Developing Trust: Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan

Spearhead Analysis – 14.12.2016

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

There’s a whispering going around, pretending to speak volumes of truth in describing the ongoing situation in the country – one of dented civil-military relations and a need to revive them. There are scores of reasons that seem to be contributing to this thinking about a divide: the military’s involvement in internal security challenges, differences over implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP), disagreement over the India policy, and a general historical distrust spanning over four decades.

Pakistan’s political system has been considered by many as a ‘hybrid democratic model’ with the military enjoying significant control over policies pertinent to national security, major economic issues like CPEC, along with decisions regarding foreign policy and whether or not we should trade with India. A popular opinion is that the military has the final say on crucial decisions, and it only cedes partial control to elected civilian governments. It is this perceived imbalance that has resonates repeatedly and leads to criticism of Pakistan.

There seems to be an opinion that the new Chief of Army Staff will right the balance of power. His reputation as being averse to involvement in political issues – an easy natured, but tough professional, gives hope to many seeking more autonomy in national and foreign policy decision making. However, history tells us that while individuals matter, it is the institution that comes out on top irrespective of who is in charge. The majority thinks that the military has been acting in the national interest and that the government understood this and ceded space in areas where it could not act.

Given the perception of a strain between the two institutions, it is unlikely that the perception would simply be resolved with a change in the army leadership. There is a need to understand what causes such perceptions, and what can be done to change this perception.

The growing divide

With criminal and insurgent activities mutating into new variations with each passing day, and the severity of internal security challenges increasing, civilian security agencies have often failed to respond and deal with these issues. With this failure comes the government’s dependence on the military to set things in order – increasing their role in internal security issues, and consequently in political matters: creating the perception of the civil-military gap. The army’s increased role, with rising security requirements to safeguard CPEC projects and personnel, along with a complex law and order situation in Baluchistan, has added to the government’s insecurities. Much was made of a reported difference of opinion on the powers of the military with regard to security of CPEC and the Special Security Division raised by the military. The matter was resolved in the best possible manner.

This divide is also perpetuated through the civilian leadership’s failure to implement the NAP fully. Despite the government claiming that the successes in the war against terrorism are attributable to improved civil-military relations, the military, however, has indicated that there are areas where civilian capacity needs enhancement. While the Zarb-e-Azab operation has been a success in thwarting militants and their hideouts, according to an ISPR statement, the government has lagged behind in retaining the efforts of the operation by advancing supplementary initiatives. The military has fulfilled its role under NAP—military courts, death sentences, purging armed groups and the entire Karachi operation.

Infrastructure projects are important but there is a need to reorder priorities. Major dams and energy projects are yet to materialize. There is also the problem of the nexus between politics, militant outfits, corruption and crime—this has been highlighted in the Karachi operation. There is a clamor for similar operations in other parts of the country. This is where there has to be convergence between the civil and the military.

Another view, as expressed by Cyril Almeida in a piece discussing the so called leaked details of a high profile security meeting, is one where the civilian authorities were supposed to have said that whenever they take a step against certain individuals, the security establishment is quick to demand their release – hindering civilian security agencies to deal with insurgency and provide security. The leak was, however, classified as a fabricated leak. Such deliberate orchestrated episodes do not help.

Additionally, there is a history of distrust created by military interventions leading to prolonged military rule. Politicians either joined the military governments or became collaborators. Even the judiciary played its part by legalizing interventions. This history creates its own dynamics of distrust on both sides. There is now however, a realization that the past cannot be repeated and that the civil and military institutions have to work together. It is noteworthy that this relationship, divide, state of affairs, or whatever one may refer to it as, is a self-perpetuated one. There are two reasons for this; one, that the idea that the military knows best is one that the nation, including politicians, has internalized, which pushes the politicians to cede control and let the military take over – showing that politicians too have more faith in the strength and capabilities of the military leadership, as opposed to civilian. Two, that the constant past interference by the military, and abrogation of the democratic process, is one that hinders and holds these politicians and the process back from developing and flourishing into a fully functional system. It’s a two way street, this one, paved across Pakistani history.

Once bitten, twice shy

Pakistan’s greatest struggle over the past has been to balance between a security and a development-oriented welfare state. However, marred by the incidence of military takeovers, the democratic system has long been at the mercy of top military elite, and the bureaucracy; national policies, and resource allocation, have both been steered in the direction of security, as opposed to social welfare and development. This has created an imbalance in institutional development that is being slowly corrected.

With an emphasis on its dual fears of its future in its neighborhood – one of losing the race to India, and the other losing its upper-hand on Afghanistan – Pakistan’s military has taken on a ‘protector’s role’. This has left Pakistan functioning as a ‘hybrid democratic model’ with the military being called time and again to assume its role as a protector, having the final say on crucial decisions, and only ceding partial control to elected civilian governments in security matters.. This has, in turn, dented civil-military relations, and led to the growing insecurity of civilian leadership and the increasing significance and role of the military in Pakistani politics and decision making.

While in recent years there has been a shift in the visible role that the military plays in the political decisions of the civilian government, many believe that this comes from the realization that their position is better served as staying away from direct interference in politics and furthering national interests without taking the reigns of power. It is evident that the military has input into policies pertinent to national security, major economic issues like CPEC, along with decisions regarding foreign policy. This is by no means a negative for the civil-military relationship.

Cyril Almeida’s piece on the so called high profile security meeting revealed that the government feared Pakistan’s isolation in international fora – a movement set in motion by Mr. Modi as a promise to his people, and revenge against India’s ‘meddling neighbor’. If this is the case then the civil and military leadership has to be on one page to formulate a comprehensive policy for India, Kashmir and the LOC. Hopefully this will happen and that the government will be more forthcoming publicly with its views on India especially after the India-Afghan collusion at the Heart of Asia Conference to target Pakistan. There is also a need for more joint action in the aftermath of the Zarb e Azb operation and the broad spectrum of actions needed to consolidate gains and mainstream FATA.

With the media wielding enormous power it is important that the civil and military institutions act in unison and not at cross purposes or as rival structures. The ISPR has enormous expertise and interaction with it can lead to much more effective projection of views and policies. It must be noted that a scoop hungry media would be quick to exploit differences to its own advantage. The trust that is needed between all institutions has to be created to orchestrate al the elements of national power in the service of the country and the people—it is in the people that the center of gravity in a democracy resides.

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