The Great Rethink: A Discussion On Redefining The Military's Role

The Great Rethink: A Discussion On Redefining The Military's Role
In a historic press briefing last week, DG ISPR categorically stated that unlike the past, the military remains ‘apolitical’ now and would refrain from involvement in partisan politics going forward. The remarks came at the heels of unprecedented criticism of the military’s interference in politics from all political quarters during the last few years. With PTI joining the fray, there hardy exists any sizable political party that does not have grievances with the military's role in politics. This is therefore a critical time for the institution to dispassionately reflect, reassess and redefine the role it sees for itself in the political landscape of the country.

Beyond the social media trends and proliferation of slogans against the military, there are a number of structural trends that warrant serious reconsideration of institutional power equation. This essay is an attempt to lay out the political field as things stand today and analyse emerging constraints and expected challenges that are shaping the institution’s approach, hopefully leading to a new phase of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

The genesis

The military’s expanded role in the country’s politics has roots in the colonial raj where an alien elite ruled over the country with iron fist. During this era, the colonial state established exploitative economic and repressive governance structures to fulfill its growing needs at home and in its global war efforts. The country provided a source for cheap labour and raw materials to fuel British industry and war machine as well as a market for the consumption of goods and weapons it produced.

Within the first decade of independence, military assumed the leadership of the postcolonial ruling bock due to lack of deeply rooted political parties and democratic culture in the nascent country. Overtime this ruling block fragmented with PPP and PML-N emerging as two major power contenders. The first rode the socialist wave of late 60s while second responded to reactionary overtones of industrial class as well as expanding mercantile classes during 70s and 80s. The neoliberal reforms during 1990s and 2000s resulted in further urbanisation and expansion in professional middle classes that propelled PTI as the third major political party in the country.

The resistance to this ruling block came essentially from left leaning political parties and the ethnic nationalist movements. Rather than accepting a pluralistic polity in return for allegiance to the state, both were hounded and brutally repressed. This resulted in the separation of East Pakistan and continues to fuel political crises in various sub-regions of remaining Pakistan. During the Cold War and beyond, global capitalist powers provided considerable support to the ruling block in return for services in Afghanistan, albeit on transactional basis.

In order to provide ideological cover to this hegemonic project, an exclusionary version of Muslim nationalism was promoted as sole basis of national identity. A religious apparatus strengthened as a result, helped achieve the short term goals but gradually fell apart and took a life of its own. Metamorphosis of its fringe factions resulted in the emergence of violent extremist movements that have created an existential crisis for the state.

It is important at this juncture to assess the gains achieved and loses suffered by the nation, including the elites by following the paradigm mentioned above. Perhaps, this would have been a prosperous and peaceful country if a transition from exploitative (post)colonial regime to a pluralistic, democratic and pro-people political system could be made.

Emerging Constraints

Much has changed since noted social scientist Hamza Alavi described Pakistan as an ‘over developed state with an under developed society’. Various socio-economic developments have led to the emergence of new social networks and new forms of communication, considerably altering the nature and mode of bargain between the state and the society.

Expansion in the middle classes and urbanisation has resulted in a shift from joint to nuclear families, from kinship based social networks to professional associations and from a collectivist culture to individualism. This means that in an urban, individualized Pakistan, state maters more to people, particularly to the younger generation, than it did in a rural, collectivist Pakistan. This is bound to increase people’s interest in state affairs and it is hardly surprising that all major political movements in the country have stemmed from urban areas during last twenty years where lawyers, doctors, students and traders’ associations have played a pivotal role.

Opportunities in services sector have accentuated demand for professional education, even for women. This means greater awareness of citizen’s rights and a greater desire to exercise agency. The proliferation of electronic and social media and diffusion of mobile telephony have not only opened new avenues for masses to access information, but also created aspirations for new life styles. Citizens therefore today expect much more from the state in terms of service delivery, demand to be heard and crave for political space and economic opportunities to realise their full potential. They have been extremely vocal and have successfully used social media for political mobilization with potent effect.

Also, political parties have managed to build ‘vote banks’ that do not entirely depend on local electables. To win most constituencies in the country now, a combination of a personal social capital as well as ticket of a popular political party is needed. This means that political parties are able to mobilise their support base and exert considerable pressure even when out of power. Similarly, corporate media houses and state institutions such as judiciary have also managed to build their direct support base among key segments of the society and have emerged as key power wielders.

