On the one hand internal security issues have increased the importance of the army and the paramilitary forces because civilian security agencies do not have enough capacity to cope with internal security challenges. On the other hand the military needs greater civilian support and cooperation to deal with terrorism and other internal security affairs. It needs civilian ownership of these activities which is not possible without a working elected civilian political order. Only three political parties, the PPP, the MQM and the ANP (all part of the federal government) openly support the military on countering terrorism. Other political parties maintain ambiguous position or express sympathy for the Taliban position in the name of opposing US policies in the region.
The military’s traditional allies, Islamists and political right-wing, continue to oblige the military when it comes to building pressure on the federal government or opposition to US policies. However, these political elements do not support the military’s counter-terrorism policies despite the fact that the military and paramilitary have lost more personnel in this fight than those killed in India-Pakistan wars. Some of these Islamists have made inroads into military circles.
Of late the military top brass are perturbed by the superior judiciary’s enthusiasm for judicial activism that is now disturbing the traditional pattern of civil-military relations. In a bid to expand its domain of authority, the superior judiciary is building strong pressure on the military through the remarks of the judges in the course of court proceedings and its judgments. It has by now entered in the areas that should have been left to the elected executive and the security establishment.
The superior judiciary may be theoretically right in pursuing what it is doing but its political fallout has been destabilising as it has increased polarisation in the society on the lines of support and opposition to judicial activism. An additional complicating factor is the complaint about the money making activities of Arsalan Iftikhar, son of the Chief Justice that has become a part of societal debate on judicial activism.
The military remains critical to Pakistan’s security and internal stability. Its role is as important as the role of elected civilian institutions and processes and the judiciary. All state institutions need to work with restraints and show deference to each other. Over-enthusiasm on the part of any one institution to rectify all ills of the society can destabilise the political system and threaten the prospects of representative democracy.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.