Can The Military Stay Out of Politics?Ejaz Haider | 19 December 2022
If the army is, in fact, serious about reshaping its image, it will need to undertake certain reforms.
Days before he hung up his spurs after six years as army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke at Martyrs’ Day. That speech is both interesting and important and has not been properly unpacked.
Gen Bajwa talked about the army’s intervention in the political system and acknowledged that the army had exposed itself to overt, public criticism because of that seven-decade-long policy. He said that the army was having its “catharsis” and, after much contemplation, had decided that it would remain apolitical
Ironically, though not surprisingly, he then went on to list the army’s achievements beyond the organisation’s “mandate” (his word) and said that the army would continue to perform that function. The speech also referred to political developments, the use by a political party of false and deceitful narratives and foul language to bring the army and its leadership into disrepute.
I don’t need to go into the details of what has happened in the past eight months because they are known and have been debated ad nauseam in this country’s drawing rooms and dhabas. Instead, it is more instructive to get to the heart of the matter: why does the army intervene in the system and what do we mean by “intervention”.
Outgoing army chief Gen Bajwa vowed that the army had learnt its lessons and would no longer intervene in politics. But Pakistan’s history doesn’t offer great hope. Will future commanders abide by this resolution? And, more importantly, given the dynamics of the country, will they be able to?
Beyond Its Mandate
By Gen Bajwa’s own account, the army has often acted beyond its mandate (this term is important and we shall return to it). As noted above, he mentioned the army’s role in resolving the Reko Diq and Karkey disputes; efforts made by the army to get Pakistan out of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list; helping with reforms in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and their merger; securing loans from friendly countries to shore up the country’s foreign exchange reserves; fighting Covid (NCOC is widely praised as a success story); and helping get cheap liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar etc.
The fact is that this list is correct and known by those dealing with these issues. On November 4, 2021, then-Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced that his government, with the help of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had “amicably resolved” the Karkey dispute and saved Pakistan from paying the $1.2 billion penalty imposed by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).
Khan congratulated the government’s negotiation team “for doing an excellent job in achieving this.” He did not provide details of who was involved in resolving the dispute. Ditto for Reko Diq and extensive and intensive work done with the FATF. As a top source in the previous government told me, the work was done by the army, though in all cases the faces were civilian.
In the case of the FATF, while minister Hammad Azhar was the overall ostensible head and represented Pakistan on all the formal forums, the entire inter-ministerial coordination and getting everyone on board was done by an officer from the army. It was a hybrid, outsourced model to make up for capacity gaps on the civilian side.
There was much talk about the former chief’s admission about intervention and his reference to it as being unconstitutional. Very little to almost no reference was made to what he said about Reko Diq, Karkey, FATF, LNG from Qatar etc.
Those references were not made lightly. They indicated not just that the army helped the previous government — and now this one — deal with some outstanding policy issues, but also implied capacity gaps on the civilian side.
Lessons learnt?: the once powerful troika of Gen Bajwa, Imran Khan and Gen Faiz Hameed | Photos by White Star
In reality, far more than the reference to military interventions, this was the crux of his speech. This is what makes it important to try and define the concept of intervention. Is it about the army’s penchant, intermittently, to mount a coup? Or is it about the lack of capacity on the civilian side that creates the gaps the army fills?
The coup problem is an old one, not just in Pakistan but also in many other countries. It is also an easier one to deal with in terms of defining a direct intervention. However, increasingly, while the threat of a coup hasn’t receded entirely — the Myanmar junta is a case in point, as is the military-drafted 2017 constitution in Thailand — the military’s indirect control of a system has been the dominant theme in civil-military relations (CMR) literature. It is also more difficult to measure.
In his 1962 book, The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, Samuel Finer argued that civilian control of the military is not “natural”: “… there is a common assumption, an unreflecting belief, that it is somehow ‘natural’ for the armed forces to obey the civil power… But no reason is adduced for showing that civilian control of the armed forces is, in fact, ‘natural’…
“Instead of asking why the military engage in politics, we ought surely to ask why they ever do otherwise [since]… the political advantages of the military vis-à-vis other and civilian groupings are overwhelming. The military possess vastly superior organisation. And they possess arms.”
