Democracy and the generals

Published: July 23, 2010

The themes of democracy and dictatorship run through the history of Pakistan. The tradition of military dominance that has shaded most aspects of political life in the state means that the decision to extend the tenure of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani cannot be seen as a decision not tied in to other developments on the national scene. The announcement in a brief late-night address to the nation by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani means General Kayani will now serve till November 2013, three years longer than the period assigned to him. There had for many months been speculation as to whether the COAS would step down on schedule. The fact that the government has decided he will not means General Kayani will now stay in office beyond the tenures of both the prime minister and the president, who bow out earlier in 2013. Interestingly enough the chief justice of Pakistan, too, is scheduled to retire that same year.

Not many will need persuasion that the move, which follows meetings of the COAS, corps commanders and the top civilian leadership, is intended to ensure that any potential friction between the latter and the military establishment stays at a minimum. Other than that, there is bound to be a perception among some in the country – and it may not be entirely unjustified – that the move will surely have the endorsement of the Americans. According to several media reports, the head of the US military, Admiral Mike Mullen, as well as the head of US forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, and his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal have had a good working relation with General Kayani. Having said that, the threat of military intervention has lingered somewhere in the background since the dramatic restoration of the judiciary in March 2009 — an event the army is said to have played some part in. The grounds offered by the prime minister, that General Kayani has been retained in the interests of national security, raise more questions than they answer. Are we to assume that military strategy follows from the persuasions of individual generals rather than a policy devised by the government? Is there any reason to believe the next COAS would have pursued a different course of action? And how convincing is the claim that we are triumphing over the militants anyway? There are many doubts as to the degree and stability of success within the conflict zone where local residents speak of continued unrest.

There is also the small matter of principle and precedent. General Kayani has been called a soldier’s soldier, under whose reins there has been considerable focus on the welfare of the soldier as opposed to the officer. That said, the failure to follow rules in many ways dooms us to a future of still more speculation and doubt. It also leaves it plain that the elected government is largely powerless against a military that remains assertive — even if this role is more subtle than in the past. There can be no doubt that as yet the balance of power between the military and the civilian set-up has not been righted. Until this happens we can expect only further bumps on the road that leads to democracy. That goal cannot be achieved by the process of balloting alone.

There is also the question of the role of international players. General Kayani has been able to persuade key allies that he is central to the effort against militancy. While they speak frequently of bolstering democracy in Pakistan and of their commitment to keeping it afloat, these players have little hesitation in doing business with military chiefs. We do not know what events took place behind the scenes leading to the late-night address to the nation. But we do know that the first-ever extension to an army chief granted by a civilian government will add to the difficulties Pakistan faces in establishing control over its military and ending the long era through which the men in uniform have scripted the plot of the story of political life.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • SharifL
    Jul 24, 2010 - 12:03PM

    A good piece. I do not, however, agree with your statement that: While they speak frequently of bolstering democracy in Pakistan and of their commitment to keeping it afloat, these players have little hesitation in doing business with military chiefs.
    The reason they do it is because they know military is running the show behind the scenes and one day they might have to deal with them again. Only when civilian rule is stabilized, and army is really back in the barracks, we would see a real change in their attitudes.
    I am not in favor of extending three years to Kayani, but is best under the circumstances. After all the new guy might want to come in forefront and send the government packing. We know there are many in the army who think Pakistan was created for them to rule. Surprisingly, they always find civilians who support them. Recommend

