Resolving civil-military tensions

Published: April 18, 2014
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

Three elements of Pakistan’s existence, among others, are fixed: the nation-state, the military, and its political system. Each has its own import and a specified role and are, therefore, unlikely to go anywhere. Usually, all three should meld to secure and run the nation-state as a responsible and relevant partner of the global polity. But, even if these three elements of the state were to undergo some tension, some dissonance, they must still learn to coexist in difficult moments of disharmony.

What is it which makes such a simple objective complex and undoable? Perhaps, three things again stand out: firstly, a historical experience of military interventions where the political system was either entirely removed for long periods of time, or more frequently, replaced with another, parallel political system. This, in itself, had two consequences: the traditional political system was stunted while the parallel was in place; and two, such repeated experience has engendered a level of mistrust among the politicians of the military and its all-pervasive power and proclivity to upturn the political system if a political dispensation were to non-perform or — to some — not perform to the satisfaction of the military.

Secondly, given the sense of tenuousness that Pakistan’s political system pervasively lives with, they are either always looking over their shoulders for a surreptitious move by the military to oust them and live in constant fear of being upstaged; or, to preclude such an eventuality, begin their own ill-considered furtive moves against the military with an objective to eventually dominate the military. There isn’t a better example of it than Mian Sahib’s 1997-1999 tenure. What ensues is a spy-versus-spy scenario that keeps the entire governing structure and the nation on tenterhooks.

At times, an ill-conceived ‘over-cleverness’ to pre-empt the other side’s aggressive motives can result in consequences that cause unnecessary tension, laden with expectations of an impending strike by either side. Again, the events from May till October of 1999 under Mian Sahib are a case in point. Before the October 12 takeover, the air was pregnant with expectation of one or the other possibility between the PM and the army chief. The inevitable happened. Mian Sahib dithered and botched and Musharraf struck.

The politicians have now also mastered the art of raising false bogies against the military, with loud bickering of less than optimum ‘authority’ to formulate policies, of continuous interference by the military in their affairs and of a real-time, over-the-shoulder monitoring of what the civilian government was up to, especially in the areas of strife where both are required to work together in coordination. While there may be some truth to this perception in areas such as Balochistan, mostly it ends up being a bad ruse to cover a political system’s ineptness and lack of application to the level of engagement needed in treating intractable and difficult issues. Mostly, the politicians are found short on capacity and capability in handling matters of the state — much short in the needed level of proficiency, knowledge and commitment. They find it easy to pin it on the military’s domineering and pervasive presence rendering them ineffective.

Thirdly, what has been called a sense of ‘entitlement’, or ‘special treatment’ that the military considers is their privilege, is what is now at the centre of this equation’s current plight. The military is sensed to be short on fuse on a perceived slight and feels wronged by unjust aspersions, comments and perceptions that the military deems impact its image and lowers its credibility. Sensitive to its institutional pride and place among popular perception, the military tends to stand its ground against any perceived attempt to discredit it. What ensues is an environment of unease and discomfort that practically shadows this relationship between the two. When the disagreements are acute, it almost seems like a confrontation.

The ongoing saga of yet another political-military face-off is touted to root in two apparent points of disagreement: the Musharraf trial and the manner of dialogue with the TTP. Both are only partially true. True, the military would have liked the dialogue process to be little more assertive: instead it borders on being appeasing. Yet, there is ample opportunity for both sides to communicate their respective thoughts on the issue to each other in numerous meetings that both sides hold in preparation of the process or in reviewing progress. It is therefore hardly a reason for any visible hostility.

Musharraf’s trial is ‘the forbidden apple’ that the government could have best avoided, for its own good and for the larger benefit of the nation and its people. It is diversionary in nature and unnecessarily takes away most precious time and resource of the government in dealing with an individual who hardly is of any consequence to anybody, including the military. But then this opportunity to try an ex-dictator, a military man, is what embodies the underlying currents of deep animosity that has governed the civil-military relationship. To the civilian mind, the Musharraf trial is a rare opportunity to get even with the military. The ‘Rule of law’, so easily trashed otherwise by any person of power — civilian or military — is quite transparently used as a shallow attempt to clothe the process in moralistic overtones. To the military, it remains a distant irritation, if at all. The process is long and its outcome still very, very tentative. Conflating Musharraf with the military is patently devious.

