The settlement of the news leak issue between the civilian federal government and the army top command has removed the latest irritant in civil-military relations, thereby lowering tensions in the political system, at least for the time being. This has been possible because the army top command decided to step back from its strong reservations on the news leak and the federal government’s efforts to resolve this issue.
This has eased political pressure on the Nawaz Sharif government and gives it the much-needed confidence to cope with other pressures caused by the Panama Leaks case and the opposition’s efforts to launch a nationwide protest against the government. When the controversial news item against the military was published in an English-language newspaper on October 6, 2016, the army top command was the first to declare it a national security breach.
At least two meetings of the corps commanders discussed the issue and expressed their concern. The retired military officers appearing in TV talk shows made no secret of their contempt for the news item and maintained that the army people were extremely unhappy about it. The army pressure led Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to appoint an inquiry commission whose report was said to be the basis of the current action by the federal government against three of its top political and bureaucratic officials.
The federal government’s punitive action against three persons was an attempt to pacify the army top command while controlling the damage to the PML-N government’s credibility. The ISPR tweet on April 29 rejected this action, forcing the government to review the matter in order to ward off the army pressure.
The ruling PMLN’s in-house deliberation during April 30-May 9 led them to conclude that the army top command did not have much options available to them to force the federal government to change its decision. It, therefore, decided to stick to its earlier decision of punitive action against three officials. However, in order to create a space for the army top command to review its disposition, the federal government decided to reissue the notification by making it more comprehensive. For all practical purposes, the new notification did not make any change in the earlier decision.
The decision of the federal government left the army top command high and dry. The army high command could persist in its opposition but that would have created more uncertainty in the political system at a time when Pakistan was faced with a difficult internal security situation and a troubled relationship with three neighbouring countries. Such a confrontation could create a situation where present civilian leadership and the army top command would have found it difficult to co-exist. The military could not dislodge the government in the name of “breach of national security” because the domestic and global environment was not favourable to such an action. Long before the news item controversy began, the military top command was more or less settled on the issue that the direct assumption of power was not a viable option. The army top command decided to defuse the situation by accepting the “re-issued” federal government’s notification.
The army’s retreat is expected to be unpopular among the officers. It is, therefore, important for the civilian government and the army top command to explain this decision. Further, the PML-N activists should not engage in persistent propaganda against the army senior command. This can add new tensions to civil-military relations. The assertion of civilian primacy is not a one-shot affair. It is a continuous process that requires a tactful handling because the balance can shift in one direction or another, from time to time.
The experience of Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil and other countries that experienced the expansion of the role of the military suggests that the classical notion of civilian supremacy is not fully returned. However, if the military command and the political leadership undertake some actions, a new relationship of mutual respect, restraint and constitutionalism emerges.
The following issues need attention for promoting a responsible civil-military relationship within a democratic constitutional framework: (1) A decision on the part of the top brass of the military to restrain their political ambition and stay within their professional domain. The civilian leaders must also respect internal service autonomy of the military. (2) The civilian political leaders, especially those in power, must create a credible civilian alternative to military rule by ensuring good governance and a judicious political management. (3) Strengthen the civilian institution and processes in a genuinely democratic framework rather than pursuing personalised and patrimonial governance. The democratic institutions must ensure conflict management and these should become the pivot of power and authority. (4) The democratic institutions and processes must ensure delivery of basic services and facilities to its citizens. (5) Only the policies based on genuine political participation and socio-economic justice promote strong attachment among the people for the political system which strengthens the role of civilian institutions and processes. (6) A consensus among the key political players not to cultivate the military for pursuing their individual political agenda. (7) A minimum reliance on the military for undertaking purely civilian tasks. The calls to the military “in aid of civil” should be as minimum as possible. (8) The military’s political clout will increase in the countries that face acute external military threats and internal security issues, including terrorism. (9) Appointment of highly professional political leaders to foreign policy, defence and internal security portfolios.
The PML-N government should take the current political space available to it due to the military’s retreat on one issue as an opportunity to create a credible civilian alternative by ensuring effective, nonpartisan and corruption-free governance. Pakistan is facing numerous internal and external challenges that require greater cooperative interaction between the civil and the military. Pakistan’s stability is linked with reliable civil-military relations. This calls for a sense of responsibility and restraint from both sides.