Righting the civil-military imbalance

Civilian supremacy is not defined by venting anger, nor firing military officers but about by taking charge.


Ejaz Haider May 14, 2011

Many people are dissatisfied with the result of the 10-hour-long in-camera marathon session of parliament where the military offered itself for accountability to the people’s representatives. Instead, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s earlier speech, giving the ISI a clean bill of health, and his assertion, post-in-camera session, that the government and the military are on the same page has created a twitter storm, with many lamenting the loss of a great opportunity to right the civil-military imbalance. Are they right?

It depends on how one defines the civil-military imbalance and, by extension, civilian supremacy. While we all agree on the need for effective monitoring of the military, views differ sharply on what that means.

For extreme critics of the military, civilian supremacy means a weak and weakened military. In other words, the civilians and the military, in this country, are locked in a zero-sum game where the losses of one are the gains of the other. Until the military remains strong, the civilians will remain weak and vice versa. If we go by the zero-sum game premise, what happened on May 13 would come as a disappointment.

But is that the correct way of analysing civil-military relations?

The complexity of civil-military relations and the requirement for a state to have a strong military goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy. Instead, as Peter D Feaver has analysed it: “The civil-military challenge is to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorise”.

Clearly, the challenge posed by civil-military relations is more complex than can be presented and analysed through a simple zero-sum game model. One trait that most scholars consider central to the existence and sustenance of a state is its monopoly of violence. A state which cannot exercise that monopoly in a functional manner is a weak state, not a successful state (irrespective of whether control of that monopoly of violence rests with the military or the civilians). The appropriate approach is therefore not to define civilian supremacy in terms of the relative weakness of the military (and thereby presuppose an adversarial relation between the two), but to see it as a cooperative enterprise in which a strong military remains subordinate to civilian principals.

This cooperative perspective requires national security strategy to be formulated by the civilian principals with input from experts in various fields, including the military. All subordinate functionaries are then to implement that strategy as desired by the civilian principals.

What the state stands for, how must it interact with other states, what are the determinants of its foreign and security policies, what kind of policies it needs to advance its interests, where and how it must use force or the threat of its use, what should be the configuration of its military in line with its security policy, what combination of policies, military and non-military, it needs to address those threats — all of this and much more is to be decided by the civilians, NOT the military.

In other words, the military’s punch must remain potent but the decision to land that punch and the timing and place of its landing must be decided by the civilians. It is not the military’s job to decide foreign and security policies. Its job is to give professional input to the civilian bosses on the basis of the national security strategy developed by the civilian principals.

To that extent, this opportunity may not have been entirely lost. Let’s see the positives. Parliament demanded that the military come and brief it on what happened and why. The director-general of the ISI (DG-ISI) had to present himself for scrutiny while the chief of army staff was also present. Legislators vented their anger, put the DG-ISI in the dock, and got him to say that if they thought the situation could improve by his leaving, he was prepared to walk out of the house a retired officer.

Supposing that had happened, would that have been enough to right the imbalance? No. Civilian supremacy is not defined by the opportunity to admonish and to vent anger; nor is it about firing one or two military officers, though that may be required off and on. It is about taking charge of the situation. More importantly, it is about being better at understanding the exercise of state power than the military itself. If the civilians have to keep the military in line, they need to have civilians that understand the military’s job better than the military does.

Mian Nawaz Sharif was quite adept at firing military officers. He fired a DG-ISI and forced one army chief to resign. But he never developed the institutional ability and understanding to tell the army that its Kargil plan violated even the basics of tactics — forget the larger strategic picture. That, as we know, cost him dearly when he tried to fire another army chief.

What is required now, if the civilians really want to avail this opportunity, is to (a) get down to the task of formulating a national security strategy; (b) make the defence committee of the cabinet effective with regular meetings; (c) appoint a strong minister of defence who understands the military and can force the service chiefs to obey his office; (d) create an external advisory body that deals with the military on the one hand and the prime minister plus cabinet on the other; (d) hold regular briefings by experts to the armed forces committee of parliament, which are placed on record; and, (e) ensure that all subordinate agencies/organisations are working to the same ends and purposes.

This is not an exhaustive list. Many other steps can be taken. But these are some of the obvious ones. Some of these measures are to be taken immediately. Others, like developing a national strategy, would require a relatively longer period. But all of this must be started together and NOW.

A collective response is also crucial because there is an immediate need to challenge the US incursion. There are three options. Take the issue to the UN Security Council; place a note with the UN Secretary General’s office; present a resolution to the UN General Assembly for voting. All these options can also be exercised in tandem.

Civilian supremacy requires taking responsibility. If I could address the military today, this is what I would say: Generals, the nation is not with you. If it were just your personal loss, I would not be much concerned. But this disconnect is the biggest security threat to this state. Correcting the balance and bowing to the nation is as much your responsibility as it is important for the civilians to become relevant.



Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2011.

COMMENTS (12)

alijan | 10 years ago | Reply another spirited defense of the parasitic military establishment by one of its most eloquent media representatives!
observer | 10 years ago | Reply @Ejaz Far as I can make out Parliament did neither 'demand' nor was ever in a position to 'demand' any accountability. The Army and ISI chief 'volunteered' to 'brief Parliament in camera' and during the 'briefing' instead of owning responsibility they spent more time telling Parliament that 'targets have been identified in India and rehearsals carried out'. How was India germane to the issue of OBL being found in the bosom of the Army and Americans violating 'sovereignty' of Paklistan, is best known to the Generals . The Parliament in turn has professed full confidence in the appearing duo, which may be taken to mean full confidence in 'identification of targets and rehearsals' in the Indian context. Shall we see a repeat of Mumbai to boost the sagging morale of the duo or what? You may breathe easy as those aiming to 'weaken the army' have not succeeded in their patently evil designs. ALL IJ WEL.
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