‘Civilian supremacy is a myth’

Analyst Shuja Nawaz talks about civil-military relations in Pakistan over the past decade and about his latest book

Analyst Shuja Nawaz, the founding director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre based in Washington DC, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Centre. His most recent book, The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood, covers the civil-military relations in Pakistan and the nation’s tumultuous relationship with the United States during 2007-2019. The book is a follow up on his seminal work, Crossed Swords: Pakistan: Its Army, and the Wars Within, first published in 2008. Following excerpts are from his discussion with The News on Sunday on Pakistan’s external and internal policy dynamics in the context of his new book. 

The News on Sunday: There are complaints of suffocating repression in Pakistan in the intellectual, academic, and political arenas. Restrictions on freedom of expression are said to be at an all-times high; academic autonomy in higher education under siege; and religious and political tolerance at a low ebb. How do you see the situation?

Shuja Nawaz: Your dire assessment of Pakistan can apply to almost every government in the past two decades. Every government has tried to use all the instruments of the state to gain advantage against the opposition and to ensure its stay in power. Moreover, as I state in my book, every civilian government that succeeds an autocratic regime tends to acquire the worst traits of the preceding regime. Every government tends to use government spending, licences, intelligence agencies, etc to its advantage against recalcitrant media, the judiciary, business houses, and other elements of civil society.

The fledgling democracy remains fledgling as a result. Civilian supremacy is a myth, especially in terms of the relationship with the powerful, disciplined, well-organised and increasingly economically well-endowed military sector. When out of power, political parties decry the military’s role. When in power, they fall over themselves in trying to curry favour with the military via a system of entitlements and prerogatives. Hence the unequal marriage or misalliance between the civil and the military that has been the weakness of Pakistan’s political system. The current government is operating under the illusion of a partnership, but this partnership is unequal and unlikely to last if the civilian side fails to govern successfully or meet the economic and pandemic challenges.

TNS: You appear to be stipulating in your new book, The Battle for Pakistan, that Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was the best army chief Pakistan has had recently. He supported democracy, took steps to depoliticize the military, and took a direct approach in communicating with the United States on militancy and Afghanistan. Why was his doctrine not followed by the military leadership later?

SN: I try not to rank army chiefs. My aim is to narrate the events and assess the performance of the incumbent chiefs in the context of domestic and external challenges. Gen Kayani inherited a highly politicised army. He tried to restore professionalism and to shift the focus inward, to improve the lot of the soldier. His biggest challenge was an internal insurgency that led to a war waged inside Pakistan’s borders. He successfully reshaped the training of the military and provided an intelligible argument that allowed the army to fight against fellow Pakistani Muslims. He resisted US pressure to extend the war into the hinterland. I believe that he wanted more public support and feared an extended frontline that would sap the military’s strength. Some accuse him of dithering. But his successor, Gen Raheel Sharif, used the foundations laid by Kayani to move into action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to clear out the bases of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the foreign fighters. Kayani should never have accepted or sought the extension that he got from the PPP government. I do believe that three years is not enough for an army chief to transform the institution but, if the argument is accepted then the term of office ought to be extended to four years without any possibility of an extension. Extensions undermine the military and do not produce positive results.

Gen Raheel Sharif fell into the trap of believing his own narrative carried by a pliable media and an ISPR on steroids. As a result, the message lacked content. He could not expand the clearing operations from FATA into the Punjabi heartland despite much talk of intelligence-based operations. Kayani, by comparison, was thoughtful and hard working. He read a lot. He managed to earn the grudging respect of many of his US allies. I cite, for instance, the fulsome praise from Gen John Allen for Kayani as a strategist and Adm Mike Mullen’s essay for Time magazine. He did not give up the idea that Pakistan would act in its own interest. Neither have his successors.

TNS: The military establishment in Pakistan has always been India-centric based on some valid reasons you have identified in your book. Some say, however, that the institution has been blocking peace efforts initiated by civilian governments whenever they tried to approach India. Your opinion?

