Challenges ahead for Sharif

October 16, 2016

If we were to act out the dialogue between the civil and military leadership on foreign policy and other issues...

Challenges ahead for Sharif

The second week of October seems to have been full of excitement, especially for those keenly watching civil-military relations in Pakistan. If we were to act out the dialogue between the civil and military leadership on foreign policy issues, as reported in the Dawn, it would probably give the same kick as a can of Red Bull. Imagine the sense of elation at the bravado of a civilian government to challenging the military at point blank range. But if wishes were horses we would happily go riding!

While we can over-analyse the story and try digging out the source of the leak, civil-military relations appear to have taken another nosedive. The civilians are as powerless today as they were in 1958, 1977 and 1999, except that we have been made to believe that a change has happened. Numerous analysts have written in the past decade about gradual empowerment of the political class and the civil society. The argument is that the days of military takeover was past and that substantive changes could be brought if the political leadership behaved more responsibly.

The problem with such claims is that they are too focused on the phenomenon of military takeovers. Such observers assess military’s power in terms of their capacity for direct intervention, the absence of which is deemed as a qualitative shift. This kind of argument rests in the traditional historical benchmark of military power only expressed through a coup d’état, the absence of which is equated with strengthening of democracy.

In its almost 70 years of existence, Pakistan has witnessed military power in various forms. When the military junta did not rule directly as it did from 1958-62, 1969-71, 1977-84, and 1999-2002, the GHQ governed through a military president which means government operations monitored by a select group of military men. In such conditions, a partnership is also formed with various civilian stakeholders or even political parties that readily align with the armed forces.

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We can observe two methods from 1958 to 2007. The first one is General Ayub Khan taking over the Muslim League and converting it to suit his style and interests, and using it as a political platform for himself. The second one was visible during the Ziaul Haq and Musharraf regimes in which the dictators opted for partnering with political parties that would work under their command as presidents. The problem with these models was that the legitimacy of the political party was so tied with that of the dictator that a downturn in the general-president’s popularity became costly. This methodology was reviewed and changed in the ensuing days.

Powerful militaries withdraw from politics only if the cost of intervention becomes high, such as external threat or opposition from the people. The military in Pakistan is powerful enough to thwart any external threat.

The Musharraf period also denotes the beginning of a watershed moment for civil-military relations in Pakistan. The general’s successors like Generals Kayani and Sharif realised that they could avoid direct intervention while keeping control of affairs of the state. This was achieved by shifting from control of government to governance. This approach means that the military would harden its control over strategic decision-making and policies while not being in the forefront.

The GHQ Rawalpindi makes the decisions while the responsibility is shouldered by the civilian government. One example relates to negotiations with the Taliban prior to beginning of Zarb-e-Azab. The popular impression is that it was the political government alone that wanted to talk to the militants. The fact of the matter is the strategy was useful in wooing elements of Taliban away from groups that were interested in fighting Pakistan.

The other noticeable aspect of this approach is that the military does not have to partner with just one party but pick the eggs from all baskets that could be used and manipulated at appropriate time. For a successful functioning of this method, the military has over the years mastered the art of managing the national narrative. This was done by first expanding and then artfully managing the media. It was after 2007 that we saw an extensive structure develop to manipulate different segments of the media including social media.

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The fact of the matter is that today the ISPR is a corps strength headed by a lieutenant general, an organisation that for years was run by a brigadier. The military PR agency today runs a large network of radio channels, has stakes in different television channels, finances films and theatre. This is not just a benign institutional expansion but is shaping up and controlling the national narrative that would probably assuage the fear of the military -- that Pakistan is threatened due to lack of internal unison. There is little issue with building nationalism, except that the formula is based on maligning the political leadership and politicians and civilians in general.

This is not to argue that politicians in Pakistan are not in the wrong or are not corrupt but the fact is that they are part of a system that encourages corruption and comprises both civil and military.

Pakistan’s greatest issue is that it has evolved into a patronage system in which major groups develop their own patronage-client network that they have to feed -- by extorting resources of the state. In doing this, the civil and military elite are both connected with each other. The battle of civil-military begins over the leadership role.

There is certainly no straight formula for solving the problem. It is too simplistic to say that the issue will get resolved if we have squeaky-clean leadership because Pakistan will probably not be able to get that kind. It is an inherent issue with the patronage system. A political system dominated by the military will keep throwing leaders that are compromised. An honest and decent leader will not only question his own, but the generals as well.

The military, on the other hand, is not compelled to withdraw from its intervention in politics of the government. It is pretty strong as an organisation to push back.

Traditionally and theoretically, powerful militaries withdraw from politics only if the cost of intervention becomes high, such as external threat or opposition from the people. The military in Pakistan flanked by nuclear weapons is powerful enough to thwart any external threat. As for internal opposition, there are quite some years before that to happen.

Challenges ahead for Sharif