Pakistan remains mired in its own follies. There is not one but several examples that one can quote when its policies have been self-destructive. But the most frequent, damaging and obvious is the civil-military divide.
This is no ordinary matter that can continue to be overlooked and accepted as fait accompli for it has cost the nation grief, lowered its international image, reduced national power and allowed foreign powers to exploit the weakness. The latest manifestation of this is when Ahsan Iqbal was denied entry into the courtroom where the trial of Nawaz Sharif was in progress. It was a bizarre spectacle and should be a matter of serious concern. Who was right or who was wrong can be debated endlessly. But what is significant it demonstrates the lack of trust and divisions between civilian and military outfits. Adding to these concerns was the marathon corps commanders’ conference that lasted seven hours and ended without the formal ISPR statement or a tweet giving a clear signal that all is not well. And the subsequent press briefing by the DG ISPR left no one in doubt as to who was in charge.
Irrespective of which institution is more or less credible, Pakistan clearly is its first casualty when institutions lack harmony. Its reputation, dignity, national power and international prestige do get compromised. This clearly indicates that in Pakistan narrow institutional interests supersede genuine national benefits.
What event or (God forbid) greater catastrophe would shake us to correct our national direction? Loss of East Pakistan, the shame that the Kargil adventure brought us to name a few, was not enough. To expect that the current joint US-India pressure will shake us from this slumber will be an over-optimistic expectation.
We have a history when institutions have tried to weaken political parties through manipulation by making them fight one another. Or play with election outcomes and maintain their superiority. The most classic example of this meddling occurred in the 1990s with one of the major political parties being an accomplice in it. One only hopes that political parties and the military have learnt from the past and will not make the same mistake again.
When General Musharraf wanted to make peace with India and settle the Kashmir dispute by accepting the status quo with minor changes, it found broad acceptability. But when the PML-N leadership and other political parties want to engage with India and open trade and commerce and place the issue of Kashmir at the back burner until relations between the two countries improve there is a completely different response. Although in the not too distant future, with resistance to Indian occupation increasing especially in the valley, it is very much in the realm of possibility that India may be left with no option but to seek a political resolution of the dispute. This may turn out to be a better option for the beleaguered Kashmiris.
Having a different approach or policy should not be branded as a sell-out of core interests. Apart from being a democratic norm to hold different views there is no exclusivity or monopoly in patriotism.
What is conveniently ignored that foreign countries, especially India and the US, take full advantage of this civil-military divide. Washington prefers to talk to the military command in Pakistan rather than the civilian leadership. The latest meetings of President Ashraf Ghani with the COAS indicate the same. They know where the hub of power lies.
A more distressing feature is that the civil-military divide is getting wider. This trend is more obvious since removal of the Prime Minister by the judiciary. There is little realisation that internal feuding is harming the country. In all probability it will intensify, as we get closer to election time.
Just as individuals do not voluntarily abandon power so do institutions as experience of ours and other countries reminds us. If our civilian leadership on both sides of the aisle were to rise above the present quibbling, make a determined effort at improving performance in governance, legislation and addressing economic challenges there is possibility that it will instill confidence in the people and the military leadership to move towards being a normal democratic country. But it is a big “if” and my readers probably would tell me “dream on”. They would be justified in being dismissive and pessimistic but my question to them and others, is there an alternative. Can this country afford this slippery path with all the challenges hovering around?
As a first initiative, the Senate chairman’s proposal to initiate a dialogue between institutions should be taken seriously. I would suggest that if there are constitutional or traditional impediments a retired chief justice or Supreme Court judge could be a part of this panel instead of the serving one. There is, however, an urgency of constituting this body as elections are round the corner and more importantly to deflect external pressure that keeps mounting, as they perceive our internal weaknesses. In parallel our think tanks should seriously address this problem and suggest ways how other nations struggling with similar problems were able to overcome them.
All this would only be possible when the stakeholders recognise the seriousness of our internal crisis and are willing to and have the ability to take a more radical approach at setting it right.
It would be no exaggeration to expect that if progress were made in this sphere space for improvement in several areas of governance and policy would emerge. If need is felt that Pakistan due to its unique history and circumstances requires transitional solutions without losing sight of the ultimate goal of a true democratic state these could also be adopted by consensus.
Politics of hate and continuous lashing of political opponents further weakens our fragile democracy and makes the task of improving the lives of the people difficult. For years the country has suffered from religious, sectarian and ethnic bigotry and civil-military imbalance. It is time institutions started working in unison to actualise the positive potential of our nation.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2017.