New beginnings | Talat Hussain

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There are no new beginnings without closing lingering issues. With the arrival of the new army chief on the national scene, an opportunity has arisen to lessen the burden this system carries of controversies and problems which are at present on the verge of becoming bleeding wounds. They sap national energies, complicate governance and trap the whole country in petty squabbles as the world around us moves ahead. Some of them fall squarely in the purview of Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s authority; others are in that informal zone, sort of a shared list, where civilian and military authority overlap.

The first item in the second category is civil-military relations. The present-day ruling idea is that the two components are destined to stay locked in an adversarial relationship, with little or no common ground. The civilian government, this and the previous ones, regards the army as intrusive and overbearing, dictating terms on every foreign and defence policy issue, hogging the limelight on domestic matters and forever engaged in a not-so-silent a campaign to heap mud upon the entire political class. The army sees its constitutional bosses as nothing to write home about, clumsy and divorced from core national interests.

For decades, both views have competed and collided. They have produced a state of perpetual dysfunction in decision-making. Most policy meetings are marked by defensive moves where protecting one’s stand and saving one’s face matters more than an exchange of candid views for productive decisions. Worse, in their silos they pick on each other – ramming the ‘opponents’ name into the walls and barely concealing their satisfaction in seeing the other down and out. The story of the last many years’ history of civil-military ties is one of hypocrisy, double-speak and petty gaming framed in cold greetings.

This bruising war of nerves and publicity has taken a heavy toll. Whether it is Afghanistan or India, ties with Iran or engagement with Washington, there is no clarity or coherence in the competing views of the civilian government and the military. A set of knee-jerk reactions to events is called policy; a meeting called after an event is already over is considered decision-making.

Ask anyone in the prime minister’s camp about the nature and direction of talks with the Taliban (other than the nitty-gritty of recent meeting details) and you will have blank faces trying to look wise. What is Pakistan’s long view of ties with India? This is a question that only produces stale clichés in response. Where Japan fits into our world view currently tied to the CPEC is not even a debating point. What we need to do about the deepening perception in world capitals about terrorist groups using our soil is an issue that no one is willing to grapple with for fear that it might create another Dawn-leak type situation. The defence minister speaks less on defence matters and more on the defence of the prime minister on the Panama leaks. The Foreign Office is in the stranglehold of two outsiders who are neither in service nor in politics.

It has to be said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shares more than half the blame for creating a crippling vacuum on key policy issues through a schizophrenic attitude which, on the one hand, wants to keep all authority under personal control and, on the other hand, sees no problem in outsourcing policy planning to the GHQ. He wants to be the leader but wants to lead from behind the scenes. At present, all forums of debate on longstanding concerns for the security of the country are either dormant or have been sidelined. Parliament, its relevant committees, the cabinet and the national security committee (the most elaborate forum for policy debate) are all locked out of the process of defining Pakistan’s outlook in a fast-changing external environment.

The Nawaz Sharif government’s standard operating procedure on all top-level concerns is to have a ‘bilateral” between the army chief and the prime minister. This format is most undemocratic considering that the Supreme Court has already stated that the definition of government is that our parliamentary system cannot be reduced to the person or office of the prime minister. Decision-making that is not consultative involving the cabinet is not legitimate.

And yet that’s how the government runs the country’s security and foreign policy. Three lonely men (sometimes the ISI chief is also there) sit in a room and react to events. The more important the issue, the less the transparency. The more urgent the cause, the more opaque the walls from behind which a response of sorts originates. There is never any documentation, and no record keeping. There is no institutional memory because no institution is involved.

And because the government has poor planning and preparation capacity, its incompetence makes it completely reliant on input from the GHQ. Hastily prepared PowerPoint presentations aren’t a substitute for a vision-driven constant effort to keep the country’s ship steady in troubled waters. Prime Minister Sharif wants civilian supremacy over the army but doesn’t want to put the necessary mechanism in place to make it happen. He wants control of policy but exhibits no desire to abandon his chronic contempt for building institutions.

The next few months are crucial. The new chief (like all new chiefs) will take time to settle down in a pattern of interface with the civilian government. From his appointments and promotions within the army it is clear that he is carving his own course away from the debilitating and self-defeating promotional tactics of his predecessor. The Sharif government can set a new example for itself by rising to the occasion and for once acting like all elected governments ought to: responsible, hardworking, transparent and institutionally-prepared to lead policy initiatives. We all know this is asking for too much from a government that has become hardened in its shallow ways, but the time is right for pointing to the opportunity that beckons.

For his part, the army chief can undertake a dispassionate review of the standard thinking in the rank and file that sees civilian governments as a burden or a curse. While such musings may be gratifying for agitated souls, in the context of stabilising the country’s governing wheel, they aren’t helpful. Unfortunately, personal agendas have come to dominate this thinking to such an extent that it is now an article of faith with many that the army can and should do any and everything and let the civilian government, this or the next or the one after that, rot without recovery.

This is the basis for getting the army involved in everything – and not always because the civilian government always wants it that way, but because there is this pervasive sense of this being the right and proper course to follow. So from shaping Karachi’s politics to keeping Ayyan Ali on the permanent watch list to getting involved in media houses’ politics, there is a long list of matters that now need to be closed with grace and by identifying the national purpose that they serve. The army and its resources cannot be deployed to chase shadows and ghost schemes launched in the name of national interest.

The army’s energies and focus have to be fully on the country’s strategic matrix, arrived at through an exhaustive debate with the civilian government. The army cannot be pulled in different directions for causes that go nowhere but require management and response all the time. That list is for the new army chief and his new team to draw up. It is for them to develop position papers on these issues, categorising them as trivial, marginal, deserving closure and those worthy of constant expending of time and effort. It is for them to have an inventory of some of the most frequently-asked awkward questions about the army and develop with heartless objectivity answers for internal consumption.

This exercise should lay the foundation of a new beginning of a new era in which the civilian and the military leadership work closely for common good while retaining their separate zones of influence, instead of battling against each other while pretending that both are on the same page.