Will the civilians seize the moment?

It is too early to determine whether Nawaz Sharif is seeking a structural transformation of Pakistan’s governance culture or is merely hankering for acceptability within the power matrix.

Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance is now embedded in the very nature of the Pakistani state and the way it works. The ‘idea’ of Pakistan has evolved into a wide-ranging and somewhat irreversible militarisation that has penetrated into the society, economy and the very imagination of Pakistan. Prima facie, there is a Constitution at work with civilian institutions that come and go as side characters on the grand political theatre of Pakistan.

However, as they say, societies are dynamic entities and evolve over time. Since the 1971 defeat of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, the trajectory of military supremacy was quite consistent. It is a separate matter that the 1971 moment arrived amid a complete information blackout in the western wing of the country. The West Pakistani newspapers were reporting victory, until the inglorious surrender of General Tikka Khan at today’s Ramna Park in Dhaka on December 16th 1971. Interestingly, the headline printed by daily Dawn on December 17th was: “War till victory”. A small news item below this vain headline read, “Fighting ends in east wing”. The 1970s witnessed the revival of a demoralised and defeated army by none other than populist and pro-poor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Ideology of militarism: It was Mr. Bhutto who provided the grand ‘ideological’ narrative for the next four decades. Whereas he mobilised people for rights and seeking voice in the manner Pakistan was to be governed, he reinvented the framework for a martial state. First, fighting with India for a thousand years and regaining Kashmir became the plank of state policy. Second, the active pursuit of nuclear prowess became the overarching objective of the security doctrine positioned in relation to the enemy, i.e., India.

Thirdly, ‘Islam’ as a political slogan grew in appeal to the extent that Mr. Bhutto had to concede by introducing the spectre of Islamisation into the body politic. Pakistan was not just an Islamic state. It was envisioned as the epicentre of a deeply troubled, anti-American Islamic world. We continue to pay the price for these grandiose, vainglorious imagination of a ‘strong’ and centralised Pakistan.

Ideology consumes reality: Mr. Bhutto’s Bonapartist tendencies soon devoured him as the martial state raised its head in 1977 and ushered in a long era of direct military rule, ironically picking up on the ideological narrative popularised by Mr. Bhutto, especially in the Punjab province. Lest we forget, the ambition to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan was also a brainchild of the master strategist Mr. Bhutto, though one would argue whether he would have used similar tactics as were employed by the Pakistan Army during the last decades.

By the end of Zia era, the army was firmly in command of the polity and had also created a whole new class of opportunist politicians directly linked to the economic rents, state largesse and addicted to patronage networks replacing political consciousness. The Afghan factor: Since 1979, the US policy of containing the Soviet Union and using Pakistan Army to do its dirty work through the jihad complex bestowed the ultimate leverage to the military-intelligence conglomerate in Pakistan. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not end the jihad project and the relentless pursuit of strategic depth and treating Afghanistan as an outer province of Pakistan remained the paramount imperative of the Pakistani security establishment. The quasi-civilian decade of 1988-99, hardly made any difference to national security doctrines developed by the GHQ and its civilian apologists. Pakistan’s foreign and security policies had to be India-centric, whatever the cost would be. In this time period, the military also enriched its nuclear programme and responded in full measure to the 1998 coming out of India from its nuclear closet.

However, the quest of Mian Nawaz Sharif to get some control over the foreign policy and reinterpret the security doctrine led to his unceremonious ouster through the 1999 military coup. The Musharraf years: General Musharraf’s coup would not have translated into a long military rule if 9/11 had not taken place. The reluctant reversal of the security doctrines took place in the aftermath of 9/11, accompanied by a rare drive at normalising relations with India. Whilst Musharraf went an extra mile in forsaking the UN resolutions on Kashmir, at the risk of isolating his colleagues and juniors, Pakistan’s security establishment operated like a mildly schizophrenic machine. It entered the war on terror and started to fight with its erstwhile allies, at the same time it was selective in picking the Islamist ‘enemy’. This is why the unwise US policies and the infamous ‘double-game’ by Pakistan caused the Afghanistan war to move from the border areas into the mainland and urban areas of Pakistan.

