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The Emperor's New-Look Clothes

Tailoring the political system is the military's need: to preserve its entrenched interests

The Emperor's New-Look Clothes
The Emperor's New-Look Clothes
General Pervez Musharraf is the fourth serving army chief to assume power in Pakistan. The October 1999 coup was an institutional response by the army to what the top commanders viewed as then prime minister Nawaz Sharif's efforts to divide them and control the army, quite in the same way as he had weakened Parliament and divided the Supreme Court. Sharif's attempts to remove Musharraf, who was then on a tour of Sri Lanka, failed because the senior commanders, who were expecting such a step, responded by capturing power in one brief and swift operation. By the time Musharraf's aircraft landed in Karachi, the army was in full control of the situation.

The fourth military takeover in October 1999, and the ability of the Musharraf government to manage the country's affairs without encountering any serious challenges, reconfirms the military's strategic position in Pakistan's political system. It can be described as the most formidable and autonomous political actor in Pakistan, capable of influencing the nature and direction of political changes. Its clout has manifested in the form of direct military rule (October 1958-June 1962, March 1969-December 1971, July 1977-December 1985, and October 1999-) and influence over key foreign policy and domestic issues when out of power.

Several considerations and interests shape the military's disposition towards the political process. National security is its first major interest and it consequently exercises influence in key foreign policy areas, especially the nuclear policy, relations with India, including Kashmir, and Afghanistan. The military isn't opposed to India-Pakistan rapprochement but a civilian government is expected to keep the military on board in any normalisation process with India. The military, like most civilian policymakers, will not like to improve relations with India unless it addresses the Kashmir issue. Overseas arms and equipment procurement is the second military interest, which too has foreign policy implications. Its third interest pertains to preserving its autonomy, countering any civilian interference in its internal organisational and service affairs, including promotions and transfers. Then there is the issue of expenditure, opposed as the military is to unilateral cuts in defence expenditure by civilian leaders. Another consideration relates to improvement of service conditions and continuation of perks and privileges the military personnel have acquired during the long years of military rule. It also wants to protect the industrial and business interests it has developed through its four welfare foundations. Finally, the military expects the civilian leaders to maintain some degree of political and economic stability, a pre-requisite to sustain its professional and corporate interests.

The military's primary consideration is not direct exercise of power, but protection and advancement of its interests. If these can be protected, it would prefer to stay on the sidelines. The commanders are willing to negotiate their interests and accommodate civilian leaders. What they can't accept is a frontal attack on their institutional and corporate interests, a deliberate campaign to malign the military or unilateral decision-making by civilian leaders on matters concerning them.

Top military commanders concede that governance is not one of their primary tasks and that this right belongs to civilian leaders. Yet, simultaneously, they firmly believe that they must play an autonomous role, provide inputs for important political decisions and that they must mediate when political competition between civilian groups appears disorderly.This is precisely why governance in Pakistan is a delicate balancing act between the military chiefs and the elected civilian leaders. The civilian governments can enjoy greater autonomy and freedom of action if they establish a relationship of trust and confidence with the military.

The army chief is a pivot in Pakistan's power structure. Another institution that has gained importance is the corps commanders' meeting. Presided over by the army chief, this conference includes top commanders, principal staff officers at the army headquarters and other senior officers holding strategic appointments. They discuss all important issues and develop a consensus on broad policy outlines whose implementation is left to the discretion of the army chief. He also consults other service chiefs on important issues. In this way, the military, especially the army, pursues collective decision-making, of immense importance when the military directly rules the country. Even now the army chief doesn't rule on his own—he and senior commanders work together.

Despite repeated assumption of power, the military continues to maintain a professional, disciplined and cohesive profile. This increases its clout in a society where political and social forces are fragmented, often engaged in intense confrontation. Unlike the Turkish army, Islam is an integral part of the ideology of the Pakistan military. Most soldiers, both non-commissioned and commissioned officers, are conscious of Islamic identity—a good number of them are also religiously conservative. However, the military doesn't encourage any religion-inspired activity by service personnel that adversely affects professionalism and service discipline.

The Pakistan military's current centrality to the political process represents a shift from the disposition it maintained at the time of withdrawal of British rule in 1947. Though the military was integral to the British imperial rule in South Asia and served as its ultimate shield, it functioned within the parameters set out by the civilian authority and stayed away from active politics. These traditions were accepted as the cardinal principles of military organisation in Pakistan.

Subsequently, though, several factors contributed to the ascendancy of the military. These included strong security pressures from the early days of independence due to problems with India, decline of political leadership after the demise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951, the failure of the Muslim League that led the independence movement to transform itself into a national party, the gradual degeneration and fragmentation of the political process, and the unnecessary delay in establishing the first Constitution, which was not implemented until March 1956. Other contributing factors were the institutional imbalance between the strong civil-military bureaucratic and political institutions, and economic difficulties which caused alienation at the popular level.

Military rulers have generally tried to tailor the political system for the post-military withdrawal period. Ayub Khan 'civilianised' his military rule in June 1962 by giving a new constitution. Yahya Khan couldn't transform his military rule into civilian rule as he lost the war to India in East Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq carefully tailored the post-withdrawal political system to 'civilianise' his military rule in December 1985. Now Gen Musharraf is expected to civilianise his rule to ensure continuity of policies and key personnel in the post-withdrawal period through constitutional changes, cooption of a section of the political elite and holding of a carefully regulated elections in 2002.Even after the return of the military to the barracks, it'll continue to wield power from the sidelines. n

(Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a Lahore-based political and defence analyst. His most recent book is Military, State and Society in Pakistan, Macmillan Press, London, 2000.)
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