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Military Primacy 2.0

by Ejaz Haider
Ishara S. Kodikara—AFP

Ishara S. Kodikara—AFP

The state remains beholden to the Army despite two successive civilian governments.

There is nothing surprising about how the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is trying to wiggle out of the difficult situation created for it by its co-chairman and former president of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari. There are reasons for it.

Back in 1997, I had the opportunity to work closely with Prof. Stephen P. Cohen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cohen was updating his famous book on the Pakistan Army. One of the questions we often discussed was whether the Army could make another coup if circumstances pushed it to that end.

Cohen was of the view that international trends and the wave of democracy had made it difficult for praetorian armies to oust civilian governments easily and while he did not discount such a possibility entirely, it was becoming increasingly improbable. My own assessment, relying less on academic theories and more on my gut—having known the Army since my childhood—was that if the Army were convinced that not doing so will lead to chaos, it wouldn’t care about the international environment.

On Oct. 12, 1999, I was in Chiang Mai when I heard about the coup. I was reminded of those conversations with Prof. Cohen.

The theoretical possibility had become a reality.

Fast forward to March 9, 2007. When the then chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry was put on a presidential reference and Pakistan saw a movement against general-president Pervez Musharraf, there was much enthusiasm among lawyers and civil society. The refrain seemed to be that getting rid of Musharraf and establishing the writ of the judiciary will somehow also right the civil-military imbalance.

The second phase of the movement, after Chaudhry was reinstated and, as some then said, vindicated, was perched precariously—and mistakenly—on this belief. The wish had trumped the reality and leaders of the movement began to practice magic.

I started a debate in the Daily Times, then a lively newspaper. One of my articles, captioned, Transitionists Versus Transformationists, earned me the ire of the starry-eyed believers in the magic that would, somehow, in a single leap, overcome the structural issues that lie at the heart of the civil-military problem in Pakistan. I predicted that if Musharraf were pushed beyond a certain point, the Army would kick the chessboard aside and start playing Solitaire.

We saw that on Nov. 3, 2007 with Musharraf’s Emergency-Plus. The believers in magic were greatly disappointed.

Transformations require multiple smaller transitions for them to become effective. Also, the literature on democratic transitions—even as it deals with states that are geographically, politically, and historically different—is agreed on the fact that the onus of responsibility for consolidating democracy is on the civilian actors, not the military, which will, expectedly, do whatever it can to retain its primacy.

Put another way, the decline in the military’s primacy cannot be advantaged by the civilians unless there is also a visible incline in the latter’s capacity to govern effectively. But there is more. As I wrote elsewhere, it is important to remember the differences between civilian states (where the military is totally subordinate), civilian-led states (where the military is subordinate but remains seated at the high table—for example, the French Fifth Republic, Russia, constitutional-democratic India, and market-socialist China) and military or quasi-military states in which the military is openly involved in the political process, has the capacity to direct state policy or veto such policies as it does not wish to see implemented, and enjoys sufficient popular support to threaten the legitimacy of civilian actors.

Secondly, the acceptance of the norm of civilian supremacy over the military and its reiteration notwithstanding, it is not very old. It has evolved with the coming into existence of professional and standing militaries. It wasn’t until 1957 that Samuel Huntington laid the foundations of a theoretical framework for civil-military relations with his book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations.

The effective control of the military by civilians has depended largely on how states perceive their security environment and whether the civilians understand the security sector. This is an important factor. Beginning in the early 1990s, scholars of civil-military relations coined the term “second generation problem”, referring to states where there was no overt threat of a military takeover but where the civilians still lacked the capacity to understand the security sector and, therefore, relied on military officers to guide them. In other words, while civilians retain de jure control, the security sector policies, de facto, are formulated and implemented by the military.

Thirdly, quite often dictatorial or one-party regimes have exercised more effective control over the military than many democracies. This point needs to be stressed because the norm seems to demand effective a priori control of the military in a democracy. There is evidence to suggest, however, that effective civilian control does not automatically flow from democracy.

Today, as we survey the scene since 2008, it is obvious that the desirable goal of effective civilian control remains as elusive as it was in 2007. Two successive civilian governments have failed to exercise it for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Equally, the military has become much smarter in retaining its position at the head of the high table. I’d call it the transition from the physical use of the 111 Brigade to the control of electronic and virtual spaces. Of course, the physical threat is there. It remains potent. But its effectiveness is not in its use but in the threat of its use.

It is now a game of perceptions and image. The Army has proved itself much smarter in playing it than the civilian governments and the political parties. [NB: notice the way the Corps Commander in Karachi addresses the intelligentsia and the business community and Rangers go about setting up medical centers to deal with effects of heatstroke, just two of many examples of work that would be done by the civilian governments if they could get their act together.]

