x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Pakistan struggles with history in new civilian-military row

The country's civilian leadership must demonstrate respect for the judiciary, pursue prudent economic policies and work with the military without being dominated by it.

Amid the political and economic chaos engulfing Pakistan, many people are overlooking a process that could mean a new balance in relations between the civilian government and the all-powerful army chief. That balance, heavily weighted in favour of the military, has historically defined the Pakistani state.

Since Gen Pervez Musharraf's departure in 2008, there have been a series of remarkable events involving the new military leadership. After the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the generals were pulled before parliament for gruelling questioning over the US raid, which was considered a major intelligence and military failure.

More recently, the former chiefs of the army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), retired generals Aslam Beg and Asad Durrani, appeared before the Supreme Court on March 14, answering charges that they used 140 million Pakistani rupees (Dh5.7 million) in public funds to prop up a right-wing political alliance during 1990 elections. The generals' defence is that the operation was undertaken at the behest of the late president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and are unlikely to face convictions.

In another case in February, the ISI was made to produce hitherto missing persons in front of the Supreme Court to answer allegations about its role in high-profile cases about disappearances. Both hearings resume later this month.

The civil-military relations in Pakistan are symptomatic of a state structure gone wrong. This is a largely dysfunctional state where power appears to oscillate between the civilian government and military, but where the army chief has remained the main arbiter even when there is a civilian facade.

Born out of the insecurity of independence in 1947, and the subsequent war, it was natural that Pakistan's military would have a powerful voice in policy. With civilian politics in disarray, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the doyen of military rulers in Pakistan, was given two extensions of service, and eventually became the country's first military dictator.

With half of its history under direct military rule, Pakistan's three military coups were validated by the judiciary and welcomed because the civilian leadership was incompetent, mired in corruption and unwilling to address vital public concerns.

Fractious Pakistani politicians generally focus on short-term goals, such as amassing their own wealth, and are friendly towards the military and happy to play second fiddle, keeping the facade of civilian rule intact. A senior minister in the current cabinet publicly stated he would elect "Musharraf in uniform 10 times". Notwithstanding the civilian grandstanding, the army still calls the shots in foreign policy and defence interests.

But most of the political leadership now openly argues that the military should be subservient to the civil authority. Falling economic and social indicators compel Pakistan to move away from the national-security paradigm to peace and economic engagement in the neighbourhood.

In pursuit of this agenda, President Asif Ali Zardari, who visited India yesterday in an unusual goodwill gesture, has made several attempts to rein in the military. He tried - and failed - to put the ISI under the interior ministry, and inserted his own clauses in the Kerry-Lugar legislation on US assistance to Pakistan.

Following the bin Laden raid, when the military's morale was at its lowest since the 1971 war with India and subsequent secession of Bangladesh, Mr Zardari allegedly thought it was time to take on the military and mount a pre-emptive coup with US help. The famous "memo-gate", involving Pakistan's ambassador to the US allegedly asking Washington for help, is now also being investigated by the courts.

The Zardari-led coalition uses the spectre of military intervention to shore up its support. As the media airs the viewpoints of politicians, the military faces a new challenge. Constrained by its policy of silence, the military cannot engage in public debate even as it is attacked with impunity. At most, the military has warned of "grievous consequences", which was enough to compel the prime minister to retract accusations against the generals.

The chief of staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, withdrew all army officers from positions of civilian authority when he gained his position in 2007. The current arrangement of coexistence, where the army gives the civil authority a free hand, except in matters of national security and its own internal administration, seems to be working.

But the arrangement could break down. The continuing Supreme Court proceedings could force a confrontation, or society could reach critical meltdown because of the corruption and poor governance of the Zardari administration.

Pakistan desperately needs an honest civilian leadership that demonstrates respect for the judiciary, pursues prudent economic policies and can work with the military without being dominated by it. That would be the best guarantee to pull Pakistan out of this quagmire.


Sajjad Ashraf is a former Pakistani foreign service officer and an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore