Who is entitled to appoint the next army chief? This controversy has opened up the wider issue of civil-military relations.
Democracies presuppose the sovereignty of the people. Checks and balances ensure against what Aristotle feared most: despotism.
Samuel Finer in his classic, The Man on the Horseback (1962) propounded that due to organisational strength, technical prowess and monopoly over arms, it was not surprising that armies engage in politics. What is remarkable is how they have abstained from such entanglements. He gave two reasons: legitimacy and ability to manage economically complex and culturally diverse communities.
Gen MacArthur advanced the classical establishment position: “I find in existence a new and … dangerous concept that the members of our armed forces owe allegiance or loyalty to those who temporarily exercise the authority of the executive branch of government rather than to its country and constitution which they are sworn to defend.” (1952)
President Gen Eisenhower, contrarily, warned of dangers to liberty from the huge military — defence establishment. In his famous 1961 farewell speech he said: “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of uncontrolled influence… by the military industrial complex. The… disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never allow this ... (to) endanger our liberties or the democratic process.”
The rather facile view is that since in Pakistan, military involvement in civilian affairs is a given, public debate about who leads the forces is legitimate and proper.
Others see political motivations trying to bring a disciplined institution and its top generals into contentious dispute which is neither beneficial for professionalism nor ungrudging loyalty to command. Doubt and disputation is being inserted among the ranks of an organisation whose successful performance of its duties demands unqualified trust and confidence in its superiors.
The debate began when the previous government felt that it could have weathered the no-confidence vote in April had the establishment not relinquished support. A mass public campaign began alleging foreign conspiracy in complicity with “local handlers” who faced lamentable outrage.
A constant has been the demand for an early election which the other side suspects is prompted by the not-so-secret a desire to appoint someone of choice. Credence is lent to this suspicion from the statement that the appointment of the next army chief be postponed until after the next elections and that until then the present chief’s term be extended.
The suggestion that an army chief must not lack patriotism is startling and begs the question of how doubts can be raised about a probable appointee who can rise to the level of three-star generalship. Since one of the four or five senior most serving three-star generals are to be considered, by raising an eyebrow over the motives that may guide the decision of the government, perhaps an unintentional yet regrettable doubt has been raised about the credentials or integrity of all or any. The suggestion of a deferment verges upon the negation of the constitutional prerogative of a government to appoint an army chief.
From Gracey to Ayub to Zia, Musharraf to Kiyani, Raheel to Bajwa everyone was appointed by the sitting Prime Ministers with the approval of the Governor General or the President. Six army chiefs from Asif Nawaz to Bajwa were appointed when the PML-N was ruling.
The other argument for begrudging the right to the government to appoint the next chief is the disquieting claim that such an appointee will afford protection to the political bosses from possible arraignment in alleged malfeasances.
Selecting a soldier out of those few at the top as the commander who will be well-attuned has always been a consideration worldwide. But the introduction of this spacious criteria presupposes that an army chief wields influence on the judiciary to secure the extrication of politicians from alleged culpabilities. This debases not only the selection procedure or the person selected, but also tends to downscale the status of that office in the public eye.
Had that been the case in the selection of the six army chiefs during the governments of PML-N at various periods, and the chiefs been, figuratively speaking, handbag bunnies, the PML-N supremo would, upon this supposition, perhaps have easily escaped disqualification for an unreceived meagre salary.
This averment further suffers from an incurable circularity: the claim, without evidence, that the present government wants to appoint the next army chief so that they can get relief in their corruption cases, if conceded, even hypothetically, leads to the admission that it was the army chiefs in the past who were responsible for making corruption cases against those who constitute the present leadership and making them spend months in jail to be freed by the highest courts on grounds of being politically tainted and engineered cases.
That very argument leads to conceding two other logical corollaries: that the army chief that the present government selects will not spare or save the opposition leadership from the Damocles sword of allegations of apparent financial impropriety that are presently surfacing.
And secondly, that the person appointed as army chief by the opposition, if it wins an election, will bundle all the opposition leadership into jail on charges of financial improbity that have not found any convictions during the last four years.
Upon this hypothesis the army is being painted as doing nothing more than constantly consigning or saving people from purgatory.
In the long journey from the country’s independence through dictatorships, managed democracy to hybridism, one theme has been permanent: the demand that civilian democracy, which rests upon the will of the people, must rule supreme and the military should restrict its role to the ambit prescribed by the Constitution. The Quaid had rightly sensed the mood in Quetta Staff College in 1948 where he emphatically reiterated that the executive authority in the state flows from the government of Pakistan.
No institution of state is a holy cow. The army has wielded extraordinary influence in the political history of Pakistan. But political historians have always contended that this role has led arguably to avoidable losses in terms of inclusivity, economic development and national unity.
It is not institutions which are above fair criticism. But constitutionalism and democracy certainly are above reproach.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2022.
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