Civil-military ties, not back to square one

Published August 29, 2014
The trajectory of civil-military ties will remain dialectical. It may be push and pull, two steps forward one step back, but it’s not back to square one.  -File Photo
The trajectory of civil-military ties will remain dialectical. It may be push and pull, two steps forward one step back, but it’s not back to square one. -File Photo

The only consensus seems to be that something is rotten in the state of Pakistan. The general diagnosis is that the problem lies in the nature of democracy here.

When Hamlet grappled with his existential crisis, it was Yorick's skull that reminded him of his mortality. Pakistan's democracy, even when not under the guillotine, is continually reminded of its mortality by the powers that be. What varies is the nature of the reminders.

Pianist Andre Tchaikowsky on his death donated his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used as the skull of Yorick. But the Company preferred using a fake one on stage, stating,

The real power of theatre lies in the complicity of illusion between the actor and the audience. It would be inappropriate in the same way that we would not be using real blood.

So the pact between actors and audience is that to preserve illusions, a representation would replace the real thing.

In the same manner, we will not have troops jumping over PTV gates to organise a post-midnight speech. Instead, we have organised mobs of people to counter organised representatives of people, till representation itself requires mediation.

But to assume that the entire episode is 'scripted' is too simplistic.

This particular stage now allows spontaneity, like interactive theatre, where the play proceeds in tandem with audience reactions. Or to bring in social theory, where the representation stops being a copy of the real, the point of origin becomes irrelevant and it takes on a life of its own: simulacrum.

So while Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri, militants and religio-political right wing parties may have originated as pet projects, that no longer suffices as the explicatory roadmap.

From the start, this standoff existed only because of the record of the army’s role in politics. It is either the perception that they crafted the dharnas, or alternately, that the dharnas would provide a gateway to their entry.

Also read: Enter the chief

It comes down to civil military dynamics and without this protective shadow, not many would care if Imran Khan parked himself in his container till the Baltoro melted.

Even if the prime minister did ask the army to negotiate this political crisis, it would be misplaced to identify this as the singular moment of civilian surrender.

Last year, he agreed to the formation of the National Security Council that institutionalised the role of the armed forces in civil decision-making, a demand he had been resisting since the Jehangir Karamat days.

Editorial: Dangerous trends

This is the first elected government to bring in the NSC, previously instituted by military dictators Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

Chaired by the Prime Minister, this now includes key ministers, as well as top military leadership, including all chiefs of staff and chairman joint chief of staff. Its ambit includes defence, foreign policy, internal and national security.

Nawaz also withdrew on the India trade policy and MFN front.

He additionally ensured passage of the Pakistan Protection Act the previous government had resisted, which has given sweeping powers to the security apparatus.

His hostility to Musharraf is personal. Assessments of his prior posturing against the establishment seem overstated.

What then is the message given to the government in this particular drama?

A reminder that it’s susceptible to arm-twisting even if the humerus isn't being popped out of the socket?

Also read: 20 questions, 14 days into the crisis

Only the naive would have imagined this was not so in any case.

The army is entrenched within the political sphere, that’s not news. But this time the Prime Minister himself activated 245 and 111 and perhaps even asked for mediation.

Contrast this to the antagonistic statement issued after a corps commanders' meeting was called on the Kerry Lugar bill.

The perceived formal invitation to come inside, which the government is officially denying, is a symbolic defeat but the army’s always retained the keys to the house.

Or is the asymmetry worsened by the possible resignation of one of the Sharif brothers? The previous government also saw the exit of an elected prime minister but completed its term anyway.

On the other hand, the army has received clear signals if it was testing public waters for a possible coup. All mainstream political parties in the parliament and senate banded together on the bottom-line that a takeover will not be countenanced. Civil groups were equally emphatic with avowals from journalists' and lawyers’ associations and political and social activists. The courts have iterated that no unconstitutional steps will be tolerated and no PCOs would go through.

Even the dharna-ites had not been able to overtly implore the army, albeit the leaders sped off within 10 minutes of the beckoning.

An ouster that previously would take a few hours behind closed doors was not possible, despite two weeks and mass mobilisation. They had to resort to what is being referred to as a ‘constitutional coup’.

