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A gulf that must be bridged

January 05, 2018

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CIVIL-MILITARY tensions are not a new development in Pakistan. We have lived with this phenomenon for decades and have seen four spells of military rule. Civil-military tensions, which until recently had been largely underground, have now started to come out in the open.

An example is the DG ISPR’s tweet sometime ago in which an official communication written by the Prime Minister’s Office regarding ‘Dawn leaks’ was rejected. This was unprecedented, and humiliating for both the government and the state as it publicly undermined the concept of supremacy of an elected civilian government. Fortunately, the military realised the mistake and ‘withdrew’ the tweet but it had taken the level of tension to a new level. 

Following the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court last July, civil-military tensions seem to be following the same, very public, trajectory. First, the federal interior minister took strong exception to remarks of the DG ISPR on the national economy and then the DG ISPR returned the compliment by expressing his ‘disappointment’ in October 2017. 

The real question is how to address the worsening civil-military relations.

Lately, the remarks of the federal railways minister, Saad Rafique, generated a great deal of heat and controversy during the final days of 2017. His words seemed to imply that subordinate institutions under the army chief create occasional mischief although the stated policy of the army chief was pro-democracy and in harmony with the civilian government’s policies. ISPR did not waste much time in declaring the federal minister’s statement ‘irresponsible’ at a news conference. 

The most recent and highly significant pronouncements on civil-military relations have come from the country’s defence minister, Khurram Dastgir Khan during a TV interview aired a few days ago. It is difficult to recall a more candid interview by a Pakistani defence minister on the subject. He frankly admitted the existence of civil-military tensions. He alluded to some differences between the civilian government and the military on Pakistan’s Afghan policy and when pressed to be specific, referred to the government’s seeking assurances from the security establishment regarding non-interference in Afghanistan. The defence minister said that his party leader Nawaz Sharif felt that merely winning the next election would be meaningless unless “awam ka haq-i-hakmiat” or the people’s right to rule was not established and accepted. He also admitted that he was not the defence organisation boss but a mere facilitator who is often sidelined. All this is serious and sensitive stuff, seldom discussed in the open by a sitting defence minister in the past.

A number of senior PML-N leaders, including the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have openly said they would no longer keep things under wraps and would take the people into confidence. Refere­nces to the Kargil war and many other instances are being thrown up which, if openly admitted by any current or former senior public official, may prove highly embarrassing for state institutions and extremely damaging for the state as a whole.

Analyses of some of the recent statements of sitting and former public officials, lead to almost definitive but the discomforting conclusion that civil-military relations may be moving towards an era of ‘open warfare’. No country can allow such tensions between state institutions or between popular political parties and the security establishment, especially given the prevailing tense relations with a superpower and some neighbouring countries. 

The real question is how to address the worsening civil-military relations. Fortunately, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has already taken the much-needed step of activating the National Security Committee (NSC), which should be transformed into an effective institution with its meetings being held regularly — monthly if not weekly.

The NSC meetings should not only be convened to address a specific crisis; a series of regular meetings over a period of time — may be a year, perhaps more — are needed to discuss fundamental strategic differences and the sources of tension between the civilian government and the military. Additionally, long-term issues such ensuring state security in the face of threats that are bigger than what can be dealt with by employing conventional means should be addressed. The question of relations with neighbours should also be discussed in the long-term perspective to evolve a unified position.

The NSC needs an intellectual infrastructure to support informed decision-making. Originally, the blueprint of the NSC provided for a planning committee and an advisory council. A think tank manned by experts and researchers was also envisaged. This support structure should be urgently activated.

Key to civil-military tensions is also a perception which each side has formed about the other. Politicians are generally perceived to be lacking in integrity, competence, in-depth knowledge and discipline. For their part, politicians are always worried about a conspiracy being hatched against them. These perceptions need to be candidly discussed at NSC meetings that are dedicated for strategic sessions.

Finally, it should be remembered that a civil-military consensus, though highly desirable, may not always be possible. The security establishment should appreciate the fact that it is the elected political leadership that should have the final word as is the norm in all democracies. But the political leadership should also keep in mind that it has not been elected to act as emperors, and that it needs to run governments through a broad-based consultative process centred on parliament. Cabinets are an integral part of the decision-making process and should not be sidelined.

These are all basic principles on how to run a democratic government but we seem to have forgotten them thus landing us in the current mess. It is about time both the civilians and the military seriously and patiently worked to bridge the widening gulf in their relations using the NSC as the principal institution. The defence minister, in his recent interview, said that his government and party had been trying to address civil-military tensions through personal ties but it had not worked. Institutional arrangements are the only way to address all state issues including civil-military tensions.

The writer is the president of Pildat.
president@pildat.org
Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2018