Democracy vs authoritarianism vs terrorism

Published January 9, 2015
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif pictured at a meeting in GHQ.—Photo: PID/file
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif pictured at a meeting in GHQ.—Photo: PID/file

It was supposed to be all about terrorism, but somehow it seems more and more about democracy, constitutionalism and their nemesis – authoritarianism. And in a country with a disturbing history of failed spells of democratic rule and equally disastrous autocratic governments, this is precisely what was supposed to be avoided. But now that the Pandora’s Box of debate on civil-military trust deficit has been opened, thanks to the creation of military courts, it is time to build some perspective.

As I write these lines, two images keep haunting me:

The first, of a disheveled, heartbroken Senator Raza Rabbani losing control and bursting into tears on the floor of the house during passage of the 21st amendment. For years, Mr Rabbani has acted as my moral compass. While I have not nearly always agreed with his views, like the North Star, they have most certainly often guided me in the right direction. Now to see him so badly broken is something I will never forget.

The second image is of a young army officer that I met in a conflict zone.

“Sir, I wish was born in another country, had joined their army and died fighting for them. At least at the time of my death, I would have known that my country would own me as a national hero. In Pakistan, no one cares about a soldier’s sacrifices.”

This young man, I was told a few days later, died bravely fighting against militants for his country, Pakistan. His grievances were legitimate. We have lost count of how many brave souls have perished fighting terrorists in recent years.

What is more, quick as we are to accuse the army of being solely responsible for religious militancy in this country, of breeding terrorists in isolation; what we fail to consider is how this accusation does not apply to the young officers and soldiers who are confronting terrorists today.

Wars do strange things to people. For over a decade, we have fought an enemy that is not across the border but within us. We have bled profusely, old doubts and apprehensions have grown complicated beyond recognition.

But behind this fog of war, our old bitterness and old wounds still persist. It all happened so fast that we did not get the time to update our definition of the existential threat.

Now, there is a huge trust deficit which owes itself to the misperception of the enemy.

Over the years I have seen men and women in Khaki and civvies halfheartedly calling terrorism an existential threat. But in reality they are on the lookout for the old enemy.

Always on the lookout.

The khakis, the civvies and the troublemakers

It is about two narratives. One civilian, one military. Both incomplete. Both a product of a weak state’s inability to overcome its constant challenger – India, or to win the ultimate prize – Kashmir. But more of that later.

The civilian/pro-democracy narrative sees the army as the biggest obstacle in the way of democratisation, a force which hanged an elected prime minister and exiled another; the two leaders who rescued it from the most humiliating PR disasters – fall of East Pakistan and Kargil.

The military narrative sees political class in general and democratic leaders in particular, as a bunch of traitors responsible for:

1. The creation of Bangladesh

2. Selling out on the Sikh issue

3. Often embarrassing the armed forces in public

4. Being soft on national security matters like India and terrorism

And both sides see the other of sheltering the terrorists of their choice.

Not that there are no grounds for such apprehensions. There is plenty of plain and simple history to suggest there is. But owing to the fatigue caused by prolonged desperate attempts at survival, I would say the stories on both sides are certainly, grossly exaggerated.

Recently, two groups of detractors for their own selfish reasons have exacerbated the mistrust between the two sides.

The religious right, which remains deeply skeptical of the country’s decision to fight terrorism, has taken refuge in the democratic circles and keeps projecting a compromise between the two sides as a compromise on democratic values.

Meanwhile, an influential group of Musharraf fans deeply entrenched in the system, especially the media, is quick to highlight how politicians are soft on national security and ready to fraternise with the enemy.

In this insane environment, it is increasingly difficult to judge what is really at stake, and see how easy it actually is to put the mistrust in the past.

In any case, the time to make this assessment has arrived. And for that to begin, we have to understand when and how things went wrong.

Defogging the narratives

These days it has become a fashion to attribute radicalisation of the polity to that one man: General Ziaul Haq.

While the hideous policies of Zia era still haunt us, it is time to realise he did nothing new and only exploited the seeds of madness that have existed here since the very inception of the country.

It is claimed that in the fabric of time, there exist some fixed points which no amount of time travel can change. If that assertion is true, Pakistan primarily has two fixed points: India and Kashmir. A distant third is Afghanistan which is merely a side effect of the first two.

And it all started in 1947, when the nascent state of Pakistan, worried about Indian occupation ordered its army to do the same, and the army’s chief refused to oblige.

It was then that the worst decision of our history was taken – sending some of the soldiers disguised as the tribals and Lashkaris hailing from tribal areas to reclaim the Kashmiri territory that was about to be absorbed by India.

It is clear that the decision was taken without the knowledge of the army’s head or the country’s founder and first governor-general, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

That, in my view, was the original sin which created a precedent to be repeated ad nauseam.

The then Commander-in-Chief General Sir Frank Messervy lamented: “Politicians using soldiers and soldiers allowing themselves to be used, without the proper approval of their superiors are setting a bad example for the future”.

Perhaps even Messervy did not realise just how many bad examples those fateful days were setting.

One was the use of non-state actors (tribals) as a tool of security policy.

