Civil-military relations

July 27, 2010


ON June 14, 1948, Jinnah visited the army staff college, Quetta, and spoke to the army officers present. He was frail and weak and had only three more months to live, but his words had the ring of authority, as always, and should be the starting point of any history of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

What he said there on that day sounds like a polite admonishment on being given some inkling of the working of the military mind. This is what he said “One thing more. I am persuaded to say this because during my talks with one or two very high-ranking officers I discovered that they did not know the implications of the oath taken by the troops of Pakistan...I want you to remember...that the executive authority flows from the head of the Government of Pakistan, who is the governor general and, therefore, any command or order that may come to you cannot come without the sanction of the executive head. This is the legal position.”

Now what did the 'high-ranking' officers say that compelled Jinnah to say what he initially did not intend to say? There is no record of what the officers said, but it does appear that Jinnah was put off by what they said. This is reflected in his speech that was short (less than 500 words) and rather curt. Interestingly, the senior-most officer present, next below the British commandant, was none other than one Lt Col Mohammad Yahya Khan. Fortunately, at least two participants of that training course, Majors Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan and Abdul Majid, who later rose to the rank of lieutenant general, are still living and could tell what exactly transpired.

What that incident indicates is that some army officers had developed extra-constitutional ambitions within less than a year of the creation of Pakistan, and even while the father of the nation was alive. How and why did that happen? In retrospect it appears that there were peculiar reasons why civil-military relations in Pakistan could not develop in a normal way, apart from the fact that a feeling of disdain in the military for the civilians, especially the politicians, is quite common and almost universal.

In the first place, there was no interaction between the political leadership and the future leaders of the Pakistan Army before independence. The imperial culture of the British Indian Army had kept even the Indian officers aloof from other natives, and interaction with the civilians was discouraged. Hence the two sides, civilian and military, began with some hostility and suspicion that strangers tend to have towards each other.

Second, an unwise administrative decision kept the civil and military leadership separated by a long distance from each other. Till 1960 the political capital (Karachi) and the army headquarters (Rawalpindi) were separated by a distance of about 900km. Even the nearest provincial capital (Peshawar) was about 200km away. The farthest provincial capital (Dhaka) was, of course, light years away.

This perhaps explains why the people of East Pakistan hardly ever figured in the calculations of the army, except as an irksome nuisance. This geographical factor only perpetuated and enhanced the feeling of being strangers that was inherited at the time of independence in 1947.

Third, in the 1950s and later, the Pakistan Army became an important ally of the US in the Cold War rivalry between the superpowers. With US aid and assistance the army grew in size and acquired more clout in the affairs of the state. It was, and still is, more important to the US than the political leadership, separately or collectively. This devalues the importance of the political leadership.

Fourth, the army had, and still has, a well-organised modern structure and a culture of discipline, but politics in Pakistan has been rather chaotic, and the structure of the political parties has remained more feudalistic than modern, and marked by indiscipline and opportunism. With the exception of the MQM and the Jamaat-i-Islami, no other political party has a proper organisational structure or a disciplined body of workers.

For this reason politics in Pakistan cannot but be chaotic and uncertain in its ways and objectives. It is a matter of some significance that since 1947 there have been 14 army chiefs but no less than 23 prime ministers. In India the numbers are about the opposite.

Fifth, the army has many training and research institutions, and some of them (such as Staff College, Quetta, and National Defence University) are as good as any in the world. In contrast, not even the two largest political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, have a properly staffed and equipped secretariat or a research wing to help formulate well thought-out views on various issues. Even the headquarters of these two parties in Islamabad are a pathetic sight of a kind that would embarrass even a regimental centre.

Now, how can we move forward to establish a truly democratic dispensation where the supremacy of the elected civilian leadership is willingly accepted? To initiate action, the political parties have to be revamped and organised on the basis of merit-based internal democracy. Once that stage is reached, and only when that stage is reached, state-funding, commensurate with electoral support for different parties, should be provided to political parties for their capacity-building and operational needs.

State-funding of political parties is not unheard of in modern democracies. In fact it is an essential part of it. Here in Pakistan even if an amount equal to one per cent of the defence budget (about Rs4bn) is provided to political parties, it would be possible to create an effective organisational structure within them. That would institutionalise the bond between the people and the parties and enable them to earn the support of the people and the respect of other elements of the state.