In other words, the puzzle is how, where they can and do, civilians are able to exercise such control. For Finer, the answer lay in the military’s disposition. Is a military more disposed to intervening or less since “just as there are factors disposing the military to intervene, so there may be factors inhibiting them from such action.”
The Protection Paradox
This puzzle is about a simple paradox, as noted by Peter D Feaver: “The very institution created to protect the polity is given sufficient power to become a threat to the polity.”
A country needs a strong military, which can protect it from external threats. States spend billions for the upkeep of a military, billions more for weapons acquisition and procurement and those that have a highly-developed industrial base spend even more on Research and Development.
The military is therefore the coercive arm of the state. But precisely because it has the coercive power, how does one ensure that it does not begin to prey on the very state and society that have created it for protection?
In other words, to quote Feaver, “The two central desiderata — protection by the military and protection from the military — are in tension because efforts to assure the one complicate efforts to assure the other.”
If the civilians consider the military a threat and seek to weaken it “to guard against a military seizure of political power”, they become “vulnerable to predations from external enemies.”
But as noted earlier, while most first-generation CMR theorists were primarily concerned with studying militaries that seemed attuned — or disposed — to coup-making, that being the most extreme expression and spectacle of military’s coercive power vis-a-vis other segments in a state, the past quarter century has witnessed a shift to studying a military’s influence within a system short of kicking the chessboard and start playing solitaire.
In fact, some analysts suggest that a coup, more than expressing a military’s strength, denotes “its inability to get what it wants through the normal political process.”
The movement from studying coups to analysing the influence a military exercises within the system is also helpful in broadening the debate and observing CMR even in states where the military has never subverted the system, but wields enough influence to get the desired results.
For instance, in his book The Politics of the British Army, British military historian Hew Strachen called the argument that the British army is politically neutral, a facade.
Meddling in politics: The IJI alliance was also created by the military in the late 1980s
Studying the period from 1660 to 1998, when the book was published, Strachen argues that “Despite the fact that the British Army — unlike many other armies — has never staged a coup d’état, it is an inherently political entity, embedded in the fabric of the state, and intimately involved in the formation and implementation of policy.
Strachen considers “this involvement … necessary” and argues that “a genuinely apolitical British Army would be a less effective contributor to the management of Britain’s defence.”
Studies have shown how the US military finds workarounds to influence policy related to R&D, acquisitions and funding allocations. In his 1995 book Civil-Military Relations in Israel, Yehuda Ben-Meir, a politician-turned-academic, “demonstrates that the military often has great influence over civilian decisions.”
Ben-Meir cites the example of how the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) prevailed upon Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to “refrain from responding to Iraqi Scud attacks” because the IDF “wanted the war to go on long enough for the Americans to destroy Saddam’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”
Closer to home, the Indian Army successfully scuttled a deal on the Siachen conflict and is a central player in determining government policy in conflict areas, from Occupied Jammu and Kashmir to the Northeast and the Red Corridor.
The advantage of studying CMR more broadly is the unravelling of the tension between civilian principals and the military as a strong, coercive organisation. As Feaver put it: “Because the coup/no-coup dichotomy misses much of the interesting give and take in civil-military relations, some theorists have preferred to study military influence instead. Whereas the coup variable is dichotomous, the influence variable is continuous, or at least offers more than two gradations.”
Strictly speaking, this is not new. In his book The Soldier and the State, considered a seminal work on CMR, Samuel Huntington recognised that the CMR problem was larger than just studying coups — that “the problem of the modern state is not armed revolt but the relation of the expert [in military affairs] to the politician.”
Coup-making as a dependent variable (DV) is easier to measure than influence which, given the complexity of workarounds, is much harder to study. Feaver, however, considers influence as a dependent variable to have limited usefulness and prefers “friction” because it “compensates for the difficulties that attend the coup and influence DVs.”