SN: There were opportunities for opening up trade with India, but the PPP government led by President Asif Ali Zardari pulled the plug on them, despite the fact that the military, howsoever reluctantly, had agreed to allow talks to proceed on a trade deal. My book deals with those actions. Actually, the country can profit from trading with all its neighbours, and not just India. The military, because of its wide economic stance, could benefit enormously from regional trade. The army needs to help reshape the definition of national security, basing it on a strong society and economy, protected by a lean and mobile military machine that can act as a defensive bulwark against any adventurism on the part of India or any other neighbour. A rising right-wing nationalism in India may feed its hegemonic tendencies.

A stronger Pakistani society could meet the Indian challenge better than a Pakistan that relies on its military alone. It cannot afford to fall back on a poison pill defence of so-called tactical nuclear weapons against an Indian incursion. Domestically, civilian supremacy can be strengthened by stronger and better-informed actions of the government on defence matters and by taking back the Ministries of Defence and Defence Production from military control. The Turkish model beckons, but it requires honest and hard work: no short cuts and no backroom deals.

For its part, the military needs to become less thin-skinned. It should not take all criticism or commentary as hostile actions and move to defend Fortress Pakistan Army with its coercive power. Accepting criticism and being introspective can only improve its operations and make it better understood and supported. It cannot remain apart from the people of Pakistan. Also, it must resist the urge to label anyone who disagrees with it as a foreign agent. More of its own officers have become foreign agents than journalists or commentators in the civil sector of Pakistan, according to the minimal information it has shared publicly over the years on military trials and tribunals. Sharing such details has not weakened the military. Rather it has enhanced respect for it.

TNS: Politicians are often blamed for corruption, bribery, and nepotism in Pakistan. Do you think only politicians are responsible for such practices in Pakistan?

SN: No. Corruption, abetted by a lack of transparency and accountability, is a disease that has penetrated almost all the institutions in Pakistan. Recent military trials prove this point. But there are enough honest and professional persons in both the civil and the military services – they are keeping the ship of state afloat.

The business community has been derelict in its duty to the nation by hewing to the old line of living off the scraps that the government throws in their path. They need to form alliances with civil society and help rid the system of dynastic political parties to create truly representative institutions in provincial and national legislatures. Currently, the government has the upper hand in dividing and ruling over the business community, using the courts and intelligence agencies to manage elections and administrations at all levels. Parliament needs to play its part in shining the light on operations of both civil and military institutions and to hold them accountable. Far too many times, corruption tends to be swept under the rug to protect these institutions. The current government has made promises to change all this. We have to see how it keeps those promises. But it needs help from all elements in the Pakistani society.

TNS: The PPP government (2008-2013) faced tremendous challenges, including the US drone strikes, terrorist attacks, historic floods, judicial activism that removed its prime minister, and the US infiltration in Abbottabad killing Osama bin Laden. Despite all this, it was able to pass the 18th Amendment reducing presidential powers, devolving several portfolios to the provinces and completing its constitutional term – a first in Pakistan’s history. Do you think the PPP and Zardari should get some credit for these achievements?

Shuja Nawaz is a political and strategic analyst.

“When out of power, political parties decry the military’s role. When in power, they fall over themselves in trying to curry favour with the military via a system of entitlements and prerogatives. The current government is operating under the illusion of a partnership, but this partnership is unequal and unlikely to last if the civilian side fails to govern successfully or to meet the economic and pandemic challenges.”

SN: In my book, I give credit for devolution under the 18th Amendment to the PPP government. But they badly botched the implementation of the devolution plan and failed miserably in preparing the provinces for the enhanced responsibilities. The fiscal formulae were unsustainable and unrealistic. Today, Pakistan is paying the price of that hurried devolution plan. Moreover, the government underestimated the ability of the sclerotic and entrenched bureaucracy at the Centre that has undermined effective devolution. The babus are striking back.

However, totally reversing the 18th Amendment may not be right either. Its details could be improved and the administrative structure reshaped, perhaps by replacing the current provinces with smaller units based on the nearly 36 administrative divisions. This would bring the government closer to the people and remove the current tensions between the Centre and the periphery.