What, however, is deliberately missed in the subsequent discourse in the media is the nature, tone, tenor and the lack of context of the outburst that the two federal ministers publicly indulged in ‘after’ Musharraf’s indictment. It does not stand to reason, was purposeless in its aim and even if were meant to target Musharraf, painted adversely the institution of the military instead. The media thereon picked the threads up to recount daily the civil-military tensions and further malign and abuse the military through a persistent recall of the past excesses and other deviations in the military’s conduct vis-a-vis the political set-ups. With General Raheel’s reported statement by the ISPR, the issue was not what prompted it, rather should he have said it.

The mindsets stand entrenched on both sides, sadly. This is a difficult period of disharmony and can only be traversed with great amount of wisdom and leadership, not by raw and debased emotion. This is a moment of consensual acceptability of each other, warts and all, and the moment to coexist, if cooperation seems difficult. The silver lining? Even this will pass, eventually.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (30)

  • Born to free
    Apr 18, 2014 - 10:23PM

    Anyone who thinks, the systems in our country has been fixed for eternity, is living in a fools paradise.Recommend

  • Mirza
    Apr 18, 2014 - 10:28PM

    Remember why they once were called services? What tension, we the people are the boss and we have hired the army to serve us and uphold the constitution not to kill us and take over. The parallel govt and a state within a state act as if it is always creating a situation for hostile takeover. How much they are in love for power that they don’t even care or fear committing high treason! Why can’t they serve Pakistani masses the same way pre-partition desi army was serving the colonial masters?Recommend

  • MSS
    Apr 18, 2014 - 10:59PM

    @Chaudhry Sahib,
    You elaborate very well. And you are right. What NS should have done was to respond to the SC letter by a polite ‘no thank you, we do not want to start court proceedings against Gen. Musharraf’ and he would not have sleepless nights again so soon after taking over. But you must have heard the story of the scorpion hitching a ride across a river…. It is in the nature of the beast. Mian Sahib cannot forget and always has an urge to overreach. That just shows that no civilian politicians in Pakistan have the qualities that makes a statesman and that is what Pakistan needs. A Show of unity with Zardari is not going to help at all. Zardari is too clever and must be enjoying the plight of NS ( a pain he himself skilfully avoided from inflicting on himself).Recommend

  • Malik
    Apr 19, 2014 - 12:09AM

    My last thought! Let’s see, if it works – keep our fingers crossed :)


  • Parvez
    Apr 19, 2014 - 12:24AM

    Your opening statement, if I have read it correctly claims that the nation-state ( people ), the military and the political dispensation……are the three elements of Pakistan’s existence.
    If dispassionately seen, over these 67 odd years only TWO elements have mattered. The third element, let me spell it out for clarity, the people, have always been bystanders only to be used by the other two..


  • Rashid
    Apr 19, 2014 - 12:25AM

    Musharraf case will be the last nail in the coffin of the present govt..


  • Shahid
    Apr 19, 2014 - 12:46AM

    In Pakistan democracy has been hijacked by a ” Democracy Mafia” who on the name of democracy think that they have every right to do whatever they want. They consider themselves and thier family entitled to be masters of pakistani nation and are above all rules and regulation which applies on them. They negate and violate every aspect of true democracy and fear army because short of a peoples revolution like Russia,china or Iran Army is the only instituion which can stop them.


  • Nadir
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:13AM

    Yes sir, civilians are useless, we should be eternally grateful to the Generals that they even bother waking up in the morning to do their day job. While 50,000 Pakistanis have died the Generals are more interested in making sure that are respected and everyone does their bidding. This is all just noise to make sure they get their goodies in the upcoming budget.


  • Zain
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:31AM

    That is your personal opinion sir! I am also “we the people” and I don’t feel so strongly about the military’s role in Pakistan’s politics because I also understand the circumstances in which the military takeovers happened. The civilians were not endearing themselves to us either. I am also not an exception nor a minority with such views. I think in Pakistan, at this juncture, we need to let bygones be bygones. The more you try to arrogantly stick your supremacy of the parliament/people thumb in the face of military, the greater the reaction from them as well. As the author rightly points out, its time to use wisdom to get through this.

    As far as service goes, the armed forces have served Pakistani awaam more than ANY political party since the founding of Pakistan. The Army has truly touched the people of Pakistan with its service. Yes their role in governance is not desirable, but lets go easy. The military itself is backing off and supporting the civilian government, let them have a face saving withdrawal back into the cantonment. What good is this mud slinging and thumbing the military in the face? Lastly, service is not just the purview of the military as those who get elected are expected to serve the people in the same way. For how long will you continue to beat the military on ruling Pakistan when those who get elected never serve us?


