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What the Army Thinks

by Ejaz Haider
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A. Majeed—AFP

Pakistan’s civil-military divide as viewed through the mind of a military officer

Since the publication of my piece Tweeting Differences, I have been engaged by several officers ranging from majors to lieutenant generals. Some I shared the article with, others read and responded.

Full disclosure: I know most of them personally to varying degrees. Four of them are former 3-stars and held important command and staff appointments. All, regardless of rank, are thinking officers and reject the notion that Army should run the country.

None asked me to put forward the Army’s viewpoint. My exchanges with them were private. But I consider it fair and proper, analytically and for reasons of journalistic probity, that I present their views and assess them, without attribution.

What I write here will be a synopsis of the common strands that run through the views of different officers.

There’s a reason for this exercise. The civil-military disequilibrium, or call it disconnect, is one of the most dangerous weaknesses of our polity. As a Pakistani who believes in strong, efficient and harmonious institutions, I consider it my—indeed our collective—responsibility to do whatever one (we) can to bridge this gap.

From my point of view, three things are clear: One, the state is the overhang under which everyone must operate, whether in mufti or in khaki. Two, unlike some who think the military must be weakened, I believe that we need a strong military that is subordinate to civilian governments and in harmony with other elements of national power. Three, democracy, which gives to the citizens their right to be the principal authority, is not just about form but substance.

The paradox and the challenge of civil-military relations and civilian supremacy has been best summed up by Peter D. Feaver: “…to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask them to do with a military subordinate enough to do only what the civilians authorize them to do.”

Now to the synopsis:

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While the prime minister has constitutional privileges, it is not his privilege to deliberately malign a state institution, i.e., the Army. The Dawn story was purposely leaked to give the impression that Pakistan Army is a rogue organization.

Shuja Nawaz recorded Nawaz Sharif’s style of governance in his book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within. Sharif continues on the same path, undermining institutions and rewarding personal loyalties instead of acting like the Chief Executive. His family and some close confidants have an undeclared but consistent policy of (a) driving a wedge between the people and the Army, (b) creating splits within the Army, and (c) giving an impression to the rest of the world that the problem is the Army and it needs to be sorted out.

The Sharifs’ style of governance is evidenced by the Panama leaks and the Supreme Court verdict in the case based on those documents. Not even the majority judgment believes that his story hangs. Sharif has lost the moral right to govern. The Army has stayed out of multiple crises since 2008 and tried to reconcile political differences among warring political factions at their request, even as many called upon it to intervene and clean up the mess. The Army believes, firmly, that the country should be run by the elected representatives but it also expects that those representatives will govern properly, not undermine state institutions or the national interest. This, the officers insist, is also the view of the average citizen.

On India, the officers’ viewpoint is again interesting. They believe that it is important to normalize relations but ask, not without reason, about the terms of such a dialogue or normalization. They also question the wisdom of the P.M.’s secret huddles with Indian tycoon Sajjan Jindal, whose adverse comments about the Pakistan Army are on record. They question the wisdom of a policy that bypasses an institutional approach to engagement with India at a time when Occupied Kashmir is burning. A few also point to the prime minister’s family’s alleged business links to Jindal, and the latter’s interest in transporting ore from Afghanistan to India via Pakistan.

Finally, as many pointed out, General Qamar Bajwa is a straight soldier with a clear understanding of the many challenges Pakistan faces. If Sharif cannot even coordinate with him, then his problem with the Army runs too deep.

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The above synopsis offers insights into what the officer cadre, serving and retired, thinks about Sharif and his approach to governance. Even if, for the sake of the argument, we say this is more perception than reality, then, too, it should be clear that the chasm runs deep. Also clear from this should be the fact that with differences so deep, to expect policy coordination on the challenges that stare us in the face would require optimism at its most optimistic.

One can present arguments detailing the civilian enclave’s frustration with the Army’s hold on certain core foreign policy issues and that would be fair commentary. But equally, on many issues, we have seen the civilians either abdicate and genuflect or create unnecessary friction, as happened in the case of the Dawn story.

This is not a tenable situation unless addressed immediately. The prime minister should call a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security and discuss these impressions, perceptions and differences with the military high command. If it is accepted that both sides want the best for Pakistan, then reaching out should not be difficult. In fact, that to me offers the best solution to discussing matters threadbare. It’s a no-brainer that if the intentions of a Chief Executive are doubted to this extent then we are looking at confrontation at worst and policy stalemate at best.

Also, both sides, but especially the Army, should avoid falling in the trap of ‘forwarded as received’ WhatsApp messages. The business of state cannot be conducted through fora that are being used more for ‘alt-facts’ than facts as we traditionally know and define them.

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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2 comments

Sajjad Haider May 1, 2017 - 9:00 pm

glad that someone is making sense of the issue and trying to find a rationale way forward. Would it suffice to say, the ball is in the chief executives court to martial his entire team as suggested and work together.

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Srinath May 2, 2017 - 10:43 am

The oft-repeated argument of ‘pro-active’ generals (always more active on the small screen) is that the Army serves as sentinel of not just the geographical boundary but also the ideological boundary . ‘Doctrine of necessity’ and geo-political neighbourhood are used to buttress this argument. But if democracy is more about essence than form, should it not be the people (electorate) and not Army who should be sitting in judgement about the Prime Minister’s style of functioning?

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