AS the baton has now passed to Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, there is no shortage of free advice consisting of dos’ and don’ts for the new army chief. While some exhort him to follow in the footsteps of his hyperactive and populist predecessor, others offer a word of caution for him to avoid the pitfalls and demand a change in course. All eyes are now focused on the new chief as the era of Gen Raheel Sharif comes to a close.
Indeed, expectations are unrealistically high. But this is not surprising in a country where the position of army chief is considered the most powerful. Even a smooth transition in the army leadership holds high political significance.
Predictably, the prime minister once again picked a dark horse for the coveted post. It is obvious that the choice of Gen Bajwa was based more on political considerations than the order of seniority or merit, though there is no question about his professionalism and experience. Probably the thinking behind the decision was to have someone who was amenable to civilian authority.
An increasing role in internal security has led to greater involvement of the military in political matters.
One can hardly dispute the contention given the perpetual tensions between the two state institutions. Yes, individuals matter, but past experience shows that ultimately it is the institution that prevails irrespective of who is in command.
It is the third time Nawaz Sharif has appointed the army chief. Each time he has chosen an officer who is lower down the list. Yet his relations with the military leadership have never been tension-free. The confrontation with the generals cost him his second government.
It is not just about the imbalance of power that has allowed the military to dominate foreign and national security policies but also the power tussle that often threatens to destabilise the democratic system. This sword of Damocles kept hanging over the Sharif government over the last three years
Gen Bajwa has the reputation of an easygoing officer but a tough professional. However, given the inherent complexities, there is little hope of him being pliable. It is quite simplistic to think that the sources of tension would simply go away with the transition in the army leadership. There is not only a need for understanding the historical context of the divide but also what is required to tilt the balance of power towards the civilian authorities.
One cannot agree more with Raza Rabbani, the Senate chairman, that the civil-military divide is the gravest challenge for the democratic process in the country. He may also be right that the centre of gravity of power must be shifted from Rawalpindi to Islamabad. But there is still no clarity on the causes of this imbalance. In the absence of any clear understanding of the issue, the call for civilian supremacy has become merely political rhetoric that every political party uses without offering any solution.
Although the civilian government now enjoys much greater political space the military remains a veritable political force and every move, even the mere hint of it, has reverberations in Islamabad. Its increasing role in internal security has led to greater involvement of the military in political matters, and has widened the civil-military trust gap. The difference over implementation of the National Action Plan has also been a source of tension between the civil and military leadership. There is no indication that the military’s institutional views on the matter will change with a new man at the helm.
Given the gravity of the internal security challenges and the inability of civilian security agencies to deal with them, the government’s reliance on the military has increased. The army’s involvement has particularly increased with the rising security requirements to protect CPEC projects and the difficult law and order situation in Balochistan.
Meanwhile, the counter-insurgency campaign in the tribal areas is far from over despite the military successes achieved in North Waziristan. A large number of troops are still involved in combing and holding operations in almost all seven Fata agencies.
It is not enough to clear the area of insurgents, but also to sustain peace and establish a functional administration in the territories devastated by a decade of fighting. Rehabilitation and repatriation of the displaced population too remains the main responsibility of the army, with the civilian authorities staying in the background as they do on other issues. Keeping troops in the region is indeed a long-term matter.
Given its geostrategic situation and its long involvement in the regional conflicts besides the three wars against its arch-rival India has turned Pakistan into a national security state giving the military a predominant role in installing a national security paradigm even when it is not directly ruling the country.
A major problem is that neither the government nor the military is willing to accept the modern concept of national security and continue to still see it as a purely military matter. In today’s world, national security encompasses a broad range of facets that include economic, food and environmental security.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric, there is no indication of the state changing its narrow approach. With the growing tension with India and continuing instability in Afghanistan, the national security policy will remain the sole domain of the military establishment. A civilian government bereft of any vision can hardly be expected to even attempt to take charge.
Another major area of contention is the military’s control over various spectrum of foreign policy. This situation is also not likely to change though there is some indication that unlike his predecessor Gen Bajwa may not be that interested in high-profile visits to world capitals. Again, it is the absence of a clear policy guidance from the civilian authorities that has left a vacuum to be filled by the military.
For sure, the change of army command may give some breathing space to the Sharif government as it confronts several political challenges. But there is no indication of any significant shift in the existing civil-military imbalance.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2016