March Issue 2008
Goodbye to Politics?
The common Pakistani is jubilant because for the first time since 1988, he got a chance to vote out a government and party which were booted in by the GHQ. Rarely do Pakistanis get such an opportunity; normally, regimes are voted in but booted out. Relatively free and fair elections were held this time round because the army stepped back and allowed political forces greater space than usual. However, this does not mean that the army is ready to restructure its role and play second fiddle to political governments.
The world inside and outside Pakistan is hoping to see a change in the political future of the country and the institutional balance between the military and democratic forces. This expectation is not just linked with the elections but with what the new army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani undertook, even before the country went to the polls. For instance, his decision to withdraw serving officers from civilian departments or stopping his officers from meeting politicians are being viewed as positive moves. He has also talked about dis-investing the army’s stakes in two organisations, the Frontier Works Organisation and the National Logistics Cell.
The debate on whether the military is ready for a change must be viewed in a historical perspective from the standpoint of the organisation’s strategic role and the structure of higher defence management. For years, the military’s primary focus were external threats. This began to change under Musharraf, who shifted the emphasis to internal security. But this does not necessarily mean that the external security function no longer exists. In fact, many argue that the dominance of the PML-Q in the Balochistan Assembly is due to the elections being boycotted by the Baloch nationalists and the importance of the province for the military establishment. The state cannot afford to have slogans of Baloch nationalism or provincial autonomy being raised in Balochistan, especially when it is believed that most of the trouble that exists in the province is being fomented by India.
The military establishment will let go of total control of politics only when it reviews what it views as the country’s internal and external threats and is willing to downsize and reduce its role in the strategic management of the state. The military-strategic calculation will not change until and unless policymaking is firmly controlled by the civilian authorities. There are two issues as far as such a shift is concerned. Firstly, the military does not have confidence in the civilians, especially politicians, to run the state judiciously. Although military personnel all over the world are highly suspicious of politicians, the problem becomes much more intense in a polity where the armed forces have traditionally enjoyed greater power.
Secondly, Pakistan’s ally, the US, would be even more nervous about transferring the power of decision-making to civilians in today’s world, infested with problems of terrorism and the corporate world’s desire for greater expansion. Venezuela, for instance, is an example of why the US would be nervous of allowing political forces to dominate. The calculations of civilian regimes can be totally different from those of military regimes.
A corollary of the above argument is that shifting the balance in favour of the civilian dispensation becomes a more difficult task as long as the political actors do not formulate a proper plan for negotiating with the military generals. Thus far, there is no concrete plan except for back-door negotiations.
The deficiency in the political circles would make it much harder for General Kayani to reverse the clock, even if he intends to change the civil-military relations balance in the country. The issue here is of institutionalising the shift rather than having something temporary.
For the new army chief it is important to make the shift, at least temporarily, because he is confronted with the issue of low morale of his men. There is the war on terror, which has divided people in the society and the state. Then there is the issue of the poor image of the military due to the policies of Musharraf. General Kayani could possibly make the shift in the short-term. Another two to three years of not involving his institution in politics will do the trick of restoring the reputation of the armed forces.
In fact, the country’s history is a reminder of the fact that the military has always supported free and fair elections whenever it faced a crisis. For instance, the 1971 elections were free and fair because the military was severely demoralised. Later, in 1988, it supported free and fair elections because it was demoralised due to the loss of several senior generals alongwith General Zia-ul-Haq in a mysterious air crash. Now, it is confronted with the task of restoring the image of the armed forces, which has got a lot of flak for its increasing visibility in politics, economy and society.
Temporary adjustments do not necessarily mean a long-term change. From a historical perspective, one can see that a series of professional generals does not necessarily result in establishing a tradition of professionalism and subservience to civilian power. After 1988, for instance, there were four army chiefs who chose to stay away from politics but then they were replaced by a politically ambitious general. What is the guarantee that it will not happen again?
The eight years of Pervez Musharraf have brought about a change in the tone and tenor of the officers cadre. They view themselves as power brokers, and as a powerful institution which has the right to involve itself in politics due to what it views as inept political leaders and incompetent civilians. General Kayani might struggle to bring about a change, but a real transformation cannot take place unless his organisation sees some advantage in steering clear of politics and letting go of the distribution of national resources.
What would constantly threaten the process of improving the civil-military relations balance in the country is the presence of Pervez Musharraf at the helm and the prospects of future instability. The former general will always try to undercut and destabilise the political government, especially when it takes a confrontational position on various issues with Musharraf.
Furthermore, the health of the economy will play a vital role in determining the relative strength of the civilian dispensation. If, for instance, the internal financial institutions do not appreciate the sensitivity of the new government and force it to adjust prices to meet the international price index or punish it by withholding financial assistance, the journey to a strong democracy will become difficult. Poor economic progress could create a situation where the army finds a ready justification to intervene directly or indirectly, after the organisation has gained some of its lost confidence.
The geo-political scene in the region has changed after 9/11. The US might learn to deal with a civilian dispensation, which does not necessarily mean that it would pitch for a stronger civilian dispensation. In the US, there is special concern regarding what role the new government will play in fighting the war on terror. The issue of the restoration of judges is linked with this. If the next government takes a position which is seen as impeding the results of the war on terror, Washington may want to play on the side of the military, as it has always done in the past.
In the game of restructuring civil-military relations in the country, there are, unfortunately, more snakes than ladders. The problem is highly complex and may not get resolved through the resolve of one general or one politician.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter