Righting the civil-military imbalance

Published: May 15, 2011
The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • shade
    May 15, 2011 - 4:33AM

    Ejaz-thanks for another good piece but its too academic for me. Lets cut the chase and accept that the PM didn’t order military to come to parliament for accountability/questioning. It was the chief of army who realised that he is under pressure and offered to do so. Remember what we are dealing with is a mindset; a mindset which believes that only ‘it’ is qualified to understand the best interest of Pakistan. The military. And it has a sidekick as well in the form of civil bureaucracy especially the foreign office.
    Isn’t the script clear enough- the US wanted to get rid of Musharraf, identified Kayani as the most trusted ally who could negotiate a deal to continue with US favouring policies through a civilian set up, negotiated a NRO with BB but killed her once she got out of it and brought the existing regime into power. Hence we see a strong support for messers Kayani/Pasha by the current setup. They are partners in crime. This beast needs to be reigned. For once NS is right. Pakistan still is not born-we still exist in 13th Aug 1947. We need independence from this military mindset. Recommend

  • faraz
    May 15, 2011 - 4:41AM

    If a popular and intelligent man like Bhutto couldn’t change the civil military balance after the decisive defeat of 1971 war leading to breakup of the country, then current day discredited and mediocre politicians don’t stand a chance.

    Politicians can only negotiate some gains for themselves while the military establishment is on the back foot. PPP can secure its full 5 years term by praising ISI and blocking an independent inquiry. Nawaz can prevent agencies from supporting PTI by toning down its anti-establishment rhetoric.

    Do you think Pakistan can win a majority of votes in UN? You are seriously overestimating our diplomatic position. The world is more concerned with Osama’s presence in Abbottabad than US incursion of Pakistani airspace. Recommend

  • Noor Nabi
    May 15, 2011 - 6:52AM

    Thank you Ejaz for being so articulate. The military should wake up and realise the damage it has caused to the 180 million people of Pakistan over the decades. Recommend

  • May 15, 2011 - 7:46AM

    Ejaz: you have made this artificial category of people who want the military to become weak. Perhaps you don;t get it. A weak military is that one which does its job and does not interfere in politics or anything else. It is not a linear trajectory either. A strong military does not allow civilian governments to become relevant. Recommend

  • saleem khan
    May 15, 2011 - 11:24AM

    The problem with the Strong Military in Pakistan is that it is not strong enough for those against which they have to be strong. They are strong only for our civilian rulers. They are not strong enough for terrorists.Recommend

  • SharifL
    May 15, 2011 - 11:27AM

    I agree with Ayesha. This bit about weakening military is narrated by people who think ‘they’ want out army to be weak so they can destabilize Pakistan. They are supposed to be Israelis, India and US. I like Ejaz’s opinions, but I think he got away with this one. But I agree with his suggestions to improve civilian authority. That would be a good beginning, but we know it is not going to happen. How may civilian governments have to be dismissed, leaders humiliated, if not killed and imprisoned, before we realize why army cannot be controlled. Now was a moment, but civilians have squandered it.
    The most important issue today, other than terrorism related to our society becoming more and more intolerant and obsessed with religious is making friends with India. US is too far away and descends upon you when it is in its interest, India is close and we must learn to live with it. US has never taken our side in relation to India. It wants us to fight those who are anti US, but remain paly with our enemies. That is not friendship, the way I understand it. But may be I have learn modern day relationships. Recommend

  • Zahoor Khan
    May 15, 2011 - 12:40PM

    Ejaz and Ayesha! both of you are saying the same thing. Terminological discrepancies does not change the essence of your worthy messages. Recommend

  • wadan pashtoon
    May 15, 2011 - 3:08PM

    Ayesha is right and if some one speak abou weakening the army does not mean to dismatle army at all,it means the army should behave according to constitution. its not anti army but its in the ineterest of army to concentrate on its professional groomoing rathar then running the entire affairs of state from politics to foreign policy,internal policy,controlling media and analyst and above all the whole society and even keep an eye on syllabus….pakistan survival is in civillian mind set not in millitant mind set.lead the civillian lead the country.second thing Eyaz is talking about is the weak and incompetent lpolitical leadership,my point is in pakistan pro establishment ploiticians are planted and actually incompetent politician serve army well,Nawaz sharif,chaudry nisar, sheikh rashid,amir muqam long listtttttttttt for god sake dont call them politician, Recommend

  • shezey malik
    May 15, 2011 - 3:27PM

    we don,t want weak army.. ,and we don,t want powerfull politicians in this stage in our country,, .coz every one doing blams games or point scoring, even nawaz sharif , taking revange from army,, ,even our 95% anchors, are paid by diffrent hands, .so as now we don,t want weak army …Recommend

  • White Russian
    May 16, 2011 - 12:49PM

    @Ayesha Siddiqa:
    I agree with Ejaz. There exists a category of army critics whose ambitions if acted would amount to almost doing away with the army. And this is the subtle point: aiming unnecessarily high makes you miserably miss the real target. It is the strength of army in domestic politics which needs to be curtailed, and that is another way of saying: “rigthing the civil-military imbalance” (title of this piece). Recommend

  • observer
    May 17, 2011 - 10:31AM


    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.Recommend

  • alijan
    May 18, 2011 - 3:17AM

    another spirited defense of the parasitic military establishment by one of its most eloquent media representatives! Recommend

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