At the same time, the military, through its public relations directorate, keeps pushing the envelope. For the most part, what it does goes unchallenged. The pusillanimity of the political actors is on public display. In an environment where political actors have thrown in the towel, the military does not need to resort to use of force. The latent threat is sufficient and the political actors have nothing in their kitty in terms of innovative thinking or action to mount any challenge. On top of that, by taking the initiative and addressing peoples’ concerns, the military makes the civilians look ever more inefficient.

This, then, is the scenario in which we have to both see the statement by former president Asif Ali Zardari as well as understand the haste with which the PPP has distanced itself from what it actually meant, choosing instead to put a we-stand-behind-our-armed-forces face on it.

Notice also the fact that the ruling PMLN refused to stand with Zardari. Of course, that has partly to do with the pathetic record of the PPP, a party that has shown zero interest in governance. Mostly this has to do with not rubbing the military the wrong way.

In short, with the socio-political evolution on the civilian side, the military has adapted and evolved its strategy. It makes no sense to get into the driver’s seat when it can safeguard its core interests without doing so. It has gotten out of the rough patch in which Musharraf had landed it and is now once again center-stage. And its greatest advantage is that if things go wrong, it can get to blame the civilians.

The English language has a term for it: win-win!

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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Jameel ur Rasheed June 23, 2015 - 11:00 pm

The article incompletely captures the gist of situation in Pakistan. Army is the strongest of all the arms of Pakistan, but it is not strong because it has all the right polices and procedures in place. It is strong because, even their flop policies had been applied so consistently that no one can mess into their system. And more importantly, they have guns and are ruthless enough to shot civilian leadership in case required. On the other hand, the civilian government, no matter how smart can’t govern. There are areas where you can’t just do business. For instance the biggest problem of today is load shedding which comes from the a mammoth circular debt. Now if you analyse the circular debt, the biggest of defaulters include the most strongest department of Pakistan i.e. Army. You can’t take out money from them and you can’t just cut the power lines going to GHQ. Further, Pakistan, although being a democratic state, is not at liberty to choose friends and foes. Army dictates the total foreign policy. Irony is, all the foreign policy failures are the associated with civilian setups.

Army isn’t smart and people have started questioning their moves and motives. War on terror had been on for more than ten years, and its the last one year military realized that enough double crossing the both sides lets fight and killed militants which tops the number of militant causalities in Afghanistan in NATO/ISAF led operations.

People are further analyzing the trends of sudden spikes in heat on LOC which coincides completely with the timings when there is a civil-military rift. There was no cross border skirmishes during 2003-2008, while as soon as the military dictator stepped down, incursions started on LOC. These are verifiable facts.

Army can play smart, but wont be able to do so. Five years or so, people will push them back for being total idiots.

Ozair Mehmood June 28, 2015 - 11:59 am

You living in fools paradise. In country like Pakistan common cannot push them back, reason being you can say we are ‘security centric. LOC environment is always spoiled by India, it has nothing to do with civil military rift of Pakistan. Moodi’s Govt has very aggressive posture since very beginning. Bro just look at body language and moves of Gen Raheel and then compare it with that of our political leadership,you ll get your answer.

Patriot June 25, 2015 - 12:29 am

Some how as we observe that those who are not capacitated physically or mentally are good at criticism. From where has this venom come from is a separate debate but as the situation unfolds it’s quite evident that the top brass of military has come a long way to learn through there own mistakes and now it surely appears that they have the wherewithal to structure and shape the future of the country in good faith and for the better. Those who criticise be asked that if military today steps back who will come for there rescue and I can very confidently add on to your knowledge through reliable sources that GHQ pays electric bills with lot of punctuality and a department oversees this aspect… those who think otherwise live in total oblivion. It was just a word to clarify. I have failed to understand that people who have never fired a single shot in anger can come up bull dozing the efforts and sacrifices of those who are laying their precious lifes for this sacred soil. Army has the intellengencia and capacity to deliver whether some one excepts it or not and present situation prevalent in the country demands a bid more patriotic attitude and this blame game must be brushes aside. The myopic and tunnel vision of a few is not the out come of aggression, regression, fixation but a complete resignation.

Jameel ur Rasheed June 25, 2015 - 12:14 pm

IESCO and LESCO maintains a list of defaulters on their website. While you can say with surety that GHQ, Army Messes, ISI HQ and other military establishments pay their bills, the list of defaulters says otherwise. You are at liberty to verify what I just said. As I said, these are verifiable facts.

Anser Khalil June 25, 2015 - 12:51 pm

Don’t mislead readers as Army isn’t biggest defaulter rather it’s the only institution which pays most of its electricity bills, civilians are the biggest defaulters now see your list yourself and hopefully you can do some maths to verify this too, besides that what civil government or democratic government has done in last 10 years? All the development in Pakistan, you like it or not, was during rules of so called “Dictators”. Best economic period was 1960-65 and during next five year plan a civilian Z.A.Bhutto steps in and ruins the pace, so on and so forth. Read the stats first before maligning Army or should I say it’s the rejection from ISSB speaking through?

