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June 8, 2018

Shedding the shadows


June 8, 2018

The army, fauj, establishment, khalai makhlooq (extraterrestrials) or those who lurk in the shadows – give it any name. There is no political discourse in Pakistan that can be complete without a mention of it.

Our history of the military’s overarching preponderance though the years may be an established fact. But to liken it to Hitler’s Gestapo-infested Germany or the KGB in Russia is a bit of a stretch. The manner in which this premise is sold through the open media in our daily discourse itself contradicts the theory as much as it is proffered. Yet, to most vaunted names and men of thought it is a creed.

Whether it is Nawaz Sharif’s shortened tenure; the rife speculations over elections – those that were held for the Senate (which served to belie the apprehension) or those that are in the offing; the splintering of political parties as the elections approach; and the soft political coup that overturned the PML-N’s poorly-led government by some young Turks within the party, are all sourced to the army in popular intellectual perception. So pervasive is the bias that objective parsing is almost impossible.

Far more than any civ-mil divide, it is the mil-intelligentsia divide that holds us ransom towards any effort to social and institutional cohesion. There could be many reasons: as stated historical example serves many to be apprehensive; some find accommodation in this glittering assembly of men of letters and thought by subscribing to the hypothesis while others, far more academically inclined, are prone to contrarian positions. So, just as society evolves, and as institutions learn to coexist in a transitional democracy, and our intelligentsia – fed on 21st century idealism – deals with the disparities at home, the journey is bound to be one of circumspection, curiosity and, hence, rich on speculation. That it harms a nation in peril around challenges that stare it in the eye goes without saying. Yet, these gaps need bridging.

A part of this perception stems from how the military may have adapted to this changing context. It has done very well bound by the focus that a decade-long war against terrorism has required the army to eliminate the menace and come out victorious. Thankfully, it remains engaged in weeding the remnants out and clearing the underbrush. But it is as much true that the sociopolitical environment too has significantly changed. The DG ISPR almost lamented the profusion of social media in its last presser and indicated its inability to do much about it. But when you cannot manage the messenger, per the old ways, it is time to change the message.

A few things need to be corrected; and these relate to the army’s perception of itself as a player in the governance of the nation. A three-decade-long role in governing the country has left a residual sense in the succeeding generation of leaders that it has a fatherly ownership to oversee the matters of the state. It can only be washed with time away from direct intervention, but remains a cause of consternation outside the military. To acknowledge that it might be restricted of faculty in some matters of governance would be a good place to start.

As Pakistan’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka, I once mentioned the economy to a serving general as the main plank of sustaining a particularly vibrant relationship and I was deluged with unrestrained economic wisdom at length; only to question what it is that our omnipotent generals may not have mastered. There must be some conscious effort internally to give primacy to what should be their only occupation, patriarchal concerns aside. Such recourse only enthuses more doubts and lingers the speculation.

It is a serious institutional default that should be righted with deliberate corrective measures. The army takes on too much for its own good. The problems arising out of an uncontrolled social media are real enough, and if there exist doubts, someone needs to revisit the case of Egypt – a perfectly good country gone awry after Tahrir Square. Ditto for Libya and Syria, though the latter has also had to contend with a lot more in terms of foreign intervention.

What Pakistan faces is a similar environment of worsening dissonance, which makes for a dangerously combustible tinderbox. And it must bother every Pakistani, including its armed forces, for its potential to implode –

especially when it profligates without a check from any quarter. But that is exactly what makes our civilian compatriots edgy and speculative on the army’s intention, with allegations of manipulating power or engineering desired outcomes adding to the strife. It shouldn’t need the chief to take his democratic vows every now and then; it should be a given. Why it isn’t so should be a concern.

The civilian side too needs to introspect. For the moment, it helps Nawaz Sharif’s politics to frame the military in an adversarial light. But what will sustain from such indiscretion will be a long acrimonious relationship, which will frequently draw on examples of either the 1990 elections or the Sanjrani episode. Such divisions, unfortunately, have a way of finding permanence in institutional memory and are always difficult to repair.

Balochistan’s Sanjrani and Bizenjo are patently political beings; as political as any other. But to classify them as proxies is rather expedient. A group of dissatisfied coalition partners in a political government for reasons organic to their own purpose find it opportune to rebel, or agree to rebel, even if external influence was to be granted. This makes for a perfect causation to a political development in the imminence of another election where the government in power seems unable to return. It happens frequently in parliamentary politics – India comes to mind, but here we must pin it on the military.

Ditto for the South Punjab group that broke away mostly from the PML-N. Just as they had attached themselves to a PML-N victory in 2013, so have they detached themselves from its not-so-promising prospects. Politically, they will have to bear their consequences. But to bunch them all in the military’s corner is only perpetuating what has been our continuing bane. A political causation can be as easily ascribed. But trust this vocal crust in a nation steeped in anti-military sentiments to paint it as the military’s handiwork. Allegations of political engineering continue without abate as the more sophisticated mutation of managing power in a greatly polarised political scene of Pakistan. That only deepens the divide further.

The military has been intimately engaged in the matters of the state and governance over decades and a residual assumption of this responsibility continues to colour its perception about itself. But this must change to eliminate genuine discomfort and to neutralise deliberate efforts to perpetuate discord.

The corporate knowledge with the military of national affairs, however, should find expression in established forums such as the Cabinet Committee for National Security. It is time for all to take a step back and breathe easy. We need coherence, integrity and congruity in our national purpose. Chasms and fissures will only weaken our foundations. It is time to repair the divisions.

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