  • Charles Ferndale
    Jul 24, 2010 - 1:37PM

    The Express Tribune editorial is lucid and well argued, but the arguments avoid the main issues that have rendered democracy in Pakistan fraudulent throughout its history. The editorial rightly points out that the continued dominance of Pakistan politics by the military has made was passes for democracy here something of a pretense. That is entirely true. But one reason why the army, with all its faults, has so often had to act politically in Pakistan is that the civilian governments have never in any meaningful sense represented the interests of the Pakistan majority, nor even of the country’s enlightened minority: they have respresented only the outrageously corrupt interests of those who have successfully grabbed temporary power. Never has this statement been more true than it is right now. Naturally, the army has also shown itself soon enough to be abusive of its powers and has been corrupted by weilding political and financial power; so military intervention here has only ever brought temporary relief from cleptocracy. No Pakistani power group has ever been fair, honest and responsible for long. Pakistanis have yet to devise a means of ensuring the answerablilty of its rulers to the electorate. And I suspect that before they invent such a means the country will have disintegrated. All Pakistani governments have sooner, rather than later, become robbers of the Pakistani people and traitors to the real long-term interests of the country. Why this should have been so is a question to which no simple answers are available, but one part of any answer must include the fact that all Pakistani power groups have been more answerable to American military and coroprate interests than to the interests of the Pakistani people. Were the Pakistanis ever to elect a party led by an honest independent man, say Imran Khan (until he provbes otherwise), we can be sure the Americans would soon subvert their choice. The Americans hate independent political figures. It simply cannot be true that the real long-term interests of the Pakistani people and those of the American power establishment coincide. The real interests of these two groups are necessarily irreconciable. And, in that conflict the Americans and their proxy rulers will, I suspect, always win, because they hold real power. At least that so far has been the essential history of Pakistan. Yet until Pakistan is free from American and other external interferences–in adition to the malign influences of its backward, ignorant, mullahs–there will be no hope for its people. This is the sad truth that your excellent editorial fails to mention. Army bashing is attractive because it suggests the possibility of hope for Pakistan: just keep the army in its baracks and all will be well. Would that it were true!Recommend

  • SharifL
    Jul 24, 2010 - 5:39PM

    Charles Fernando, I do not disagree that many civilian leaders did the job well. Now enlighten us. These leaders were sacked before their term expired, not one of them but all of them. It is just like playing football and after half hours when your team is behind the other side, you send them packing. In South Africa Brazil was leading 2:1 at half time. Only at the end showed that brazil lost to Holland. Military, on the other hand ruled for decades and have brought nothing but instability. Civilian elected leaders, on the other hand, are dismissed, jailed, sent abroad or even hanged.
    I say give democracy a chance of few decades and you will see how things improve. One thing more, if you dismiss those majority of people have elected, people feel something wrong has been done to them. But after their term, when they do not deliver, people will change their choice. I hope they do not elect religious fanatics. that will give Pakistan the rest.
    I doubt you are writing with your accurate name. More likely you are from karachi. Both Zia and Musharaff had middle class backgrounds, had absolute power and did not even initiate land reform. Musharff was liberal, I admit, but it is nothing against him but the institution which is wrong. Then you say something very undemocratic. People should elect likes of Imran Khan. Do you give the electorate the chance to choose?Recommend

  • zubair torwali
    Jul 24, 2010 - 11:46PM

    very bold and true piece. the move in itself means more lingering in the war on terror which will never be wanted to end as now it is the latest resort and pretext upon which the people of Pakistan can be led into oblivion bu letting Pakistan lingering somewhere between the failed and failing state status.

    the move also clearly shows who actually hold the reins of the affairs.Recommend

  • sabiha
    Jul 25, 2010 - 12:27AM

    Silence enhances authority.Kayani has the benefit of doubt on his side until he proves otherwise.If he keeps the sovereignty of Pakistan intact inspite of American pressure,if he can keep the reins on the massive corruption and wholesale inefficiency of the ruling coterie,if he can facilitate implementation of the judiciary’s decisions,history will call him a saviour.Otherwise he will just be a guarantor of the infamous deal.Giving democracy a chance for several decades is a pipedream,supremacy of parliament of fakes cheats and fraudsters is a sick joke,we are doomed to live in the ‘status quo.’Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Jul 25, 2010 - 3:04AM

    I would like to quote an incident which is very relevant to the situation in spite of some obvious dissimilarities.A case was sent to Governor Malik Amir Muhammad Khan requesting for extension beyond the date of retirement for an officer on the grounds of his being indispensable.The Governor declined and returned the file.Another summary for the Governor was prepared pleading with him to reconsider the case the officer being indeed quite indispensable.A list of projects in hand and the expertise of the officer in question was highlighted in great detail.The governor again rejected the summary with a brief and apt observation:”Suppose he dies tomorrow?:Recommend

  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Jul 25, 2010 - 3:49PM

    A very realistic and astute contribution from Charles. I agree with everything you say, but wince when you seem to regard the disintegration of Pakistan as inevitable (I may be mistaken). As one who believes in the high principles of the the Quaid, this would be a tragedy, and an undoing of all his efforts. Given the external constraints, working in the interests of Pakistan is indeed a very difficult balancing act to perform. Very high quality leadership is required at present.Recommend

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