Second, the use of Islam as a slogan that seemed unavoidable at the time, given the nature of India-Pakistan conflict and involvement of tribal fighters from the country’s North West.

And finally, the slight distaste for established authority.

Once British officers had left, Pakistan Army was able to regain its inner discipline but it viewed with contempt the declining quality of political leaders. From repeated martial laws to disasters like Kargil and the country’s Taliban policy, this last development was to prove far too onerous.

Remember, Pakistan was born poor. The newly established state had a pittance in its kitty and daunting challenges staring in the eye. The pressures from India meant that it had invested heavily in defense of the country which it could not afford.

The only recourse was to unconventional, informal, alternative and often half-baked strategies.

Quite often, such plans blew in its face. As John Kennedy once remarked, "victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Each time the country endured a fresh failure, both civilian and military sides would find ways to blame the other.

Pakistan’s security needs finally found a backer in 1954. The US Pakistan Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement was a breakthrough for a state and its army starving for arms and ammunition. But this support came at a terrible cost:

Ayub Khan, the army chief at the time, was instrumental in reaching the agreement. Ayub grew too powerful and eventually ended up overthrowing a weak and struggling civilian government in favour of martial law.

Ayub's prolonged rule not only paved the way for future coups, but also further weakened the federation. He was followed by Yahya Khan, another dictator, about whom the lesser said the better. It was during Yahya's time that the country lost its eastern wing.

Amazingly, the army has developed a blind spot about the matter, and every soldier I have met squarely blames politicians of that time.

This is in sharp contrast to what Lt Gen (retired) Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, the commander Eastern Command at the time of secession, chronicles in his book, Betrayal of East Pakistan.

Despite all these tumults, the character of the army remained professional and for most parts, secular. It was, however, during Zia’s time that the devices like military courts were thoroughly abused. People recall how dissidents were punished with public lashings for trivial crimes, no matter real or imagined.

Zia's reign times witnessed the introduction of radical elements in the lower cadres of the army.

Later, Musharraf tried to reverse the trend, but the man was the product of the influences he tried to undo. Before 9/11, most of Musharraf's supporters were the radical elements who liked him for his daring Kargil debacle.

During his time, the army’s strategic thinking fractured into two halves: one still willing to continue the old ways, the other brand new and quite averse to the idea of the radicalisation of the polity.

However, the top level was eventually purged of radical influences, as General Kayani and General Raheel Sharif were to prove later.

If truth be told, it is grossly unfair to judge the army for the misadventures of four generals.

It is a professional force disciplined to follow orders and while doing so, often manages to internalise the views of its chief, especially if he stays in position for a prolonged period of time.

But it is the force that has seen unending action for 13 long years and has no illusions about the enemy.

The bad blood created during the last days of Musharraf rule (and exacerbated by a belligerent media) will eventually fade away, for even an ordinary soldier is educated enough to use his mind rationally.

What is needed is a healing touch and a capacity to inspire confidence on the part of civilian leadership.

For politicians: be a hawk to be a hero

Before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became a symbol and champion of democracy, he was known as perhaps the most hawkish of Pakistani politicians. His contribution to the 1965 war is now well documented. He parted ways with Ayub Khan because of Tashkent Declaration, which he considered an ultimate shame. This is how things are in Pakistan. If you want to be popular, you have to be a hawk.

Zulfi Bhutto was a hawk, so was Mian Nawaz Sharif at the start of his political career, and in his weird way, so is Imran Khan. Once the country’s narrative was firmly in control of the army this was to be expected.

But civilian leaders who rose to prominence through this route eventually realised that when it came to asserting themselves as the ruler of the nation, they quickly lost favour with the army. Hence, the country’s fortunes still did not change, the game of musical chairs between the civilians and the army continued, and the country continued to become more and more ungovernable.

Changing times leave room for hope

I think it is plain from the above discussion that the civil-military mistrust is a direct outcome of a fragile and paranoid state’s desperate attempts to survive. A lot of that is caused by the country’s inability to transform into a stable and growing economy.

That is about to change as the country explores its full potential as a trade route and invests in better infrastructure and industry.

Better economy will mean better governance and less scapegoating for assumed or real failures. It will mean, for a change, that the country will have to worry less about finding resources to finance its defences.

Meanwhile, the character of the army is changing with the change in its scope.

While originally India-centric in approach, it now knows that greater threat can come from homegrown non-state actors. If the country really manages to transform into a regional trade hub, the role of the army will be more focused on protecting our vital interests – economic corridors and trade activity – and all this debate about the army’s future and justification for its existence in a peaceful environment will go away.

In these changing times, the trust deficit between the country’s civil and military circles is bound to decline.

While Mr Rabbani might not be too hopeful, I am, as a citizen.

Already, politicians have demonstrated that democracy has come of age, that instead of always demanding more rights, they have learned to tactically surrender a few.

It is critical to remember that this parliament is no pushover, as we were reminded at the time of Imran Khan and Qadri’s sit-ins. It is a thinking parliament which knows that in the way of prosperity and further democratisation, the biggest hurdle is no more the army but the terrorism that threatens the state itself.

So while not justifiable in the broader context, the establishment of military courts too is a confidence-building measure that can end up strengthening democracy in the long run and bridging the trust deficit between the institutions.



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