Meanwhile, the dependency flow between the two has grown less one-sided. The army needs the government to own Zarb-e-Azb and the IDP crisis. They may not be panicking about militants’ movements into Parachinar and throughout Balochistan, but they will not want an ISIS like situation either.

After four decades, it is now a fighting army, a pathologically different entity because cadres at the battlefront have had to bury fellow soldiers. Importantly, when the army's militarily active, it needs continual civilian cover and support. And then, they need cooperation on the Musharraf case.

Contextualise this with the civilian pushback over the past few years.

An elected government completed its term in office. 58 2B is gone. General Musharraf has been unable to leave the country. The previous ISI chief had to explain himself in parliament and there military budget is now presented there. An elected prime minister acknowledged the 'state within a state' and the need of civilian control over ISI. They have themselves pleaded incompetence in locating Osama Bin Laden in the heartland.

The dollar taps are drying up on the Afghanistan front and the remainder is tied to continued civilian supremacy. Rightly or wrongly, the ultimate taboo of publicly naming a serving ISI chief in a reprehensible act has been broken.

The army’s political imprint is criticised in the mainstream media and the social media is brimming with irreverence towards who were once the sole arbiters of power. Being called 'pro-establishment' is now a slur.

The edifice of the panopticon is fractured. The prison design by Bentham allowed a watchman to observe the inmates without them knowing that they were observed, making them self-regulate, rendering bars and chains unnecessary for domination.

Being watched was the main deterrence but the occupants are now defiant.

The watcher has to either storm in and punish, or depute further guards or let it go. In either case, the invisible power to ensure conformity has ruptured.

Explore: No winner in the game

The strengthening of democracy is an incremental and frustrating process.

The 'other side' is not going to pack up, proclaim the error of its ways and exit. Rattled by the completion of the previous government’s term, sections of the army have spoken against the army chief who allowed it.

The current government suffered because of the absolute majority it came in with, making it less susceptible to manipulation that plague coalitions. The trajectory of civil-military ties will remain dialectical. It may be push and pull, two steps forward one step back, but it’s not back to square one.

We undermine ourselves by not acknowledging the unfolding.

Yet, as with all our other contradictory developments, political discourse has been harmed. All players are now rightwing, the opposing sides, as well as their allies, and they have been given the signal that mobs matter more than the parliamentary process.

The space for progressive politics is almost entirely eclipsed. And the next time a horde much bigger than this descends, such as the TNSM one that near-paralysed Malakand and got demands for Sharia implemented, who will go out and refuse?

But then again, who would have done so earlier?

The rest is silence’.


Elite privileges
20 Apr 2021

Elite privileges

Elite bargains provide a powerful view of our political economy.
A conjurer of limitless hope
20 Apr 2021

A conjurer of limitless hope

Rehman Sahib came across as a battle-scarred soldier who was perpetually planning to regroup after a setback.
Cabinet lotto
Updated 20 Apr 2021

Cabinet lotto

To return to finance, the second change in the key ministry is interesting for how it differs from the first.
Election ex machina
Updated 19 Apr 2021

Election ex machina

Neither EVMs nor i-voting are new innovations, yet their use remains deeply controversial.


Media blackout
Updated 20 Apr 2021

Media blackout

A free flow of information is the best way to counter rumour-mongering and fake news.
20 Apr 2021

Gas utilities’ reluctance

THE government has ‘ordered’ state-owned gas companies SSGC and SNGPL to remove impediments hampering the...
20 Apr 2021

Saudi-Iran talks

EVER since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, ties between Tehran and Riyadh have been increasingly strained,...
19 Apr 2021

Vaccine shortfall

THE hope that the slew of Covid-19 vaccinations approved for use since the end of last year would vanquish the ...
Another package
Updated 19 Apr 2021

Another package

Sindh has not seen much development worth the name during the PPP’s more than decade-long rule in the province.
19 Apr 2021

Cricket triumph

TEAM Pakistan have a number of reasons to rejoice after their 3-1 T20 series win over hosts South Africa on Friday....