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If civilians rule

August 29, 2017


THE idea may seem heretical and even scary to some: how would Pakistan do if civilians had full control? Civilians rule today but the ‘ministries’ of foreign/security policies reside in Pindi. War is too serious a matter to be left to generals, sages say. But foreign policy is the mother of war. If the daughter is unsafe left with generals, so is the mother.

But an odd logic rules Pakistan. For long, even overall governance was deemed too serious for civilians. Major losses to the country and the army image under the military’s rule slowly imposed the humility in Pindi that governance suits civilians. Yet, there is the residual belief that foreign/security policies are too serious for civilians given their flaws: corruption, dynastic politics, weak parties and institutions. Once civilians fix the flaws, they may run these policies.

Civilians surely have these flaws. Viewed morally, we should want their quick end. But seen evidentially, the aim is laughably naïve. These flaws emerge from deep societal structures and disappear slowly as society changes, however much we may huff and puff in angst. We may even hit a plateau, as across Latin America. Should civilians never run these domains? But inept civilians do run them in many states, and, as with governance, better than generals.

The stark decision before us is this: we should give these domains to them even if inept civilians rule us for long. Military minds suffer from tunnel vision focused on war given their long, intense training. Leave such domains to them and they, more than civilians, militarise relations with estranged states. Forty years of militarised foreign policy under Zia, Musharraf and others has hurt us even more than sleaze. Trump’s new policy deserves much critique. But so does our Pindi-devised Afghan-India one. Many worry civilians may sell our foreign policy for personal gains. But the three rulers who did so the most were Zia, Musharraf and Ayub. The one who didn’t was Bhutto.

Inept civilians do run foreign policy better than generals.

Pakistanis crave for short cuts to dramatic progress and usually see ending sleaze as a low-hanging fruit to gain such aims. But to adapt a famous saying, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (quickly), the courage to change those I can (quickly), and the wisdom to know the difference. Pakistanis fail this saying badly for it is ending civ-mil imbalance and not sleaze which is more of a low-hanging fruit: it is something we can change quickly with some courage to yield political stability, regional economic links and faster growth. The chances of success and pay-offs are both clearer.

China, India and many others have grown fast despite high sleaze. But no state adopting a dodgy foreign policy under its army’s hold has. No state has ended sleaze rapidly, as we dream about doing. However, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, etc. ended civ-mil imbalances quickly. This is because sleaze emerges from society’s depth but these imbalances merely reflect one institution’s ethos and individual free wills. A self-serving act of free will by Ayub soon became institutional ethos. So, if we generate the same ire against civ-mil imbalance as against sleaze, we may see progress sooner.

But how do we put back in the bottle the genie which knows so many tricks to upend civilians? Ultimately, civilians must get the courage to confront the Pindi boys. This is tough for power-hungry politicians who want to curry favour with them in order to gain power. Only a powerful but not power-seeking politician can. Nawaz fits this role involuntarily. I hope he gets roasted in NAB cases fairly and barred from formal politics. But being our strongest and most inclined politician, he should then focus informally on civ-mil balancing. It would be a long battle, with his role being merely a start.

This role for a crooked politician may provoke howls of protest from our ‘pious’ lot. This reaction reflects the naïve belief that super-humans will fix our ills. Jihadists, Marxists and Bonapartists share this view. But that clearly will not happen. Third World inegalitarian societies largely produce deeply flawed institutions and public personalities, whether in politics, bureaucracy, military, business, media or civil society.

Changes there mainly come from the clash among these flawed entities, as they all target the negatives of others for their own gain. These clashes of the flawed produce more stalemates and reversals in some states, causing stagnation or collapse, but marginally more gains and hence slow progress in others like Pakistan. This realistically is our best bet: the snail’s crawl, bullock’s plod and tusker’s lumber under democracy.

Elected rule often harms us but its absence always devastates us. Do we have the wisdom to see this?

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2017