The Pernicious Ramifications of Civilian-Army Confrontation

As someone with a dual personal history, a soldier first and a scholar now, I have always found myself in this liminal space where I refuse to take sides when it comes to my public and scholarly writings about Pakistan. This lack of alignment with one or the other has sometimes cost me many an old friendship. I believe that democracy, unfettered by special interests of any kind, is ultimately the only system that can secure Pakistan’s future. But pragmatically, it is also important to  be cognizant of the contemporary realities of Pakistan and to draw  conclusions from the lived realities of Pakistan’s politics and other existential exigencies. It seems that within the current climate of Pakistani politics, especially when Pakistan is faced with external threats and internal strife, yet another new narrative of  conflict between the Pakistan army and the civilian government is being proffered to the public. Of course, the chief instigator in this instance is no one less than the figure of the now ousted prime minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, who recently alleged that the current chief of army staff was not the right choice, and, somehow, he had made a mistake in appointing him.

Mr. Sharif has a history of trying to appoint the army chiefs who would, in his view, serve his personal political interests. And, even though he and his family were brought into the political arena by a military dictator, he, of all the politicians, has had the most unneeded confrontations with several army chiefs. Now there is nothing wrong with the civilian elected prime minister to remind the military that he/ she, after all, is the elected head of the executive and thus must have the final word about Pakistan’s internal and external national policy, but it is also his/ her responsibility to ensure that the army leadership is not politicized and that the image of Pakistan army is not unduly tarnished because of the inherent tensions between civilian and military institutions. In his public statements though, it seems that Mr. Sharif has no problem in directly or indirectly maligning the Pakistan army, which might serve some limited political purpose for Mr. Sharif but cannot be in the best interest of Pakistan.

I must point out here that despite being a retired army officer, I am neither an uncritical apologist for the Army brass and nor do I withhold my criticism of the Army generals when such criticism is warranted and merited. And my criticism of the Army dictators and intransigent generals is published and a matter of public record. I am, however, a strong supporter of the solders and junior officers of Pakistan army,  who constantly put their lives at risk for the safety and security of their country. Right now, as I write these lines, our officers and troops are deployed in the mountains of FATA and are literally offering their lives in a fight to  secure a peaceful future for our children: They need our love and support!

Mr. Nawaz Sharif has a history of making a spectacle of his relations with the army. In the late nineties he brought the entire country to crisis and even attempted to divide the army sympathies by ousting one COAS, while he was on a visit abroad, and appointing a new one in his absence. Of course, constitutionally it was his right to do so, but the constitution also does not give him the right to use his power as a tool for the of symbolic humiliation of the army generals or their subordinates. There is a grave risk for Pakistan if the popular trust in this institutions is “officially” eroded. All armies, but especially the Pakistan army in its current anti terror operations, need general public support to do their job. This symbolic recognition of the army and the measure of its respect in the public sphere is crucial to the actual functioning and morale of the troops. After all, no amount of money can convince anyone to surrender their life for their country. The troops and their officers undertake these lif-threatening missions as their job but also as a service to their people and their nation and if the people turn on them or deride them publicly, then no amount of money can build a functional and motivated army.

I understand that because of army’s history of political interference in the Pakistani system, the public trust of the army has eroded and people have the right to criticize the military dictators. There is also no doubt that so many of the problems we face today can be traced back to one or the other military dictator. But despite all that, it is the responsibility of the government to continuously support the army materially and symbolically and maligning the army leadership publicly can never be in the best interest of the country.

On the other hand, I see on several veteran’s social media pages as well as through personal discussions that the army officers also tend to deride the politicians and the political system and think of it as inherently corrupt. This is also a symptom of a deep-seated distrust of the civilians which has its provenance in the colonial system: the officers and men of the Royal Indian Army, of whose traditions we sometimes follow in the Pakistan army, were trained to distrust the civilians. the British could only create a dependable native force by elevating the soldiers’ self view over that of their own people and thus by aligning their sympathies with their colonial masters. The distrust of the civilians, and as an extension the distrust of the civilian government, is based in this colonial history. Just as not all generals are brave, sagacious, and honest, similarly not all politicians are corrupt: some of them are actually very sincere to their constituents. Besides, one does not accidentally become a political leader: it takes years of work and investment of time and resources and in the end one has to convince thousands of people to vote for you in order to be elected. So, yes there is a lot of corruption in our political system, but to deride the entire political system is neither fair to the politicians nor to the people of Pakistan. We have tried the alternative three times; it failed to make our lives better!

Under the current circumstances, then, it is the politicians’ job to ensure that the  Pakistan army  does not lose its public support: without a culture of general respect and support, the army can neither perform its internal security functions nor protect the nation from foreign aggression. But with the symbolic and material support of the nation behind them, the soldiers and officers can continue to do their best to safeguard Pakistan’s people and its interests. On the other hand the army elite also need to train their officers and men in the habits of democracy: habits that encourage them to see their civilian counterparts as their equals, and values that inform them that they, the soldiers, are there to serve their people and not rule them.

I would like to end this with a reference to US politics and the every day treatment of veterans in the United States. Politically, both major political parties always go out of their way to praise the US armed forces and their service to the country. Every US president makes it a point to valorize and praise the US servicemen and women at the end of every major speech. This happens across the political spectrum: this is political maturity at its best, for despite their political differences the US politicians know that publicly acknowledging the services of men and women in  uniform is crucial to the morale of the armed forces. Furthermore, in the every day culture, when people encounter a veteran, they always look at them and say: “Thank you for your service.” I have seen this a thousand times!! This is the way we used to treat our soldiers! Why cannot we do that now?

So, I am not proposing that the army should have more political power or should have some form of autonomy in shaping national policy: that absolutely is the prerogative of the elected government. What I am suggesting is that while the army should restrict itself to its constitutional role, the politicians should also ensure that they do not attempt to weaken the army image for their limited political goals. In fact, if the politicians do build a politics of confrontation with the army, then by weakening the army they will end up enervating the morale and readiness of the very organization that is crucial to Pakistan’s survival against the internal and external threats.

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