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Not just a zero-sum game

February 05, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT was a short sentence at the tail end of a story about yet another ‘festival’ in one of Pakistan’s cities. In yet another talk on Pakistan’s civil-military conundrum, the story quoted a retired general’s comment that the military would not step back till the civilians showed some competence and built institutions offering ‘quality’ input.

The view is not a new one. It has often been repeated by many — civilians as well as military officials — as we all debate politics and governance.

Military officials can always recount an example or two of the incompetent men political governments put forward to interact with the security establishment in forums such as defence committees, arguing that ‘they’ needed to send better equipped chaps if the balance is to be tilted. The other side is no less guilty. These days, many complain that the PTI’s mishandling of the economy has ‘compelled’ the military to start putting together its own blueprint for the recovery of the economy.

On the surface, this argument seems to make much sense — perhaps, that is why it is commonly accepted and commonly quoted.

But does history bear this out?

The military’s retreat had little to do with the quality of our politicians & more to do with its own internal workings.

If the military retreated in 2008 and handed over power to the civilians, it wasn’t because it had ascertained that the civilians had by then become more competent. The same Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who had been unacceptable in 1999 and in 2002, were deemed acceptable without having offered proof of concrete progress in democratic or governance matters. (Or was there a quick multiple choice exam in London or Dubai that the rest of us weren’t told about?)

The military’s retreat, in other words, had little to do with the quality of our politicians and more to do with its own internal workings. Pervez Musharraf and direct military rule were seen to have harmed the institution. Not only had it become unpopular among the people, the involvement in politics had distracted it from its more professional duties.

A retreat was the only solution. Hence, through cajoling and more, Musharraf was forced to first retire from the military and then from politics as civilians were brought back and allowed to take part in the elections and run the government.

Further back in history, in 1988, it was surely not belief in Benazir Bhutto’s competence and ability to rule that convinced Ghulam Ishaq Khan and others to hold elections and transfer power to the PPP. In fact, so great was their lack of trust in her, that power was transferred only after she agreed to let the military control foreign affairs and the economy. Once again, the reasons for the retreat were internal to the security establishment.

And yet, we continue to argue that if the civil-military balance is going to be tilted the civilian way, the latter will first have to become ‘stronger’.

This is because most of us see the civil-military balance as a zero-sum game. If one is to grow stronger, the other must grow weaker. And conversely, if the military has pushed back — as it has at the moment — it is because the civilians have ruled so incompetently.

As a result, politicians spend most of their time trying to figure out how to ‘weaken’ the military — peace with India at times is not a means to an end in itself, but a means to reduce the threat which justifies an ‘inflated’ defence budget and a ‘bloated’ military. And the latter spends its time trying to counter these alleged moves. It’s a never-ending cat and mouse game.

Perhaps it is time to view it not as a zero-sum game, but one in which both can grow stronger at the same time.

Take 2008. The military retreated from politics and in doing so, it was able to stem its growing unpopularity and in the process the civilians won over some space. And at the same time, General Ashfaq Kayani, as a full-time chief of army staff, was able to focus on the security threat in Fata — unlike Musharraf. And he was helped by the PPP’s unequivocal stand on extremism, which lent political legitimacy to the military operations.

In other words, both sides made gains. And since 2017, the internecine hostilities between the two have harmed both institutions as well as the polity. The military by appearing to intervene so directly in the political system has hurt itself, its credibility and the system. And in the process of assuming that it could use its street power and popularity to ‘vanquish’ the military, the civilians have lost considerable space.

Had both sides been able to evolve a smoother working relationship, devoid of paranoia, is it possible that the polity, including the military and the civilians, would have gained from it? Had 2017 and 2018 not been wasted in confrontation, could the result have been more stability which could have led to better management of the economy (among other things)? It would have benefited everyone. Instead, for two years, we did the exact opposite. And in retrospect, it is irrelevant who or what was to blame for initiating the confrontation.

This is not to say that acquiring a different way of looking at the ‘other’ in this relationship is as easy as it sounds. Undoubtedly, it is not. But it is necessary because the military and the civilians are stuck with each other — it is not possible to assume that one can ‘vanquish’ the other and declare ‘victory’. After all, both institutions are part and parcel of the Pakistani state — or for that matter, any state. The military and the politicians have no choice but to live with each other and the citizens too have to live with both. It might help everyone if the two sides can view each other differently. It may be a step in the right direction.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2019