Strains already

Published April 21, 2014

The ISPR press release of April 7 demonstrated the communication gap between the political and military leadership. That the COAS had to convey the message through a public communication shows that either there are no effective channels of communication or the latter through those channels is unproductive.

The press release also officially confirms the ‘concerns’ among the military rank and file about ‘undue criticism’ directed at the ‘institution’. Civil-military relations here have never been smooth, but such early turbulence, before the completion of the first year of the political government in office, characterised by a public communiqué by a handpicked COAS of less than five months ago, shows rougher periods ahead unless both sides display maturity.

A number of factors may have contributed to the rising discontentment in military ranks. First the prime minister’s choice of defence minister. It was a mistake in the first place to not appoint a full-time minister with the prime minister himself keeping the portfolio — meaning that the political leadership was giving little attention to day-to-day defence affairs.

The prime minister should have appointed a knowledgeable and balanced individual as defence minister — someone such as Sartaj Aziz or Raja Zafarul Haq. But he appointed a defence minister only to escape from appearance in court. And if he was not aware of Khawaja Asif’s public outbursts against the military, it is a sad commentary on his selection process.

If, however, he appointed Khawaja Asif despite knowing his harsh views (which may be partly justifiable due to his reported ill-treatment under Musharraf), it is an even worse commentary on the prime minister’s political and governance acumen.

The defence minister and others were drawn into repeatedly making harsh remarks about Musharraf on the media when a case of high treason had already been instituted against him. The battle was to be fought in court, not on TV. Comments on Musharraf such as his ‘ridiculously puffed-up chest because of the bullet-proof jacket’ were in bad taste.

Besides these, three other reasons might have provoked the communiqué. First, reportedly the institution of a high treason case against a former COAS has not gone down well with the military rank and file. If true, the solution does not lie in scuttling the judicial process and impeding the course of law. If we are a civilised nation and believe in uniform application of the rule of law, it is critical that the liberties taken by Musharraf with the Constitution on Nov 3, 2007 come to a closure through fair legal proceedings.

If some individuals in the military do not understand the significance of the legal process, it is the duty of their leadership, and, to some extent, of the political leadership, to educate them on the requirements of the rule of law. If the law is not allowed to take its course, no citizen will have any faith left in it and it will be impossible to stand against such movements as the Taliban who call the legal and democratic system of the country a farce.

Why should the military, that prides itself on its discipline, stand in the way of the law’s course? Musharraf’s long stay at the army hospital, without apparent justification, has sent a wrong message about the military’s position in this case.

Second, the military may also have been perturbed at the registration of criminal cases against serving military personnel in the missing persons cases. This issue demands a dispassionate analysis. Human rights are important but a state faced with a fierce security crisis has to protect its sovereignty in the interest of citizens’ security.

In a country where the military is pitted against a savage group of terrorists who blow up citizens and behead military personnel; where the legal system is so faulty that it is nearly impossible to get a terrorist convicted; and where judges, witnesses and prosecution face serious threats while anti-terrorism laws remain ineffective, registering criminal cases against military personnel fighting a war is tantamount to demoralising the institution.

The government has taken a bold, necessary step by introducing the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance but it should enter into a dialogue with opposition parties for its bipartisan passage.

Third, aspects of the ongoing dialogue with the Taliban may also have strained relations. While the political leadership, with the mandate and responsibility to resolve the issue, should be afforded all cooperation to test the dialogue route, the military’s perspective should also be part of the process.

The PML-N government took a sensible step in constituting the Cabinet Committee on National Security — akin to the National Security Council.

The committee, apparently recently renamed the National Security Committee, is the right forum to discuss national security issues including divergence of views between the civilians and the military. Unfortunately this committee has met only thrice since its inception eight months ago. Britain, which faces far fewer security challenges, has its National Security Council meet every week under the chairmanship of the UK premier.

Strains in civil-military relations must be discussed and resolved at the institutional level and the NSC is the right forum. While one-on-one meetings between the prime minister and COAS are good photo ops, these are no substitute for formal meetings. Pakistan can’t afford a communication breakdown between its political and military leaderships at this critical juncture of its struggle for an honourable existence.

The writer is president of PILDAT, a Pakistani think tank.

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