Servants, not masters

by Saad Hafiz

In the aftermath to the country’s independence, Mr Jinnah clearly articulated the role of the military: “Do not forget that the armed forces are the servants of the people. You do not make national policy; it is we, the civilians, who decide these issues and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted.” Other than large-size pictures of the founding father that adorn military institutions, Mr Jinnah’s unambiguous view on civil-military relations was soon buried like the rest of his legacy, to the country’s detriment.
With Mr Jinnah’s passing, the military swiftly suborned the political apparatus, becoming the driving force behind the country’s politics, ideology and destiny. It saw fit to manipulate civilian politicians, manage civilian institutions, and invest in a military economy to ensure its direct or indirect hold on the levers of power. Right from the start, external and internal matters were mixed, giving the army a key role in state building.

The birth of Bonapartist tendencies in the armed forces led to the rise of the generals, who thought that they had the wherewithal to run a diverse country. Assisted by a unified command and control apparatus, military leaders replaced dithering and corrupt politicians as the symbols of national unity and cohesion. The military could easily contrast its professional ethos, pride and esprit de corps with the chaos prevailing in society at large.

The military’s initial excuse to intervene in politics was the perceived failure of the political classes to govern effectively. The military leadership cultivated a strong dislike and contempt for civilians, which permeated down to the lower ranks. General officers developed inordinate ambition and a special affinity for politics. Having tasted power, it was ironic how quickly the Pakistani post-colonial military shed its detached, apolitical British roots. Mr Churchill on politics in the armed forces: “I do not approve of this system of encouraging political discussion in the army among soldiers as such…Discussions in which no controversy is desired are a farce. There cannot be controversy without prejudice to discipline. The only sound principle is ‘No politics in the army.”

Time and again, the military leadership failed the nation militarily. It either underestimated the adversary’s military capability, or overestimated its own. While the lower ranks and younger officers showed remarkable courage, generalship was not of the highest calibre and was marked by indecision and timidity. They were several instances of senior officers being promoted on the basis of personal loyalty rather than competence and professionalism. More than anything else, it was military chauvinism that compounded folly in the dangerous denial of democratic urges that led to the dismemberment of the country in 1971. A centralised decision-making process without any debate or input or civilian oversight allowed the military high command to make basically political decisions without any basis in reality.

Mistrust and fear continues to influence Pakistan’s civil-military relationship today. The military is not satisfied that its interests will be protected if it permanently withdraws from politics. As a result, it has carefully crafted and refined its role and behaviour as the most powerful institution in a weak state. It retains the ability to veto any policy against its interests and zealously guards the institution against civilian encroachment or oversight. The military strives to convince any and all that the country’s stability and survival is dependent on a well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led army. Its institutional belief is that it has the right to participate in politics as it is the custodian of the state. It persistently highlights the domestic and external threats to the country. A dangerous consequence of the excessive emphasis, expansion and modernisation of the armed forces has been the militarisation of society.

The other effect of military supremacy is that most politicians, instead of serving the cause of democracy, have chosen to get favours from the military elite. Military regimes in Pakistan have been supported by some political parties and anti-democratic forces in society. The unequal civil-military balance has rendered the political process inherently unstable and political leaders have limited policy choices. This has allowed the military to exercise excessive clout even when not in power. For instance, if the civilian government tries to reduce the defence budget, it has to face the consequences of the military elite’s displeasure on having military perks and privileges disturbed.

Pakistan has made cosmetic progress in improving the civil-military balance in the last few years. Dictatorship is out. Democracy is in. However, the ultimate goal of making the military totally subservient to the elected civilian government seems far out of reach. The military’s coercive and predatory command and control apparatus remains intact. It remains a formidable and autonomous political actor capable of influencing the nature and direction of political change. Moreover, it continues to play both a direct and indirect role in national policy making. All the while, the public disenchantment with politics and the political process lurks in the shadows. Thus it seems that the masters will remain masters, at least for the foreseeable future.

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