Order of precedence

Published November 25, 2022

IN Pakistan as well as abroad, there are few illusions about who actually calls the shots in this country. This uncomfortable truth, which came up during a seminar held recently in the American capital, was pretty much confirmed by Gen Qamar Bajwa’s speech at GHQ on Wednesday. At the Washington event, one participant, Lisa Curtis, who served in the Trump administration’s South Asia team noted that “I don’t think the future of US-Pakistan relations hinges on who will be the PM in Pakistan … more important is who will be the chief of army staff.” While these are not great revelations, they do reflect how foreign states view power dynamics within Pakistan. The US, as well as other foreign powers, knows that when it comes to key areas such as the nuclear file, foreign relations, and even the economy, it is Rawalpindi — and not Islamabad — that needs to be contacted. Much of this is due to the fact that the army has so far maintained a veto in these critical areas. For their part, civilian governments have failed to assert themselves. There is also a historical context. For nearly half its life as a sovereign state, Pakistan has been piloted by military rulers; these periods of martial rule have coincided with events of great geopolitical significance. For example, Generals Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq were committed cold warriors, who helped the West take on the Eastern bloc, while in the post-9/11 period, Gen Pervez Musharraf was a crucial partner in the US ‘war on terror’ in this region. Therefore, Western capitals got used to directly dealing with GHQ on matters of import. In fact, even during times of civilian rule, the military has kept a watchful eye over what elected governments were doing in the areas it felt were the army’s domain.

However, in a constitutional order, it is the elected head of government that must have control over all critical policies, including defence, foreign affairs, the economy, etc. The military has a clear role in advising the government on defence and security matters, but overall decision-making must be the prime minister’s prerogative. Until we ourselves change our power structure, foreign actors will continue to reach out to GHQ for all important decisions. It is, therefore, up to the political leadership, as well as the incoming army chief, to ensure civilian supremacy in all spheres of governance.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2022

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