Let’s Talk Civil-Military, NOW!

By Marvi Sirmed

Atiqa Odho needs to change her name. Not only her name but also the prefix if she wants to avoid further humiliation that she possibly could not and would not want, just because she is a woman and does not bear the right prefix before her name. Brigadier Zafar Iqbal had both — the right name and the right prefix.

The good brigadier embarked on a PIA flight from Karachi to Lahore on Saturday night, intoxicated with the ‘sherbet’. The captain of the plane handed him over to the Airport Security Force (ASF) after the brigadier publicly harassed one of the female crew members. The ASF, obviously, could not hold him for more than a few minutes when they discovered the full name of the detainee. No wonder the news item merited just a few lines in Sunday newspapers. I am still waiting for the ‘suo motu’ and media-panic that we saw in Atiqa Odho’s case. Pertinent to remind here, Ms Odho was neither drunk nor did she harass anyone on the flight.

This points to two serious maladies of this society: one, a strong gender bias that women of this country have to endure everywhere, including the courts; and two, unjust and unfair partiality that society confers on the military. It is not only about an overly powerful military but also about an extremely weak civil society. It would be naïve to believe that civil society in Pakistan is powerful enough to foil any attempt to usurp power from the civilian entities. This is mainly because the military here never departed from power. Irrespective of who occupied the buildings of the Prime Minister Secretariat and the Presidency, the military always ruled in the country through its incontrovertible influence over political decision-making and social phenomena.

The way things happen in the court, and outside of it, memo scandal is a case in point. In the memo scandal, Husain Haqqani was treated as an accused by the media and society at large because the military thought so. Everything else had to be in sync with what the military wanted or at least, was perceived to be wanting. The same ‘evidence’ (the BBM conversations claimed by Mansoor Ijaz that took place between him and Husain Haqqani) implicated the head of the ISI who was accused in the same BBM conversations to have spoken to the leaders of some Arab states and gotten their consent to sack the present government. But no one from the media, politicians (even the ones who portray themselves as most committed to civilian supremacy) and the judiciary could ever point a finger towards General Pasha, the accused. Husain Haqqani was an easy target because he was not a general. Or even a brigadier.

Later, the chief of army staff and the head of ISI submitted their affidavits in clear departure of the government’s point of view — the same government that both of them are accountable to. The prime minister was openly criticised by everyone for calling this action of the two generals as unconstitutional. So much so that the media wing of the Pakistan Army, the ISPR, attacked the prime minister — their boss — by issuing a strongly worded statement warning the government of grave consequences and serious ramifications. So there were two statements, one by the chief executive of a country castigating his subordinate generals for unconstitutional actions, and the other from the subordinate generals threatening their boss with grave consequences. Guess who had to retract the statement? You got it right, it was the boss. The Islamic Republic is unique in its construction.

What can be more worrying for a people whose representative is humiliated by an agency that should be subordinate to the people. The agency, it is more perturbing, does so with popular consent. The absence of popular outrage amounts to consent if one could decrypt public reactions. We can go on endlessly criticising hungry-for-power generals, selfish politicians, corporate media and an ambitious judiciary, but what remains a fact is Pakistani society’s utter failure — rather refusal — to grow from a Praetorian state to even a half decent egalitarian democracy.

Samuel Huntington in his seminary work on civil-military relations identifies Praetorianism as a key factor in the relationship between a weak civil society and a strong military. In a Praetorian society, the institutions remain weak, giving way to social groups to act independently in order to achieve their political goals. In such situations, any institution having control over the instruments of force, wields power. In Pakistan, the army is the prime institution that acquires power — military and political — through such control. The terrorist organisations, religious parties and their sectarian brethren are only second to the military in being allowed to exercise control over the instruments of force. This open allowance is possible when political institutions are at their lowest strength.

Those responsible for building and fostering political institutions, thus, are either eliminated by the powerful institutions or get co-opted by them. In Pakistan, this phenomenon has resulted in an ultimate breakdown of political institutions. This civilian breakdown has been largely used by the powerful and institutionalised military on the pretext of ‘filling the vacuum’. Little does our ‘concerned’ army realise that attempting to fill the vacuum with even more mediocrity would not only impair civilian capability but also the military’s own professionalism. What the military relies on while attempting the country’s governance is its institutional strength. This strength comes from, to borrow from Huntington again, the military leadership’s generational character that enables its adaptability, the organisational complexity achieved through its hierarchical structure, its de facto autonomy and the coherence among its various sub-systems. This largely mechanical superiority that the military enjoys over a fragmented and disunited civilian society keeps the military under the impression that it can replace a political agency, or at least keep the civilian political organisation under its strong influence for making things work.

This has miserably failed not only in political governance but also in keeping up the military’s own professionalism. A professional soldier should hardly have an inclination of retorting against the authority he works under, with threats of grave consequences. When the prime minister of a country has to retract his statement and try to placate his own subordinates, this is a most telling situation not only about the chief executive, but also about the subordinate. That the military has little capacity to govern the country and has eroded its own professionalism are facts only to be disputed by someone naïve, going by the events of the last 10 years. If there was a time for civil society to start a meaningful dialogue with the military, it is now.

In such a backdrop, any attempt at starting a civil-military dialogue should be welcome, provided the dialogue is happening with the right people. The retired military officers who spent 35 years in planning wars and strategising military takeovers of the country cannot become ambassadors of peace and civilian supremacy overnight nor could they be taken as ‘interlocutors’ of such a dialogue. If a dialogue is to be, let it be among the people who represent alternative voices in civil society with a strong commitment to civilian supremacy, and those who call the shots in the power structure of the armed forces. A dialogue between a deer and a lion is no dialogue.

Courtesy: Marvi Sirmed » Bhaghi

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