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