Back to barracks? | Irfan Hussain


IN the immediate aftermath of the Manchester suicide bombing, troops were seen on the streets of a major British city after many years.

But the government was quick to assure citizens that the soldiers were under the orders of police officers, and would not operate independently. In Pakistan, it is difficult to imagine circumstances under which even a young army captain would take orders from a senior police officer.

In the US, when a popular general, Stanley McChrystal, denigrated president Obama in an interview, he had to resign. In Pakistan, a major general can send out a controversial tweet, and not face action.

Ruling generals have left behind a bigger mess.

I could cite endless examples of generals being kept on a short leash by governments in other countries to highlight the imbalance in the relationship here in Pakistan. Civil-military ties here have been fraught for many years. In most countries, few know the names of their army chiefs; here, periodic meetings of corps commanders are covered on the front pages of national newspapers.

The problem began early on when politicians squabbled for nearly a decade after Partition before they could agree on a constitution in 1956. The reason for the delay was that if the document had incorporated the universal democratic principle of one-man, one-vote, power would have passed to the more populous East Pakistan, something West Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats were not willing to accept.

This, combined with other political turbulence, caused a power vacuum to develop, one soon filled by Gen Ayub Khan in 1958 following a coup that marginalised the entire political class. Following a popular movement, he was replaced in 1969 by Gen Yahya Khan who led Pakistan into a disastrous civil war. He was followed by Gen Zia in 1977 who lasted 11 ruinous years. Then came Gen Musharraf who was in the saddle from 1999 to 2008.

One point to recall is that three of the four wars Pakistan has fought were caused by these generals: the wars of 1965, 1971 and the Kargil fiasco would not have been launched had the military not been in charge.

Most Pakistani students could recite these facts off the top of their heads, so why am I walking down this well-trodden path? Simply to underline the reality of the military’s dominance over the country’s politics for much of its existence.

As we have noted, the ascendancy of the military has taken place due to the perceived incompetence and corruption of the political class. Never mind that once in power, the officer class takes full advantage of its control of the levers of power to feed at the public trough, just as they accuse politicians and bureaucrats of doing.

Direct control and self-censorship in the media prevents the public from being informed of the security establishment’s wrongdoing, so in millions of eyes, the army is seen as a disciplined, honest force compared to our squabbling and venal politicians. Hence the periodic appeals to our generals, often amplified and orchestrated by sections of the media, to intervene.

This is clearly a victory of hope over experience: each time the generals have taken over, they have left a bigger mess behind. And yet, as we have been hearing over the last few years, the cry for the ‘third umpire’ to step in retains its potency.

But beyond catering to the hard-wired beliefs of democrats, does this imbalance of power really matter? Yes, it does. A democratic dispensation permits us to boot a poorly performing elected government out. This option is simply not available under a dictatorship.

Even a flawed democratic system gives people a voice that is not available to them under martial law. Freedom of speech and assembly are basic rights that, again, are denied us under a dictatorship.

But in desperately poor countries like Pakistan, most people are more interested in employment, access to clean water and uninterrupted electricity. These needs trump political freedom and human rights.

Given our long experience of military rule, the army has learned lessons, just as politicians have. Basically, generals have come to realise that they have no magic wand to solve the country’s many problems. After seeing their predecessors forced out in humiliation, and the reputation of their beloved institution sullied, they have decided not to intervene directly again. After all, if they retain their clout, why stage coups?

The lesson politicians have learned is that like it or not, the military is a power they have to cope with. And if they want to reclaim the space the generals have seized over the years, they will have to up their game, and stop squabbling with each other. Good governance will reinforce their legitimacy and right to govern.

And over a period of time, it might even send the army back to the barracks.