Historically, Pakistan has always perceived an overwhelming military threat from a much larger and stronger neighbor, India, that has ensured the military's dominance over power structures in our society. Of late, we have also started to develop a major threat perception from internal sources of instability that have all but guaranteed a key role for the military in the management of internal security affairs, which has thus further consolidated the military leadership’s hold on power structures and decision-making processes.
"... our political system and decision-making bodies are dominated by the military and its leadership."
In the immediate post-Musharraf period, the PPP government conceded the decision-making role in the management of internal security threats to the Chief of the Army Staff. This resulted in the COAS taking decisions on critical aspects, such as the choice of whether to deploy force against militant groups or hold negotiations with them. The governments that followed the PPP in the last 14 years have not really changed this arrangement.
Ironically, the civilian government and its institutions have been rendered completely irrelevant in the face of the internal security threats emerging from militant groups both in the erstwhile tribal areas as well as in the plains of Punjab. Civilian institutions lacked the capacity to deal with the threat and in the post 9/11 period - the period when Pakistan entered the War on Terror – significant resources were spent on building the capacity of the military, militarized intelligence agencies and other paramilitary forces to prepare them for the role of counter-militancy and counter-terrorism. The police, which fell under civilian command, has hardly received any funds for capacity building during this period. Consequently, our political system and decision-making bodies are dominated by the military and its leadership.
In the post-Musharraf period, both internal and external players on the political chess board clearly extended political legitimacy to the military and its leaders, thus paving the way for an oversized role for the military in the country’s centers of power. Army chiefs in the post-Musharraf period inherited the role of chief diplomat that had been assumed by the military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, during the nine years of his rule. Connections with the Bush White House made General Musharraf an international celebrity and a much sought after ruler in the Muslim World. We have had at least one Army chief in the post-Musharraf period who has been described as a White House favorite by the American media. Arab Sheikhdoms trusted the military leaders of Pakistan more than civilians in Islamabad.
This was demonstrated perfectly perhaps when both Saudi Arabia and UAE announced bailout packages for Pakistan after the COAS, General Asim Munir visited Riyadh and Dubai earlier this month. The way foreign partners bolstered the military leadership’s legitimacy is coupled by moves by internal political players to accept the military leaders as mediators in their conflicts with political rivals.
The media and the massive propaganda machinery of the military combined will continue to project the military as a key player in society.
When Imran Khan campaigned against the Nawaz Sharif led government between 2014 and 2017, he repeatedly met the then Army chiefs, both secretly and openly. He sought help from the Army chiefs publicly. To this day, Imran Khan does not hesitate in telling the local media that he expected the current COAS to ensure “free and fair elections in the country.” This is ironic because as a matter of fact, the Army Chief, under Pakistan’s constitutional arrangement, has absolutely no role in the conduct of elections. However, as the demand is coming from one of the most popular leaders in the country, it inadvertently perhaps, ends up extending internal legitimacy to the military and its leaders.
Pakistan’s media also plays a crucial role in projecting the military as a key player on the political chessboard. Cryptic media commentaries, analyses and loaded questions help raise the military's profile as the final arbiter in political conflicts and public controversies.
Consider this: a few days ago, the corps commander of Quetta spoke to some officials in Punjab for ensuring the supply of wheat to Baluchistan province. This was projected in the media with great pomp and show as if the military and its leaders are the only institution with any real power in our society and that they alone care for the wellbeing of the downtrodden. This culture of projecting the military as a key player in public life in our society is not going to change any time soon. The media and the massive propaganda machinery of the military combined will continue to project the military as a key player in society. Whether we like it or not, this illusory significance has clear political implications. The military’s reputational capital is used to legitimize the military leaders’ role as the final arbiter in political conflicts and controversies.
"... whichever group emerges as the loser in the power game will keep on blaming the military for the ills of the political system."
In more recent events, the military has announced that it seeks to remain apolitical and neutral in the political arena—it will not take part in politics. The reasons why the military cannot remain apolitical for long are that the military cannot stop dominating the decision-making process about internal security situations, it cannot withdraw from its diplomatic role and it cannot reduce its public profile in the media and in society. Ironically, the military plays these roles with the consent of the major political parties, whose leaders, on more than one occasion, have admitted the beneficial role of military leaders in these areas of governance. Surprisingly, the military's decision to remain neutral in the ongoing political conflict will only further consolidate its position in the political system. It will continue to dominate decision-making bodies on internal security matters, it will continue to play a decisive role in diplomacy and act as a high-profile arbiter in political conflicts, if its leadership succeeds in mitigating the controversies surrounding the institution of the military that have tarnished its image of late.
However, in the prevailing political situation, there is every likelihood that the military and its roles will only be acceptable to the political group that gets to form the government. All the indications suggest that whichever group emerges as the loser in the power game will keep on blaming the military for the ills of the political system.
The military’s own failings and excesses will continue to hurt the institution’s reputation. In such a situation, it will be very difficult for the military and its leaders not to have any favorites in the political arena. For any institution which is playing such an overarching role in the society, it is next to impossible to remain aloof from the official political contest. Whoever will make it to the power corridors will have a decisive influence on the future roles of the military in a number of key areas of governance.
To expect that the military will not pick sides in the ongoing (and upcoming) political contest would be the height of naivety. My assertion is that it will not be realistic to expect the military to become apolitical. However, remaining neutral in the political arena is essential for the military, from the perspective of national security and integrity. The very rationale of the existence of a military force in the society is to protect every citizen that resides within the territory of the state. Political groups and parties are collectives of citizens, and fighting any collective of citizens - especially if it's unarmed and peaceful - amounts to negating the very rationale of the military's existence.