Semi-civilian rule | Talat Hussain


In the middle of the self-imposed tension of holding the PSL final in Lahore, and the attendant consequences of deployment of resources to manage the risks that we ourselves had created, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan spoke about a subject that for months had not been on the radar of national discourse – civil-military ties.

The interior minister mentioned the usual need for the civil and military leadership to be on the same page. He also underscored some unnamed enemies both within and outside Pakistan that he thought did not want harmony between the two core elements of policymaking in the country.

There is no context available to relate to the interior minister’s reflections on this aspect of national life. Nor any reason to understand why he felt the urge to point to dangers of disharmony except that he is considered – purely due to his chance association with the army through politics and family – to be some sort of an expert on all such affairs. Therefore, he has developed a tendency and a reputation for speaking on the subject whenever he so desires.

This is not to suggest that the topic isn’t important in today’s Pakistan – quite the contrary. The significance of the issue is so central to the path this country will take in the near future that it should be discussed in detail rather than being made a subject of fleeting remarks that engender more ambiguity than clarity.

First, the positive side of life. Since the departure of Gen (r) Raheel Sharif from the scene and his own effort to somehow secure his job with the Saudis, inflation in the perception of conflict between the government and the GHQ has been reduced to manageable levels. No second-guessing is involved in official meetings anymore nor any cheap point-scoring. ISPR’s Twitter account has been brought back to a professional level and the glut of stories about the greatness of the chief has almost disappeared.

The news from the prime minister’s camp is that he and his close associates are no longer deploying their precious energies and time on countering a military-driven national narrative of an impending coup. Interaction between the civilians and the military has become more business-like and productive. The surest indication of this productivity has been the government’s more than accommodating policy on two critical policy areas – induction of the Rangers in Punjab and revival of the military courts.

On both these counts, Nawaz Sharif was personally opposed to the demands from the military side. The military courts were a step that the government had to take in the wake of the APS tragedy. If the attack had not happened Nawaz Sharif would not have conceded an inch on the matter, resisting it the same way that he did the idea of deploying paramilitary forces in Punjab. Now, however, the same government is at the forefront of the effort to revive the military courts, and has allowed the Rangers operate without any let or hindrance in the power bastion of the Sharifs – Punjab.

This reversal in attitude would not have come about if mutual suspicion and distrust had remained at the previous levels. So clearly a wind of change has blown since the arrival of the new army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and he has been able to get those things done far more effectively (and quietly) that could not be achieved through arm-twisting and media manipulation of narratives.

On deweaponisation, sealing of borders, new defence purchases to maintain and enhance conventional force capacity and a host of other issues foot-dragging by the civilian government has been replaced with alacrity of decision-making. The two sides understand each other better than before and therefore are functionally on the same page most of the time. Moreover, on issues where there is divergence, disagreement is sorted out on the table rather than on social media. That keeps the equilibrium of trust between the two intact.

However, this better functionality is not to be taken as a pathway to heaven. There are structural constraints that keep the two sides from a total embrace of harmony and may deepen the distance between them. It is not a good or bad thing; it is what it is. And this is the not-so-promising side of civil-military relations. Primarily, this is a lopsided relationship. The army’s power and influence in civilian affairs runs so deep that the idea of civilian supremacy appears little other than bookish and downright impractical. There is an old history of coups, yes, but much of this ingress has happened recently, on account of the never-ending effort to fight terrorists.

This long war has entailed a heavy cost in every respect and the system of governance has been no exception. Because the terror networks operate across the borders and pose monumental challenges to the citizens and the national economy any force that is deployed to beat them into submission is bound to have an upper hand in policymaking. Further aggravating the tilt in favour of the army at the cost of civilian authority is the vicious cycle of weakening civilian institutions that enhances reliance on the army which in turn weakens these institutions even more.

Military courts are an admission of the normal judicial system’s inability to meet the demands of counterterrorism. The deployment in provinces of the Rangers, with policing powers, is grim acceptance of the limits of the police capacity to deal with more complex terrorism threat (even though the police may be best equipped to tackle this threat in the urban areas because of their adaptability and vast presence at the grassroots.)

From carrying our national census to securing cricket stadiums, from holding national elections to convincing foreign governments that good things are happening in Pakistan – so much is left to the army that it is practically co-governs this country besides running its defence and foreign policy.

Of course, civilians find it anathema to accept in public that they play second fiddle to the army as an institution, but in private, where more honest admissions are made, there is much comfort with this arrangement. There isn’t a single party in the country that has any intention of addressing this structural imbalance in power distribution between the civilians and the army, nor – and this is even more important – do they have the institutional capacity to carry the burden of governance.

The Nawaz Sharif government is a classic case of a civilian body totally committed to the idea of civilian supremacy but which in reality can’t even breathe without seeking the GHQ’s support and help in managing the country. The public argument that all governments have to do this because the army is too powerful is primarily a ruse to hide incompetence and sheer laziness in carrying the institutional reform needed to reduce dependence on the army.

As a result, the Sharif government is as dependent on General Bajwa as it was on General Raheel and General Kayani. Similarly, the PPP leadership is as keen to please the army leadership in good humour as the PTI leaders are in playing to the khaki gallery. Other parties have similar scores on this board.

This pattern is likely to continue for years to come especially since the world around Pakistan is unlikely to become stable and the chaos within shows no sign of abating. The idea of the civilians and the army being on the same page is only relevant on a case-to-case basis. Structurally what we have is a state of semi-civilian rule, endorsed and approved by every political party. Everyone seems to be one on this page.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.


Twitter: @TalatHussain12