The decision by US President Barack Obama to sack General Stanley McChrystal, his war commander, and appoint General David Petraeus in his place sends out a crystal-clear signal about the manner in which Obama intends to work. McChrystal has paid the price for derisive remarks made about the president and his national security team in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine. The civilian administration has not taken the comments kindly, with the unusual sacking of the general making it clear Obama intends to assert civilian authority as strongly as possible — even at the risk of shaking up the command structure in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s apology in Washington and his admission that the comments had been unwise were insufficient to save him.
The action by the US president shows his unwillingness to tolerate insubordination. This was the purpose behind the exercise, completed smoothly and with precision — even though it has left behind an unpleasant aftertaste as comments ridiculing an elected government by the military always do. We are told that US Vice-President Joseph Biden called up Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to inform him of the change in Afghanistan. What the prime minister made of the decision and the fact that it caused many a ripple in the US – but no tidal wave – can only be speculated about. Such a decision would have been almost impossible for any government to take here in Pakistan and that is precisely why, taking a cue from what President Obama said about democracy in America, democratic institutions are weak and powerless in this country. The military has in the past not taken kindly to what it perceives as civilian ‘intervention’ in its affairs and the constitutionally laid down law, placing the military under government command has at best remained rather tentatively enforced. Attempts to do so have at times brought open rebellion, as happened early on in the tenure of the present government when it attempted to bring agencies directly under its authority. The agencies did not take kindly to authority asserted by the courts either, with summons issued to heads of organisations in the missing persons case almost certainly playing a part in the ‘emergency’ of 2007 declared by then president Musharraf.
The move made by Obama should serve as a lesson. In order to run administrations it is vital law be followed and executive authority be respected. When a ship is run by too many captains, it is liable to sink. The fact that the US ship of state continues to bob bravely above the waves, despite the crisis seen between the government and a key commander, is testimony to the strength of the system in the country and the advantages of a tradition in which the military does not influence civilian working. Obama has, through his decision, made certain that other people in uniform will think twice before mocking the civilian set-up in disparaging terms or suggesting that it is not doing its job properly, thereby strengthening his own position and that of everyone who serves him in the White House.
We constantly hear calls for a ‘balance’ between institutions. The events in the US lead us to ask if this is justified, feasible or even wise. It is not always possible to keep everyone happy all the time. There are many fables that drive home this message. For every organisation, and certainly for every state, it is important to have a structure of authority. When this does not exist there is potential for chaos. And that is why a truly democratic society – and we hope that one day Pakistan can become one – is where supreme authority vests with an elected parliament and all other institutions of the state are subservient to it and not only abide by its directives but also respect them. The constitution of this country is very clear on that as well and it is time that we all learnt to follow it in letter and spirit – and take a cue (for a change) from the way the Americans do things in their part of the world – on at least this issue.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 25th, 2010.