The second moment – 2007: Musharraf’s ouster in 2008 happened not due to the growing unpopularity of military-strategic doctrines, but it reflected the fatigue of Pakistanis with centralised military rule. By the first decade of the 21st century, Pakistan’s middle class had expanded, a media and information revolution had commenced and the deep-rooted inequities due to globalisation could only be mitigated in a democratic dispensation. But the anti-Musharraf struggle from 2007 to 2008 came as the second moment in our contemporary history where military as an institution was scrutinised by the public and criticised, most significantly in urban Punjab. Military recruitment in the districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab and the network that it generates has been a prime factor in providing popular base to militarism in the country. The emergence of anti-Army slogans in the ‘martial districts’ was a moment of reckoning and surprised even the most cynical Pakistanis.

Post-Musharraf dynamics: Musharraf’s successor General Kayani treaded cautiously and was eager to display his neutrality and the need to keep the military away from politics. He was lauded for doing so by almost all political stakeholders. But the fundamental ‘strategic’ doctrines, i.e. ambiguous policy towards the US, obsession with strategic victories in Afghanistan and absolute control over the national security policies remained unchanged. This is perhaps why the Mumbai attacks came as a surprise to everyone, including Pakistanis.

Subsequent information and evidence have indicated the involvement of some elements within the Pakistani state, even though the Indian accusations of direct Pakistani involvement remain unproven. Civilian government’s feeble efforts: During 2008, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party made several efforts to manage the premier Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. First, the civilian government ventured to tame the agency by attempting to place it under the Interior Ministry. However, this effort boomeranged and was widely criticised by the right-wing media as an endeavour to harm the national security apparatus. The second attempt came when the federal government issued a notification abolishing the infamous political wing of the ISI (ironically, established by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the early 1970s). The government had to retreat and withdraw the notification as the media reported about the fissures within the various arms of the executive, leading to the victory by the military commanders. It is significant to note that the ruling PML-N was leading the campaign against the government and called it a way of functioning of the national security institutions.

Military accountability now: May, 2011 has been a marker of sorts in the civil-military discourse prevalent in Pakistan. Three events have left deep imprints on the Pakistani psyche across the political spectrum: the May 2nd operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, the daredevil attack by Islamic militants on the Naval base in Karachi — ostensibly with the collaboration of low rank officials — and the murder of Saleem Shehzad, a journalist who knew too much about the links between the Pakistan Army and Al Qaeda. In the latter case, the ISI has been named by an international human rights organisation as well as the apex body of Pakistani journalists as the alleged perpetrator of Shehzad’s abduction and torture prior to his brutal murder.

The capture of Osama Bin Laden from a garrison town, the military’s stated ignorance of OBL’s residence and hiding and inability to counter the US strike have led to an unprecedented debate in the national media and the political discourse. Right-wing television anchors known for their pro-military bias appear to have changed their stance with respect to the impregnability and holy-cow status of the Pakistan Army. The national newspapers have published bold analyses of the situation and questioned as to how the military could falter despite the extraordinary resources provided by the taxpayers.

Media power: Never in the history of Pakistan has the military received bad press, as is the case today. It may be a proverbial case of momentary anger, but a formidable debate in the mainstream media has emerged. This debate is taking place between three groups: first the ex-servicemen who are largely apologetic of military blunders an cite grand conspiracies hatched by the US to harm Pakistan; second, by the usual suspects from civil society getting increased airtime on the ‘free media’; and third, the major political parties which are divided on their strategy to tackle the military. For instance, Pakistan’s leading civil rights activist, Asma Jahangir, has made the boldest
remarks on the efficiency and competence of the army as an institution. Similarly, right-wingers, evidently cheated by the mighty machine they had been eulogising, are crying foul. The politicians are struggling to catch up with the analyst-industry created during thelast decade of media freedom.

PML-N versus PPP: PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif is aiming to seize the moment by leading a campaign calling for wide-ranging military accountability and its overgrown powers of policymaking. The PPP with greater stakes in the ‘system’ appears defensive and is doing the PR job for the sanctimonious national security institutions. It is too early to determine whether Nawaz Sharif is seeking a structural transformation of Pakistan’s governance culture or is merely hankering for acceptability within the power matrix. Similarly, it is not clear whether the PPP is reluctant to lead a campaign for military accountability, fearing that it may just fail like in the past.

Nevertheless, the third moment in 40 years has arrived which may result in a much-awaited rationalisation of civil-military relations in the country. It is neither feasible, nor advisable to pressurise an overly-engaged army on the eastern and western borders. At the same time, for the future of Pakistan, it is vital to reset the parameters of power and the manner in which it is exercised in Pakistan.

First published in The News on Sunday (Political Economy section, June 18, 2011)

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