As he argues, friction is measurable “as the degree to which the military is willing to display public opposition to an announced civilian policy.” Nor is it a trivial concern, because public displays of friction can indicate the level of tension and offer warnings. Moreover, “evidence of friction and conflict is likely to find its way into the public record.”
The other side of this coin is “military compliance”. In a given policy or decision, whose preference prevails. It’s a good measure, since “even in ‘mature’ democracies like the United States, there are instances of the military prevailing against civilian leaders on certain policy questions, as the 1993 debate over gays in the military showed.”
More than coups
Without going into further detail of CMR literature, which is vast and varied, it is important to note that the literature has moved from simply focusing on coups and military professionalism, the idea that a military should only be concerned with military-operational issues, what Huntington called objective control — i.e. to keep a distinction between the civilian sphere and military professionalism.
The central norm about civilian control has, however, remained a constant, the puzzle which Finer and others have talked about. There is no definitive answer, regardless of which theoretical model one is trying to apply.
Allied with this is the question of what measures to take to mitigate a military’s influence or reduce friction. Should measures be taken to affect the ability of a military to subvert civilian control or is it possible to change the disposition of a military “to be insubordinate.”
There are not too many options as far as the first category is concerned. Constitutional, legal and administrative measures are good only to the extent that a military abides by them. Except for countries where praetorian militaries have written their role and influence within the constitutions, constitutions generally require the military to be subordinate to civilian authority. Yet, in reality that may not be the case, as we have witnessed in Pakistan and elsewhere.
The legal frameworks for civilian control “are not really mechanisms that affect the ability of the military to subvert.” For instance, governments can take such measures “to deploy the military far from the centres of political power, as in the ancient Roman practice of garrisoning troops on the periphery of the empire”, but that continues to manifest the friction and the impending threat.
There are cases where governments have tried to weaken and divide the military, but that runs the risk of politicisation, corruption, nepotism and other attendant dangers. Further, efforts to weaken the military also mean exposure to external threats and the inability to deal with them.
Another measure could be to retain a small military and create other armed forces, like special police and paramilitary units, while also allowing civil society groups to bear arms. That approach runs many other risks, including civil conflict. It also “erodes the ability of the military to execute its primary function of defending the society against external threats.”
If these measures won’t work, how should a military’s disposition towards insubordination be changed? Is professionalism the answer? Is it “the ethic that governs the relationship between civilians and the military”? Can it be done through “adjusting the ascriptive characteristics of the military” or changing the incentive structures, such that the military would find the expected utility of obeying a better option than the expected utility of insubordination?
Theorists have opted for both approaches, citing cases from multiple states. States that kept the service restricted to certain segments; states that expanded military service to reduce friction across the civil-military divide; states (ideological and authoritarian) that either pull the military into the ruling party cadres or use political commissars and secret police forces to monitor the military.
But the friction remains, as it does across different branches of civil bureaucracies.
It is, therefore, naive to think that the Pakistan Army will stay out of the system and focus strictly on military-operational work. It also brings me back to the point that CMR has long moved away from the single dependent variable of coup-making, to how a military can and does operate within a system.
There are reasons for it. For far too long, the liberal-democratic focus has been on the military’s praetorianism. It was justified in some way because of the coups. But perhaps it is an opportune time to develop a theoretical model which can go beyond simply focusing on the military and also bring in the civilian side.
Take, for instance, the cases Gen Bajwa listed. The army had to take the lead for two reasons: capacity problem on the civilian side and paralysis. The practitioners know how difficult it is to get the various stakeholders — federal and provincial governments — and line ministries to a single decision point.
The army manages to do it precisely because it can cut corners, push what is urgent and convince all involved that they have to sign on to it. That was the only way Reko Diq, Karkey and Qatar LNG could get done.
Similarly, CMR literature has long set aside the initial assumption that a professional military stays on the sidelines. In fact, professional militaries remain an active part of the system and use multiple strategies to influence outcomes.
