Saturday March 02, 2024

Bumpy road to stability

December 10, 2016

The military and civilian leadership should share similar perspectives on fundamental matters of national interests, threat perception and response parameters. If this is not the case, affability between the two institutions can vanish instantly. In Pakistan, the concerns of the military are generally the same as those of any informed and patriotic citizen.

These apprehensions usually govern civil-military relations as well. The list of issues that plagued these ties in the recent past is quite long. Areas of discord include impediments in the implementation of the NAP in some provinces due to political expediency; corruption by government officials who deal with scandals and allegations through unconstitutional or violent means; and remote-controlled rule from forces outside Pakistan.

Other factors include disregard for institutional inputs; controversies surrounding the CPEC due to lack of transparency or  provincialism; and acute political polarisation that diverted attention from grave security threats emanating from the neighbourhood.

Preference given to party or individual interests over national interests and, finally, the ominous legacy of settling political differences outside parliament have also served as major sticking points.

This legacy has been particularly responsible for military takeovers in the country.  If we recall the Partition milieu, the Muslim League (ML) succeeded in creating Pakistan, despite heavy odds, but it could not morph from a nationalist movement to a national party. The main reason for this was the leadership vacuum created by the demise of the Quaid-e-Azam and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan within the formative years of our independence. 

The wave of factionalism, provincialism and power politics that followed marred the first decade of our freedom. While India successfully framed a new constitution for itself in 1948, Pakistan failed to do so for nine years after its birth. This is why we saw seven prime ministers and eight cabinets during that period. This led to the decline of the ML. By 1958, political parties and leaders were engaged in a fierce struggle for power in violation of parliamentary norms, using all available means. When the system was about to collapse, the military stepped in to fill this vacuum and the people breathed a sigh of relief.

Later, when self-perpetuating politicians irretrievably discredited the governmental structure and process, the country had to be rescued two more times by the military - in March 1969 and July 1977.

In all of these cases, the government could have been changed in accordance with democratic norms, through a vote of no confidence on the floor of the National Assembly, but this did not happen.

On October 12, 1999, the government suddenly removed the chief of army staff and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, who was in Sri Lanka at the time. The events that followed are still fresh in our memory and need no reiteration.

Mercifully, the military interventions were bloodless in all these instances. On most of these occasions, the people initially welcomed the military intercession but later opposed such extended tenures.

It is also difficult to discern if the military entered the political arena by intent or by default. Forgoing in view, the judiciary had to legitimise the non-democratic forces to avoid chaos in the country. The international climate at the time and continuous division among the politicians allowed the military to remain in power longer than needed. This proved to be damaging to the growth of genuine democracy and its long-term dividends in the country. 

Here are some lessons that can ensure a better future for civil-military relations:  First, the immediate apprehensions should be formally allayed on priority, preferably through the Cabinet Committee on National Security.

Second, dissonance over core internal and foreign policies may lead to tensions which could hurt national interests and pose threats to internal stability. To circumvent this, formal inputs on these matters must be regularly obtained from the armed forces and the country’s intelligence and security agencies. Once this is obtained, these policies must be officially notified and periodically reappraised. These must clearly spell out the prime security challenges and broadly direct the military on how to deal with them.

Third, the elections cycle, which gives rise to episodic vicissitudes in the approach of civilian leadership, must not be allowed to affect such policies.

Fourth, those who are to steer the country, cannot be unscrupulous, corrupt or power-hungry. They must rise to the level of statesmen, shun self-centered petty politics or intrigues that may lure or compel the military to take unconstitutional steps.

Fifth, defining national interests is the job of the political masters. But when they fail to do so, the military should assume charge of a set of possible national interests, which will act as the foundation of all their actions. Military officers should be trained for years to think this way and uphold the conviction that national interests are supreme, so they do not support any policy or plan that contradicts this belief.

It is vital that parliament works out an agreed list of the national interests of Pakistan and makes it public to ensure civilian control of military authorities.

Sixth, statecraft may be the most arduous job in the world, but, ironically, past or practical experience in the matter is not a precondition for electoral politics. Poor governance ensues due to this shortcoming, which endangers democracy and enhances civilian-military divergences. Like any other profession, statecraft has to be learnt and mastered by politicians and there is no alternative or short cut to this obligation.

Seventh, periods of political rule must visibly and substantially excel the era of all previous military rules. Finally, the political leadership will have to outshine the military leadership in acumen and intellect for the ascendency of the former.

Taken earnestly, these lessons can safely steer Pakistan on its rather bumpy road to a stable, consensus-based politico-military culture and harmonious civil-military relations. 

The writer is the former president of the NDU. Email: