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The Growing Khaki Shadow in Pakistan

By Abbas Nasir

October 14, 2017

ARMIES defend the territorial integrity of nations; when called upon to do so, they help deal with internal strife and even fight wars outside the geographical confines of their country when national security imperatives so dictate.

But in this day and age, wherever elected civilian governments exist, there are not many examples of big burdens being carried by the capable shoulders of the defence forces. The reverse is true for Pakistan.

There was a time when our army was tasked exclusively with protecting our country against foreign aggression. Then Gen Ziaul Haq placed on it the additional burden of ‘safeguarding’ the nation’s ideological frontiers.

In Zia’s era, and even before him when Field Marshal Ayub Khan was at the helm, developing and fine-tuning quasi-civilian models were additional tasks the military devolved to itself in order to eventually usher in a ‘democracy’ that in Zia’s words could deliver ‘positive results’.

All through the late 1980s and nearly all of the 1990s, whenever ‘positive results’ (no matter how they were defined at a given point in time) started to dry up, the civilian government was wound up and replaced by another carefully tweaked civilian set-up.

The record of Pakistani rulers in uniform is no better; in fact, it is actually worse than that of the civilians.

However, by 1999, the civilian set-ups’ positive-results tanks had run completely dry so the whole set-up was dispensed with. The rest is history — so recent that it need not be repeated. What all of us have had to live with are the consequences of the follies of those uniformed chief executives.

Mismanagement, corruption and the entrenched non-democratic internal structure of many of the political parties today does not engender much love for them, but whenever they form a government it is always via elections and they are representative.

And, guess what? If they fail to deliver, misgovern and rule by empty slogans their fate is sealed; in the next elections, the astute voting public will throw them out. A different party will be ushered in and the sifting process will continue till someone delivers to ensure their longevity.

One hates going on like a broken record but whether it is mismanagement or corruption, the record of Pakistani rulers in uniform is no better; in fact, it is actually worse than that of the civilians, although historically military rulers have had much more space to govern than any civilian administration.

Even then, we have seen key areas such as national security policy and foreign policy being slowly but surely dominated by the security establishment and its thinking. If civilians have policy priorities, these remain mostly un-pursued.

Over the past 30 years, whenever a civilian government has come to power, signs of friction with the military have started to emerge. Historically, it is always the civilians who have had to back off and concede ground to the security establishment, regardless of whose area of responsibility the issue lies in.

The ISPR-FPCCI seminar on the economy this week in Karachi was an indication that the country’s powerful military may now be venturing into a new area to possibly influence decision-making, as the army chief shared his concerns about the economy.

While nobody would dispute the merit of the army chief’s argument about the narrow tax base in Pakistan and his advice to the government to broaden it, he should remember that the issue is such a political hot potato that even military rulers who were not answerable to any electorate failed on this count.

Lamenting the increasing footprint of the military in so many of the country’s policy areas by itself will not change the ground reality. It is equally the responsibility of civilian politicians, the elected ones in particular, to try and wrest control of policy areas for themselves.

It is obvious they can’t do it by merely wishing or hoping for it. Their conduct in office would have to be so exceptional that the military would have no choice but to head back to the barracks. But is it?

Well, the verdict is mixed even if you look at only this week’s events. On the positive side, the foreign and interior ministers on visits to the US seem to have said all the right things and robustly argued the country’s case.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s presentation at the Asia Society and US Institute of Peace seemed to have such an impact at least in Pakistan that those usually sceptical of any good coming from this government actually acknowledged the difference a fulltime foreign minister can make.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal’s address to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore was equally well received as was his tweeted comment in support of the minorities in Pakistan after PML-N MNA Capt Safdar’s tirade on the floor of the National Assembly. His outburst assumes greater significance in view of the fact that he is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law.

The latter episode was only one among a number of very negative developments reflecting rather awfully on the civilian leaders. The postponement of the indictment of Maryam Nawaz in the Panama Papers case in an accountability court in Islamabad after pandemonium in the courtroom was very alarming, blamed as it was on lawyers loyal to the PML-N.

Equally appalling was Imran Khan’s refusal to appear before the Election Commission of Pakistan; now that he has said he would defy the arrest orders for non-appearance, it is clear he is upping the ante and seems prepared to throw out the baby with the bath water.

With the conduct of the main political parties’ big guns leaving much to be desired, the influence of the elected civilian politician is likely to recede further and the military’s footprint will get bigger and bigger. One can only hope it does not get so big that we are forced to revisit past disasters.