TNS: After successfully negotiating a deal with the Taliban, President Donald Trump is pulling out American troops from Afghanistan. Do you think this is part of a long-term American strategy or just a political gesture by President Trump in an election year?

SN: I do not agree that this is a successful deal. Trump is merely fulfilling a campaign promise to end this “forever war”. It is a hasty exit. Trump’s military does not agree to a quick exit. He may yet pull the plug on Afghanistan and the region with a 3am tweet from the White House, as desperation takes over his campaign. Pakistan has to be careful in not being left with “ownership” of the Taliban or the possibility of a Taliban government in Kabul that would create a nightmare scenario for Pakistan: reverse sanctuary for militant Islamists using Afghanistan as a base for expanding their influence in Pakistan. The most dangerous time for any prime minister is when his intelligence guys say, “We have things under control”. History has not proved them right. He must remind his intelligence chiefs that the best intelligence is policy-neutral. The government must decide on policy actions.

TNS: President Trump has recently announced plans to withdraw American forces from the Middle East and focus on Asia citing the recent Indo-China border skirmishes. How does the new situation affect a strategically located Pakistan that has friendly relations with China but not so good relations with India?

SN: Pakistan should not focus on its strategic location for security purposes only or to exact rent but also as an economic and trade hub for the region. It has an advantage over India in that respect, since it has contiguous borders with China, Afghanistan, and Iran as well as a commanding position on the Arabian Sea. If it focuses on creating an educated and healthy labour class, it can attract global investments and save itself from becoming dependent on Western aid or Chinese largesse.

TNS: US-Pakistan relations have gone through ups and downs for several decades. Currently, however, both countries seem to be on good terms after Pakistan facilitated the US-Taliban talks on the future of Afghanistan. How do you see these relations developing in the future?

SN: Don’t be fooled by the false bonhomie generated by ritualistic official statements from Islamabad/Rawalpindi and Washington DC. This is what my favourite Potohari poet Baqi Siddiqui called “sharing false laughter” (in his collection Kachhay Gharray.) The US relationship is fickle, and there has yet to be any indication of a true Pakistan Strategy emerging from Washington DC. Afghanistan still seems to be the driving force in this relationship. Further, the US has effectively shut off the security and economic aid pipeline. It has also withheld legitimate Pakistani payments under the horribly negotiated Coalition Support Funds that essentially sold Pakistan on the cheap to the United States under President Musharraf’s regime. This includes some $800 million in CSF arrears. And the Pakistani government and military remain mum on that issue. They appear to have yielded to bullying from Trump. Finally, this is an election year in the United States. Remember, Trump will not change his spots. He remains a transactional man.

If Joe Biden wins, there is a possibility of a reshaping of the regional agenda involving China, India, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the Arab-Iranian relationship. Biden has firsthand knowledge and surrounds himself with experienced hands that he will be able to bring into his circle of influence. I have worked with him and many of his advisers when he was vice president. They know the region and the issues. Trump has not attracted expertise in that respect. His yes-men (there are few women that he truly listens to) want only to agree with his whims. Pakistan should be preparing for 2021 and beyond at this point, with scenarios and practicable changes in its stance that would place it at an advantage in any negotiations with a Biden Administration or a second Trump Administration. Such exchanges should not be personality-driven but based on economic and political realities. Prime Minister Imran Khan needs to be much better prepared to listen to his briefers and use his experts to deal with the US system at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The counterfactual may well be a disaster, especially as Pakistan tries to climb out of the economic ditch dug by its hesitant and confused approach to the Covid-19 crisis and the return of workers from the Middle East. Covid-19 will leave a long trail of detritus in its wake. As Nobel Economics Laureate Paul Romer has stated, we may not near normalcy till 2028. So, Pakistan needs to look over the horizon, not gaze at its navel.

The author is a freelance journalist and academic scholar based in the United States.

‘Civilian supremacy is a myth’