Various historically marginalised groups have organised and are knocking the doors in power corridors for acceptance. Aurat march, PTM, Gwadar’s Haq do movement as well as other social movements from GB to interior Sindh are propping up. Violent groups such as TLP, ASWJ, TTP, IS, Baloch insurgents and others also continue to operate and challenge the state. Underlying many of these movements is economic and political exclusion and disenfranchisement in historically deprived areas. Young people in particular, need jobs and hope for a better life.

All of the above means that much of the power historically vested in a centralized state authority and exercised through bureaucracy and its handpicked intermediaries has been chipped away by the emerging power centers. The 18th Amendment has institutionalized some of these trends by transferring a major chunk of power and resources to the provinces. To impose an authoritarian single party/institution rule now therefore, either requires coercing all of these disbursed power centers, or co-opting these. The former is dangerous to contemplate and untenable in the long term while the later simply dilutes the spoils of and therefore incentive for holding power exclusively. Sticking to a system that allows for meaningful power sharing is therefore the only reasonable option for all political players.

International environment

Global power politics may increasingly be shaped by the US-China rivalry, but we shall be amiss if two critical points are not understood by the Pakistani policy circles. First, seeing it through a Cold War lens would lead to erroneous conclusions. The world is way more interconnected and interdependent now, as the global financial crisis and Covid-19 show. Also, deprived of staunch ideological polarisation, this is more of a brute competition for access to resources and global influence. Second, the nature of competition remains economic, at least for now. This puts the Southeast Asia with its trade routes and enormous untapped resources as the new front line of the great power competition. Pakistan, despite providing China a back door to Indian ocean through Gwadar, currently lies at the periphery of the region considered increasingly strategic by the world powers.

With US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the era of handouts by the west for services in the geopolitical wrangling has come to an end. The Chinese BRI, of which CPEC is a component, and its potential western competitors, such as B3W, are essentially a set of loans/investments that need the right conditions to work. Is Pakistani elite capable of understanding the requirements, identifying viable projects and making cogent use of such funds? Among a range of ingredients required to benefit from such opportunities, the most important is political inclusion and stability.

Way forward

Multiple fires rage from Khyber to Karachi along ethnic, religious, sectarian, class and gender lines. There is a large young population that dithers between hope and despair. A little nudge in the wrong direction and this can easily transform into widespread lawlessness and anarchy. Terrorism, extremism, mob attacks, insurgencies, organized and street crime and domestic violence are all symptoms of these simmering problems. The time is running out for the power elites in Pakistan to put out these fires and unite a divided nation.

Given the constraints posed by evolving domestic and international environment, the country needs the politics of consensus, accommodation and compromise. A minimalist, rather than the expansionist approach, mutual acceptance of mandates and legitimate interests rather than divisiveness and exclusion, and collective efforts to resolve enormous economic and security issues faced by the people.

The focus must shift to expanding the size of the cake, rather than the individual share of it. This must go hand in hand with providing due share of national resources to the deprived communities. This is the only way to ensure peace, stability and prosperity of the nation. This however needs cooperation and collaboration between a diverse set of actors that the country has never seen, except perhaps during the drafting of 1973 constitution.

A major reassessment is needed by the state institutions, particularly the military, to redefine its role in national development. Favouring one player does not only alienates the rest but also creates unrealistic expectations among the favoured ones and bitter disappointment if these are not fulfilled. It also diverts the fallout of any policy failures on the military and pushes it to take responsibility for areas that are not its forte. Lastly, it creates a divisive, aggressive, coercive and polarized political culture that is detrimental to national cohesion and solidarity.

The military therefore must accept the changing ground realities and institutionalize the impulse of staying apolitical. It must allow level playing field for all parties by upholding the constitution. It must let the politics take its course and trust representatives of the people of Pakistan to resolve political differences and forge consensus. Eventually, it must trust the people of Pakistan to hold those in power accountable and give their verdict through free and fair elections.

A non-partisan approach will strengthen the bond between the military and the people, the real source of its strength. It will also enhance its dignified role as the defenders of the national borders. It will help the institution to focus better on issues related to national security and provide its professional input on decisions related to these.

One hopes that the Powers That Be learn from the past experiences, leading to more balanced civil-military relations considering the altered balance of social forces that is redefining the limits of power that each component holds in an evolving polity.

The author holds a PhD in Politics from Oxford University. Email:; Tweets @adnanrafiq.