Our Farce Of Civilian Supremacy

Our Farce Of Civilian Supremacy
In June 2010, US President Barack Obama fired his commander of multinational forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, for insubordination. The general had made a disparaging comment about the President which was quoted in a media report. This and countless other examples from around the world could be quoted to bring home the point that civilian supremacy and the apolitical nature of a military top brass are absolute essentials for a democracy. In March 2022, the then Prime Minister Imran Khan said that a foreign power — he didn’t name the United States but it was obvious that he was accusing Washington — threatened him with consequences for visiting Moscow. He also accused the foreign power of conspiring to dislodge him through a no-confidence motion.

Then, on 01 April 2022, the country's army chief delivered a speech at a security forum in Islamabad and dubbed the United States as a long-standing strategic partner. As noted by commentators, General Bajwa’s comments were clearly the rejection of the Prime Minister’s allegations against Washington. Ironically nobody in the media or political circles — not even the prime minister himself — took notice of this divergent position. In fact, in the post-ouster situation, Imran Khan's diatribes against the army top brass don’t in any way relate to the principle of civilian supremacy. On the other hand, he is actually complaining against the army top brass for not intervening—in his favour—in the political crisis that led to his ouster. “After I came to know about this conspiracy, I sent my finance minister to the people who call themselves ‘neutral’ [a code word for the Army top brass] that our weak economic recovery will go down the drain if this conspiracy to dislodge me is not prevented.” This means that Imran Khan didn’t see General Bajwa’s public comments as violating his political position.

It was a curious situation that a prime minister accused a foreign power of conspiring to dislodge him, while the chief of the army staff declared that foreign power as a “strategic partner.” But Imran Khan didn’t seem to bother about General Bajwa’s speech or its content. He was only interested in forcing General Bajwa to use the immense political and coercive power at his disposal to defeat the no-confidence motion against him. He was not interested in eradicating the dysfunctionality of Pakistan’s political system. He was only interested in seeing the general intervene on his behalf – and in the process making the political system more dysfunctional.

Only a few days back, the military spokesman said in a statement that Pakistan’s law prohibits the Pakistani military from interfering in politics. The military spokesman’s latest statement seems only to relate to the ongoing political crisis, wherein Imran Khan expressed his dejection over the army's failure to protect his government, while the army spokesman is taking the position that they could not have intervened on account of a legal prohibition on the army not to play politics or interfere in political matters.

Imran Khan’s unclear wish came out of his experience with the military in the post-2104 “soft intervention” where Pakistani intelligence services allegedly actively worked behind the scene to remove Nawaz Sharif from power. He knows the immense political and coercive power at the disposal of army top brass and how effective they have used it in the past. He wanted the army's repeat performance on this.

On the other hand, the military spokesman has reduced the apolitical nature of the army to a dreary legal concept, devoid of any political purpose that this organic political concept is supposed to serve. The army's apolitical nature is not meant to serve any ritualistic and abstract objective. It is grounded and based on the expectation that the country should have a vibrant strategic culture, in sync with the political, security and strategic interests of the society and state, as defined by a fully representative political elite.

Pakistan’s strategic and foreign policy culture has never been representative of the political impulses of the society. The military has ruled directly for more than 30 years, and in the post-Musharraf period, virtually controlled the foreign policy. Decision-making in the realm of security, both internal and external, has resided completely with the GHQ, and in the process, the prioritisation of the military’s institutional interests took place. Part of the problem is that the civilian elite is both incapable and uninterested in asserting themselves on strategic issues. The political elite is happy to restrict themselves to partially controlling non-strategic ministries and issues and ceding completely the decision-making process on strategic issues to the military. They don’t seem to bother if the military or its top brass impinge on their jurisdiction on strategic or foreign policy issues. The prime and latest example is how Imran Khan completely ignored General Bajwa’s speech, in which he dubbed Washington a strategic partner within days of Imran Khan accusing the United States of conspiring against his government.

Nawaz Sharif is no less non-serious: he aggressively criticised army generals in his online speeches from London. But didn’t say a word on foreign policy.

In 2009, the PPP-led government through its cabinet vested the power to negotiate and use force against terrorist organisations and militants to the then COAS. The power still resides in the army chief’s office. With the active permission of successive governments, the successive COAS acted as a diplomat-in-chief of the country. The end result is a myopic foreign-policymaking process. It is for these reasons that the political system is dysfunctional and non-representative.

Civilian supremacy and the apolitical nature of the army have turned into a farce now – the kind that does not even induce laughter. This dysfunctionality is not only corroding the political system and pushing it over the brink, but it is also leading the security institutions towards over-politicisation, from which they are finding hard to recover.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.