Ownership of war? Political or military

Published: January 23, 2018
The writer is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Pakistan Army and a PhD in civil-military relations

The writer is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Pakistan Army and a PhD in civil-military relations

We have won many battles but the war is still not won. The military method of winning the war is to nail things down, to wrap and close options unlike politics and those who conduct it. They try to juggle with conflicting concerns, keep options open, unwrap and unfold all options for political discussions and strive in all directions yet seek a politically rewarding near-term solution.

Sadly, the problem with the irregular war that this country is fighting for a long time is that over the years it has ceased to remain an extension of politics. Military operations have been driving the policy instead of serving it and thus the war has been creating a military momentum of its own. There was no North Waziristan operation until General Raheel Sharif decided to initiate it in June 2014. There was no visible coherent, consistent and direct translation of civil-military preferences into military plans and action — until the Army Public School Peshawar incident of December 2014 forced the political conscience of a polarised political system to succumb to the possibility of a joint sitting to draft and approve a national action plan. Still, regardless of the current political chaos and the ‘attention diverting political activities’ the military is doing everything possible not to allow internal as well as external circumstances and pressures to undermine the very purpose for which this war is being fought.

As a student of art and science of war it is not difficult to deduce that the irregular war that our military fights today is not a servant of politics. Not because it cannot be and it will not be, but only because it has been fought and mastered for a long time now by the generals unhindered and uninterrupted by politicians who every time they come to power are most adapt to securing and enlarging their political positions, political space and political power rather than reaching out to the military to introduce and devise a joint strategic framework to secure the nation-state, its citizens, its economy and even its institutions.

If intrusion means ‘putting oneself deliberately into a place or situation where one is unwelcome and uninvited’, then the question that we must ask today is who has intruded whom? — Politics upon war or war upon politics? The civilian control over military is idealised but if war is understood in the language of the famous military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz ‘as a political act’, then it’s not the civilian but the political control over the military that terminates war into a political act. Not the ‘civilian’ but the all-encompassing ‘democratic political control’ that should be responsible for a country’s strategic decision-making — including the decisions on the political objectives of the war. If democracy suffers in this country so does the irregular war that the nation fights. Castigated and reprimanded recently by a strong candidate (Imran Khan) for the position of prime minister in 2018, the Pakistan parliament will only be able to exercise ‘democratic political control’ over the military if its members serve their individual conscience as much as they serve the dictates of their political parties.

In the day of instant media, the civil-military leadership seems more inclined to use media’s services to push forward or backwards each other’s concerns — this is being done through selective leaks and the most prominent of them in the civil-military context in the recent past has been the Dawn Leaks. Fashioned to draw favourable civilian or military response these leaks are mere manipulations designed to do the bidding of either of the two stakeholders. The political motive is the public disclosure and revelation of any military attempts to insert itself in politics. Military motive for any leaks would be to reluctantly highlight as a last resort any civilian decision that is regarded and judged as ‘dangerous’ for national security. Although from the military perspective and its Pakistan Military Academy’s Ingall Hall inscribed motto of ‘honour, duty and country’ the choice before any military leader should be simple — either live with the civilian decision and carry it out (not a popular choice) or if the decision is bad (dangerous) for our national security, publicly resign and state the reasons in the resignation letter. Working the system by utilising leaks to build political pressure to force the civilians to change the decision is not the military way, that teaches its officers right at the outset in the military academy not only to keep their uniforms but their honour and their institution’s honour wrinkle-free.

Interestingly, today armies trained to fight conventional warfare are shifting to execute more and more counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and nation-building operations. This shift leaves little room for generals to make themselves legends like Patton and McArthur. As a consequence of this shift the theatre of war is reduced and limited to internal boundaries and thus it’s not the massive military operations at grand scale but small tactical battles put together that will determine the outcome of this war. Under this military scenario the visible physical space that the military occupies has its importance but it is the greater political space that the political leadership must occupy through its political control, politics and exercise of executive power. For politicians to achieve this military operations cart must not be tied ahead of the political horse.

Unfortunately, a country that is fighting an existential war has too lessen a political patronage on the battlefield to guide the course of war. War preferences are to be debated on the negotiating table before they are translated into military actions on the battlefield. Without the presence of politics (policy) that oversees military plans the military will continue winning us the military battles but would not be able to estimate the culminating point of victory or know how to get out of this war by determining an exit strategy — in this irregular war that we fight this remains the domain of politics.

Lastly, comparing the permanent presence of political leadership compared to the three years’ tenure of the military commander our former president Asif Zardari had famously said, “We are here to stay, you are here only for three years.” Now that one looks at the current political environment in the country from the military’s perspective it seems that the military is more than glad that the Constitution of Pakistan ensures that the political leadership is possibly turned over every five years at the executive level through the process of elections. The military as an institution that stays in place so does parliament — what is likely to change is the occupiers of the parliamentary seats. Maybe with it will change the ownership of war — more political than military.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2018.

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