On September 6th 2018 during the Defence Day celebrations in GHQ Rawalpindi, two important points were made related to civil-military by the prime minister during his speech. One — “we will no more fight someone else’s war” and two –“the often quoted existence of civil-military tensions in Pakistan is not a reality but a myth.”

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First on the subject of no more fighting someone else’s war. Understanding war first in the Clausewitzian way — it’s a political act, a compulsion for an opponent to submit to our will or a political instrument and a conflict-resolving mechanism that sometimes is the only means to resolve a conflict. At the heart of the prime minister’s statement is the understanding of the great transition that the Afghan War has made from its initiation and inception in the early 80s as a necessity to block the Soviet advance on our western frontier to its conversion post-9/11 into a part of the global war on terror. Given the circumstances, Pakistan could not have avoided participating and fighting either of the two. As in international relations nothing happens outside a given environment so it must be appreciated that the environment of insecurity induced by the circumstances across our western front left us with little or no leverage to avoid participating in a war, which even seemingly looked like externally imposed. Any alternative approach would still have unfolded alternative consequences that could have still adversely challenged the independence and sovereignty of our nation and the state.

So wars, no matter how destructive in nature once imposed have to be fought to contest the great test of survival of the nation. In military jargon it is said that ‘only force can counteract force’. So only and if the state responds with counter (military) force, military can set the conditions of stability, predictability and regularity within which politics can then eventually intervene and bring about the already determined and desired political end to the war. It is understandable that war must be avoided at all costs but maybe that’s why it’s called an ‘act of politics’ because when all other means of conflict-resolution have politically ended, it is then chosen as the final method to eliminate the state’s enemy or a violent competitor.

The big question is who makes the choice to go to war? Military or politics? The answer to this question is politics but if it is the military that is in power (like it was in Pakistan in both the first and the second Afghan war) that decision then obviously becomes uniformed — taken by the general yet approved by a controlled parliamentary civilian government. To quote Karl Von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war rests on the triad factors (the great trinity as it is called)” — military, given a task asks the government for resources — government, that sets the objective but never intervenes with the means of achievement and people, that supports the military and the government never restricting their freedom of action. In both the Afghan wars the Clausewitzian great trinity has by and large worked. If one has to be an avid critic of whether the Afghan war that Pakistan fought correctly rested on the Clausewitzian triad then one can challenge the ‘setting of objective’ as a weakness in the period when the Afghan war became a part of the global war on terror.

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During the initial years of this period, dialogue and war waging both proceeded simultaneously thus preventing the war in developing a clear objective and winning momentum. But we are not the only ones who got stuck with a war that seems to drag on and taking a momentum of its own thus, requiring a long and enduring fight to end it. A whole set of other nations led by the US are also the joint stakeholders and on the receiving end of this war, in one way or another. Even the US has been a huge violator of the Clausewitzian theory of triad and the great trinity in the past, in how it fought and lost the Vietnam War. Military history reflects how: the US Army was given no clear objectives; the US president intervened unabatedly with the military operations (even selecting bombing targets from the White House briefing room); the American people were never mobilised behind the war effort; and Congress set political constraints on the war, which deeply harmed the development of any coherent strategy to fight it. In the end it was lost for violating all the Clausewitzian triad war waging principles.

What the prime minister said about “not fighting someone else’s war anymore” may be reflective of the coming times, but in the period in which we opted to fight these Afghan wars we pretty much made them our own and fighting them was a necessity more than a choice.

The second point that the prime minister made during the speech was to call the civil-military tensions in Pakistan as nothing but a myth. Civil-military disparity and variance is something that has continued to guide this bipolar relation not only in Pakistan but all over the world. In the developed world where the political system has matured much to the recognition of each other’s role and the boundaries that define those roles makes the relationship extremely flexible, and any disturbances to the relationship are met internally. In countries like Pakistan where the military has been intervening in politics and the political system is taking time to mature, civil-military relations remains a subject that still seeks externalisation and an external audience to decide where the actual power is positioned and who influences more in deciding the important matters of the state. The military and political mindset in this relationship is a constant, which is best expressed by two famous quotes, one by a civilian Lloyd George who while showcasing civilian supremacy in war making famously said that, “War was too important to be left to the generals.” In another famous maxim president Eisenhower of the US said during the WWII that, “War is a technical business and politics have no business [in] interfering in the strategic concerns.”

In this ever evolving civil-military relationship there are two fixations that we must be aware of. The soldiers are fixated with the enemy and the politicians are fixated with power. Finding flexibility in these two fixations is the only way that not only makes civil-military relations work better but also continuously improve. 

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2018.

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