THE people of Pakistan have a strong democratic temperament. Throughout the year, the country’s many elections are robustly contested in bar associations, chambers of commerce, professional associations, unions, civil society forums, etc. In rural areas, traditional jirgas and panchayats (at least partially) reflect a similar keen interest in participative processes. Despite only an average of about 50 per cent turnout in 11 general elections in 71 years, citizens express a deep interest in electing their representatives.
The same democratic people hold its armed forces in high regard for ensuring Pakistan’s external and internal security, gained through the selfless sacrifice and quiet dignity of its soldiers and officers. People admire its prompt, effective actions in emergencies and natural disasters, appreciate its construction of quality infrastructure in formidable terrain, and respect its merit-based structure (which has particular distinction in a political and social milieu often dominated by nepotism).
Pakistan has witnessed four interventions into the political domain over a span of about 33 years. Of these, two periods (1969-71 and 1977-88) have had gravely damaging results. Due to the continuing overt and covert military influence on aspects of foreign, nuclear and internal security policies, there is an abiding unease in parts of civil and political society about the imbalanced role of the army. Positive policies introduced during military rule — enhancing reserved seats for women and minorities in expanded legislatures, transforming the electronic media landscape, lowering the voting age to 18 years, etc — are often ignored only due to the fact they were military-led.
Existing mechanisms for dialogue are important, yet inadequate.
Notwithstanding its internal corrective system, the military is perceived to be immune from accountability while also enjoying exceptional privileges. Intelligence agencies are held responsible for covert manipulation of the electoral process in last year’s election. They are also assumed to have a hand in the disappearance of many persons. Though untenable in view of India’s historic, unchanging hegemonistic posture, the defence sector’s share of expenditure (21pc of the total budget) is seen by some in the civil sector as too high. Some extremist elements are said to enjoy secret support. New pressures on the media are alleged to be military-related.
Thus, alongside positive perceptions within the civil sphere about the professionalism of the armed forces, there are perceptions of a negative role. Leaders of the two main opposition parties seem convinced that the military directs NAB to act against them and even influences judicial decisions. In turn, the military denies allegations and has its own reservations about the political sphere. In spite of both spheres being intrinsic parts of the selfsame country, there is a disturbing distance between them. Mutual incomprehension persists.
Existing mechanisms for regular (or irregular) interaction, such as the National Security Committee or parliamentary committees on defence, are important, yet inadequate. Beyond formal discussion on official agenda items, several aspects require frank, comprehensive exposition. Through other participative (including non-official) processes, each side needs to exercise patience (and stamina!) in simply listening deeply to the other, with mutual respect, after discarding old preconceptions.
The chief of army staff has, more than once, publicly endorsed continuity and supremacy of civil, political, elected institutions. He visited the Senate for an unprecedented in-camera session in December 2017. A no-holds-barred dialogue was reportedly held. Members of the parliamentary committees on defence also visited GHQ in September 2017. Such high-level interactions should be frequent and systematised.
Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, chiefs of the three services, and directors-general of the ISI, MI and ISPR should meet at regular intervals with senior journalists, editors, media owners, legislators, political leaders of all hues, segments of civil society, social media activists, heads of NGOs, academia, professional bodies, etc. Periodically active dialogue forums comprise retired military officers; proposed new interactions should include serving officers communicating within defined discipline and policy, such as at NDU programmes.
Through sustained, in-depth, candid dialogues, through both closed- and open-door sessions, a consensus should be shaped on progressive measures that build trust and confidence, and reduce the gulf between perceptions — to foster constructive harmony and stability. Uncertainties and volatilities in regional and global geopolitics make it imperative for both political and military leaderships to address this need with urgency.
The writer is a former federal minister and senator, and member of Pildat’s Dialogue Group on Civil-Military Relations.
Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2019