Jameel ur Rasheed June 25, 2015 - 1:27 pm

I know the stats, atleast more than you. I am not maligning army or anything. Just pointing out the facts. Whatever civil-military setup we have in Pakistan is not the best one or else it would have been in practice in every country. Anyway, my comments were directly in line with editorial above and I don’t intend to get in a argument with you. My arguments are evidence backed and that was point. Army and its messes, in totality, owns Rs 6.5 billion to power generation companies which is biggest one of the largest payable to in circular debt. End of discussion.

Jameel ur Rasheed June 28, 2015 - 4:48 pm

Well I call it purely a matter of perspective. I have severe reservations on the operation Zarb e Azb as well. First things first, Musharaf is a criminal and if any retired or current army officials are protecting him or hampering his trial, they are not sincere to state. That is my reply to your body language of raheel shareef. At the end, if he is harboring a fugitive he is a con. As on Zarb e Azb of you follow the turn of events things,get pretty clear. SC allows Musharraf to move outside the country, he flies to Karachi, but interior ministry had a change of mind and they put his name on ECL thus barring him to leave. Very next day, Zarb e Azb kicks off and DG ISPR gives a press release. Now you are free to think whatever the way you want but to me it was army’s way of pressurizing civilian government. My point being, our country / army and establishment has tried almost each and everything to run the government, why not for once lets put a civilian leader on the top of your armed forces? And why not that civilian leader be your publically elected legislator? I am not talking about utopia, this model of governance runs through the world and is successful.

Assad July 13, 2015 - 4:43 am


While you can state “I am not maligning Army”, the fact is that your posts are exactly that. When challenged on your claims of Army associated departments not paying their utility bills, your response is “I know more than you” which hardly stands for the basis of a sound scholarly debate here. Please post the facts that show Army as the biggest defaulter as you state and then the debate can go on from there.

Similarly, your claim “Musharraf is a criminal” is another one of those elusive “throw and see if it’ll stick” type of an accusation. What is this man’s crime? All of his actions were provided legal cover and then indemnified by the highest judicial body of the land so factually speaking, Musharraf has nothing that will stick to him. You can try the “moral” route but on this count, the ones sitting in judgement have dubious morals themselves.

Lastly, to your point about letting a civilian leader run the military and all else, well the way to do that is to ensure that you have a nationalist agenda and you take the military on board. Our civilian leadership has to learn to think slightly bigger than their own parties and beyond personal gains. You have to reckon that military is not an individual, its an institution so you need to build credibility in your own institution i.e. the parliament. The parliament should show that its really interested in the concerns of the common man. The last thing on the minds of our parliamentarians is the concern for the common man. They are thinking “I spend X million getting in here, now how do I recoup that and multiply it by 3x before I am done with my term.” The people of Pakistan give our institutions plenty of opportunity to fill the vacuum in their miserable lives. Yet we see time and again that inaction and callousness on the part of the civilian leaders leads to the military stepping in (a recent case in point is the dismal behavior of the Sind government during the heat wave).

So lets not point all the fingers in the direction of the Army.

Jameel ur Rasheed July 13, 2015 - 12:01 pm

How hard it is to just visit the websites of IESCO and LESCO and read the names of defaulters?? Obviously I don’t have access to the bills provided to GHQ and other army associated offices to prove my point. As far Musharaf is concerned, you won’t feel the heat of his mal-actions unless you are a settler resident of Balochistan. Marri and Bugti tribes are arch rivals and kill each other, not they both kill settlers in the name of Akbar Bugti. I can reason with you on everything, from Musharaf era finances to operations. Musharaf coup was unconstitutional and whatever happened in his rein was unconstitutional. End of discussion.

Sultan Ahmed August 26, 2015 - 6:41 pm

What I read in the “Book of Authority” is that authority corrupts and corrupts unto blindness. Not only financial/monetary corruption…..morally and principally as well. A corrupt body……..eating in the name of so called patriotism, Jihad, country,religion etc. is mostly the very first to sell out their souls.
The present setup of various establishments has evolved into groups/unions of powerful Badmashes (in Urdu),mafias. Devoid of the sufferings of the masses. Bent on Badmashi over the weak and poor. And shamelessly meek before the powerful.The so called law/constitution serve as their maid servant.
In Karachi those Badmashes feel all free to act as they wish. Carrying out Mohajir hunting daily. An exercise in brutality, killings, extortion, torture of the locals under one pretext or another (mostly as ghaddar and traitor) is being carried out. Karachi looks like an occupied territory these days. Champions of Patriotism cannot not bear a single Mohajir-face among themselves or in their institutions. I am unable to see a single Mohajir face among them. Mohajir-hatred has turned their hearts minds and even faces black ( and distorted.)


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