Gen Bajwa talked about the state of the economy. This has been a major concern for the military since 2008, because there is now a better understanding within the military of the nexus between the economy and hard security. To think that the military will watch from the sidelines while a civilian government allows the economy to tank is to completely miss the picture.
Pakistan’s direct military rulers: Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf
The capacity issues on the civilian side are real and serious. Just two examples should suffice: The Board of Investment (BoI) is crawling with bureaucrats, instead of experts. It is a matter of simple statistics to ask if BoI has managed to increase Foreign Direct Investment or has the FDI decreased.
Another good example is our woeful dearth of international law (IL) and arbitration experts. This is why successive governments have relied on foreign lawyers and paid millions of dollars to them in consultations. The attorney generals, barring perhaps Makhdoom Ali Khan, are experts in domestic law with no capacity to deal with international arbitration or understanding IL.
This is not to condone the military’s excessive influence, much of which can be, and is, perverse, but to simply state that there are reasons for it beyond simply organisational interests and the Janowitzean idea of officer socialisation.
In a study I did at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in 2012 in consultation with Dr Ilhan Niaz, we found that “of the 1937 social sciences PhD dissertations produced by Pakistan since independence, and listed on the Higher Education Commission website, none deal directly with civil-military relations. This is a telling and unfortunate omission in indigenous scholarship on… civil-military relations and the civilian-military imbalance.”
This said, it’s important to differentiate between retaining influence within the system and subverting it either directly (coups) or indirectly by manipulating and engineering political entities and governments. Before former prime minister Imran Khan and his supporters turned against the army and its leadership, Khan was the blue-eyed boy, whose rise to the office was engineered by the army. Is the army now getting out of that business?
Let’s assume it is — i.e. it will no more be creating alliances like the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) of the late 1980s and 1990s, manipulate elections, create entities like the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) of the early 2000s, and much else that its intelligence agencies are good at doing. But we are still left with other problems.
Will it continue to dominate the security sector and define the concept of national security or will it allow the civilian bosses their right to either agree or disagree with what the army thinks or wants the government to do?
Through the nineties and the noughties, the army took various security-related decisions both in the east and west that have, for the most part, backfired and boxed the country in. Those decisions also reduced the country’s foreign policy options with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs becoming an addendum to the army/ISI worldview. Will that change?
It’s important to note that none of these issues are about the army’s propensity to directly intervene into the system and subvert it. Direct subversion, in fact, shows the inability to play the system from the inside. The ability, the capacity and the desire to dominate the system from within can be far more malevolent, and indicates that the army has captured the strategic nodes of the system.
An example would suffice. Observers and critics normally talk about the ISI’s internal wing and how it is used and has been used to manipulate political and civil society actors. Much of that is in the public domain, especially because of the late Asghar Khan’s case. Little is known, however, of the control exercised by the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), whose official remit is to serve as the secretariat of the National Command Authority.
It has, over the years, become a closed club, exercising immense power across multiple organisations within the nuclear establishment. It has arrogated to itself the right to decide what can be said or written about nuclear strategy, what approaches can be taken and what must be rejected, what conferences can be attended or who can be invited here to speak or discuss anything that has the prefix nuclear attached to it. Put another way, SPD has a virtual veto on individuals, publications, seminars, roundtables and conferences. And it also establishes and controls think tanks that are expected to give intellectual underpinning to SPD’s worldview.
Examples abound. But to think, given the lack of capacity on the civilian side and the capture of key systemic nodes by the army, that the latter is about to change its disposition is to live in a fool’s paradise. There are various areas where governments can, and should, rely on the army’s resources, expertise and managerial excellence. Such cooperation creates net positives for the country. But it must happen within the larger normative and legal framework of civilian supremacy.
If the army is, in fact, serious about reshaping its image, it will need to undertake certain reforms, which could verifiably indicate that it has turned a page. It would help the army restore its image. Those reforms and measures can be listed and I have briefly sketched them elsewhere, but they require a separate and fuller treatment.
The writer is a journalist interested in security and foreign policies.
This article was originally published on Dawn.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.