A major problem area for the federal government led by Nawaz Sharif is civil-military relations despite the fact that the PML-N leadership has a reasonable experience of living under the wings of the military. Their wish to assume a commanding role in defence and security affairs is greatly influenced by their flawed assumptions that their electoral support base and personalised decision-making would overawe the military. They now consult with the military top brass on security and related matters but it is not clear if the implementation of the decisions in the post-consultation period reflects the substance of the consultation.
The official civilian version on the meetings between the top military and civilian leaders projects a strong harmony and understanding between them. If we go by the statements of hardline federal cabinet members who have close access to Nawaz Sharif, the impression is created that the army top command fully endorses the civilian government’s management of talks with the TTP and the “high treason” case against Pervez Musharraf. It is not clear if that perception reflects the full reality or the civilian leadership is interpreting the politeness and professional discreetness of the top brass of the army as their total agreement with their handling of these two matters.
The experience of Nawaz Sharif’s earlier terms in office (1990-1993, 1997-1999) shows that Nawaz Sharif and his close associates overestimated their electoral clout in dealing with the military. In January 1993, differences developed between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on the selection of the army chief after General Asif Nawaz Janjua died of a heart attack. Nawaz Sharif’s famous speech of not accepting anybody’s dictates in April ultimately brought him in conflict with the army top leadership when it worked towards seeking the resignations of Nawaz Sharif and Ishaq Khan to break the political deadlock in July 1993. Another example of poor management of civil-military relations is Nawaz Sharif’s interaction with the army top brass in the post-Kargil period, especially in August-October 1999. Shahbaz Sharif went to Washington to obtain American support for democracy. This support could not secure civilian rule as Nawaz Sharif attempted to remove General Pervez Musharraf in a dramatic manner and appointed his protégé as the army chief.
The civilian leadership can secure itself against military intrusions by creating a credible civilian governance system that enjoys widespread popular support. This is only possible if electoral legitimacy is coupled with performance legitimacy by good governance and a moderate and accommodating political management.
If the ultimate sanction of the military’s clout is its organisation, discipline and control of instruments of violence, the civilian leaders derive strength from popular support. However, popular support cannot be cultivated without performing in three major civilian domains. First, good governance and delivery of services to the common people and keeping economic pressures on them under check.
Second, an accommodating and cooperative interaction with the out-of-power political and societal forces. What matters here is how far other political and societal forces are willing to support the government at the operational level. If the government establishes a tyranny of majority and keeps all political adversaries under check, the political environment cannot stay harmonious and cooperative over a long period of time. Divided and fragmented political forces cannot command the political system vis-à-vis the military.
Third, post-military rule, political forces need not create a sense of insecurity in the military. An unnecessarily critical posture or negative campaign by the civilian government and political forces is always counterproductive. The civilian government often loses the confidence of the military by a policy of non-accommodation towards the sensitivities of the military top brass or undertaking a persistent propaganda campaign against the military for one reason or another.
In a country like Pakistan, where internal and external security pressures are intense, the military cannot be pushed to the sidelines. Civilian leaders will have to change Pakistan’s internal security profile and build peace on its borders in order to cut back on the role and status of the military.If Pakistan continues to suffer from violence and terrorism and its ultranationalists want to wage war against India, dominate Afghanistan and keep Iran under pressure, the military and its needs and requirements will override other considerations influencing policymaking and its execution.
At a time when the “performance legitimacy” of the PML-N government has slipped downwards, it has embarked on two extremely contentious policies: talks with the TTP and the trial of Pervez Musharraf for “high treason”. The talks with the Taliban in an apologetic manner cannot go on for an indefinite period. The civil government will have to produce positive results by the end of April in terms of the TTP giving up violence and agreeing to work within the framework of the Constitution. The army cannot afford to let the summer of 2014 pass by and let the Taliban consolidate their position in the tribal areas. This will increase the cost of defending Pakistan’s security for the military in 2015.
Similarly, the dragging-on of the Musharraf trial has a strong potential to adversely affect civil-military relations to the disadvantage of Nawaz Sharif. The military expresses its views in its own way, which can be read only by those who understand how a professional and disciplined military works. Given the military’s professional profile and tradition of respect for its retired senior officers, it would be very unusual if the military abandons Pervez Musharraf in favour of political leaders.
The civilian government needs to undertake a dispassionate review of its policies on both issues. Stepping back on these issues may subject the civilian government to criticism by a section of political leaders. However, the cost is likely to be higher for sleepwalking into the Taliban trap in the name of dialogue and settling old scores with Musharraf.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2014.