September Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 14 years ago

“The people do not want the armed forces to play a partisan political role”

-Benazir Bhutto

Q: How do you view the military’s relationship with the state and society in Pakistan?

A: The people of Pakistan respect their armed forces as defenders of the geographical borders of Pakistan. However, when the armed forces intervene in governance they get politicised. The people do not want the armed forces to play a partisan political role. They want the armed forces to emerge as a national non-partisan institution.

The involvement of the armed forces in civilian administrative posts leads to resentment among the civil bureaucracy and technocrats. Extra professional activities like real estate, business and commercial enterprises also make the armed forces more controversial.

Their commercial profile has attracted adverse comments from within the country and also from the international community, which is not good for the armed forces or for the country.

The relationship that I envisage between the military and the state is one where the military functions under the control of the constitution, the elected parliament and the political government. This is the norm in all democratic countries. The military has a key role to play in defending the motherland, coming to the aid of civil power for internal duties, in national reconstruction projects as well as being a part of international peacekeeping.

In my youth we had proud officers and soldiers who laid down their lives for the country, earning glory for themselves and for our country. The military lived simple lives, in keeping with the conditions of a country where poverty is rampant. They had no political or religious connections. It all changed during the military dictatorship of General Zia. He introduced the works of Maulana Maudoodi, a religious leader, to the armed forces. He undermined the army’s non-partisan role by promoting sectariansim and politics.

Q: Given the current geo-strategic situation in the country, the possibility exists of a combined military-civilian rule. How will political parties strengthen themselves in this system?

A: The combined military-civilian rule during the period of General Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz has led to our losing control of the tribal areas of Pakistan, an armed insurgency in Balochistan and the spread of militancy to our cities, including Islamabad.

There is no substitute to a civilian rule in which the military respects and listens to the civil authority. We need a transition to civilian leadership. The military will regain its respect, and the people their democratic rights.

It is all the more important in the present strategic situation where Pakistan faces the threat of militancy, terrorism and extremism. Now the military gets blamed for all that goes wrong in the ongoing war on terror because there is no political cushion to serve as a shock absorber. When the army acts under civil rule, the adverse reaction to the political decisions is absorbed by the civilian government and not by the army as an institution.

The political parties and civil institutions can be strengthened when there is continuity of political and democratic processes and respect for the constitution by all state institutions.

Q: Where have political parties faltered in strengthening themselves vis-à-vis a political army?

A: It’s difficult for a flower to bloom without water. So too, it is difficult for political parties to mature in the absence of democracy. PPP has been kept alive by the blood of its martyrs, the dedication of its workers and the political awareness of the discriminated and disempowered masses. I salute them.

Q: How can political parties and the civil society negotiate with the military and reduce the military’s expanded role in the state and society?

A: The army is from among the people. Its role is determined by its leadership. Army chiefs like General Tikka, General Waheed, General Asif and General Karamat were good leaders. We need good leadership to help our army meet the demands of the 21st century and of a democratic polity.

Army-to-army exchange with foreign countries can also help armed forces learn from the role of armies in developed societies. It is the culture of law that we need to build.

Secondly, civil society and political parties must not applaud a political army. Denial of the oxygen of public applause has a deterrence value.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter