THE season of commentary on civil-military relations is once again upon us. There has been much discourse on the subject in the wake of the latest political tension gripping the country. Can anyone dispute the imperative of civilian supremacy in a democratic system? Of course not. But what it really means is a point of contention.
There is a tendency, especially, among some liberal commentators to substitute substance with symbolism. Therefore, it is not surprising that the campaign against the ISI run by a section of media and the treason trial of a former military ruler are being described as a sign of ascendency of civilian control.
Nothing can be more erroneous than this assertion. It is not the first time the holy cow has been slaughtered. We have seen the sacking of two army chiefs in the past by civilian prime ministers. We have also seen popular uprisings, forcing military rulers to step down. But did they establish civilian supremacy? What happened afterwards is a matter of history.
Contrary to the liberal euphoria, the army has emerged much more powerful from this proxy media war. The outpouring of support for the military cannot be underestimated. When have we seen previously most of the media and even mainstream political parties lining up to publicly express their allegiance to the security agencies?
Even those federal ministers who had earlier come out with some critical remarks beat a hasty retreat assuring the military of their faithfulness. In fact, the events of the last two weeks have seen a great leap backward from what the democratic process had achieved in the past six years. Political forces and public opinion are now more polarised and fragmented. A premature and unnecessary confrontation has certainly not reinforced civilian supremacy as suggested by some commentators. The effort to bring the military under pressure has in fact had the opposite affect.
What our liberal friends fail to understand is that civilian supremacy is an evolutionary process and cannot be turned on and off. It can only be established through strong governance, a clear policy direction and an alternative and effective narrative. The transition from military to civilian rule also requires delicate balancing so as to not rock the boat
With the military’s diminishing political power post-2007, it was an ideal situation for the elected government to assert its authority in various policy realms. Though the military continued to dominate national security policy and influence foreign affairs, its political role had certainly receded.
That provided significant political space for the elected civilian government to focus on critical issues of governance and on strengthening democratic institutions. An assertive superior judiciary also transformed the power matrix, further shrinking the room for any extra-constitutional intervention.
But surely it did not mean that the military was rendered completely powerless. Neither were civil-military relations during the PPP government free from friction. Yet this never really threatened to derail the democratic process. Despite the problems, the military remained in the barracks maintaining a low political profile.
The generals, however, did assert themselves forcefully when it came to issues directly affecting their wider institutional interests. There were at least two issues — the Kerry Lugar bill and ‘Memogate’ — which triggered a clash between the civilian government and the military.
But the stand-off did not turn into a full-blown confrontation. The PPP-led government could have done better to assert its civilian authority had it concentrated more on governance and the economy. With the country in the midst of a war and thousands of troops engaged in fighting the Taliban insurgency, the military’s widening role in internal security matters is inevitable.
It was, indeed, a huge stride forward for democracy when in 2013, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, power was transferred from one elected government to another. That indicated the strengthening of the democratic process in the country. This historical transition, however, could not have been possible without the military’s backing for the democratic process.
But the situation seems to have changed over the past few weeks and the military is forced once again to come out of the barracks, raising its political profile. The generals may still not be interested in derailing the democratic process, but they are not likely to watch the political power game from the sidelines either if the present stand-off persists.
For sure, military and civilian supremacy remains a major issue that has to be resolved for sustainable democracy. But it is increasing militancy and religious extremism that are the principal impediments. The country cannot move forward without combating these retrogressive forces. It is more important at this point to unite the forces fighting the insurgents.
Unfortunately, the political forces are divided on this critical issue threatening the pluralistic democratic system. The situation has become much more serious particularly with the ambivalence of the Sharif government. Any confrontation between the civil and military authorities would further strengthen the insurgents and non-democratic forces. It is crucially important for the two institutions to be on the same page when Pakistan is fighting for its survival. Any confrontation between the civilian government and the military will be disastrous.
Surely it is going to be a tough summer for the Sharif government with the emerging political realignment tilting the balance of power back to the military. It remains to be seen whether or not the prime minister is able to regain the initiative.
The writer is an author and journalist.