  • Raj - USA
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:45AM

    General Kayani got an unprecedented full three year term extension but only concnetrated on getting a bigger pie from Kerry-Lugar Bill, NLC & Memogate. His right-hand man Gen. Pasha concentrated on installing Imran Khan to power. What more can describe aptly General Kayani’s attitude and performance than the song “Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibatha Chala Gaya” from old Bollywood movie “Hum Dono” starring Dev Anand. Here is the video, lyrics and translation for this song:

    When Raheel Shareef came to the scene, there was hope that he will show more courage and determination and wipe out the talibans. But Nawaw Sharif and Saudis have cornered him with the gift of $1.5 billion, all of which shall go the the Army.


  • gp65
    Apr 19, 2014 - 3:58AM

    “Three elements of Pakistan’s existence, among others, are fixed: the nation-state, the military, and its political system.”

    In contrast, in India, we consider the judiciary, legislature and executive as the 3 elemnts of the government. The military is one of the departments of the executive.Recommend

  • Aurangzeb Khan
    Apr 19, 2014 - 4:38AM

    I think Musharraf should be hanged for his crimes against Humanity and against Pakistanis.


  • Aurangzeb Khan
    Apr 19, 2014 - 6:11AM

    I would like Generals to take a clear, and a bold position. After all, we are civilians with no arms. Please tell us is it the Army as a whole, or just some rogue generals consumed by the sense of power they feel in commanding the Army, responsible to utter disregard of civilians. I live in USA, where I see generals lot more powerful than all Pak generals combined, coming on TV and giving clarifications to the People.

    Or, just make Pakistan another Egypt.


  • Mirza
    Apr 19, 2014 - 7:37AM

    My uncle told me a story while I was a kid. He was in the UK and went out with the old lady he was staying with at her home. She stopped at a gas station filled the gas and paid the cash. My Pakistani uncle asked her “what if somebody leaves without paying”? She told him to get off the car and said how can you even think about that?
    Our paid generals are always thinking and planning to take over what is not their legal right. Whenever any civilian even of their favorite is in power they are always ready to jump at the first opportunity to capture PM and president house. Their oath of office “to uphold the constitution, etc.) becomes nothing for them. No democracy in the world is perfect but no paid public servants are always trying to take over except in Pakistan. The logic that politicians are not good so let us take over is the same as if someone is not managing the company the security guards are justified in taking over! In the land of pure it is never the usurper’s fault who commits high treason.


  • Nikki
    Apr 19, 2014 - 9:25AM

    No need to show of POWER, thats simple.Let the politicians ruin this country completely ,the time will teach them and punish them.


  • Nikki
    Apr 19, 2014 - 9:28AM


    Yes, the author has not read political science.


  • Nikki
    Apr 19, 2014 - 10:07AM

    In Pakistan, the inability of the political rulers to cope with the problems will always bring drastic change in the pattern of civil-military relations.


  • Niaz Ahmad Khan
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:04PM

    There are sinners and saints in all segments of our society and we should stop looking for exceptions in body politics and services.


  • Feroz
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:19PM

    Any Political dispensation in a Nation State can have only one power center. In a Democracy it is Parliament led by the PM or elected President, in a Dictatorship it is the Dictator, in a Monarchy it is the King and in a Communist state it is the Politburo. In an Islamic State it should be the Caliph, in the Vatican it will be the Pope. If Pakistan believes in some other highbreed structure where every Institution pushes and shoves the other to discredit and defame them, the result can be nothing but anarchy which all are witnessing. Secondly, Pakistan has a Constitution in which supremacy rests with Allah. Who is to decide who is Allah’s representative when there is no Caliph. If those who rule wisely as well as those who terrorize the State claim to be acting on Allah’s behalf, who will be the arbitrator ? That those who wrote the Constitution brought Ideology into Law, they simply did not have the wisdom to see that a minefield was being laid. Now we can better understand why foresight is always valued higher than hindsight.


  • Rizwan
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:31PM

    The logic that politicians are not good so let us take over

    If my dentist is no good, I will go find annother dentist. If that one turns out to be a dud, I will ask around for another dentist, and so on. I will never say that since dentist # 1 and dentist # 2 were incompetent I now need to show my teeth to a car mechanic. Ultimately the right dentist will come along, and the car mechanics can continue working on their cars.Recommend

  • Uza Syed
    Apr 19, 2014 - 1:31PM

    “We the people” the people want that it is high time that Pakistan was put back on the right tracks and run like a modern State must and frankly, “WE the people” don’t give damn who does it. If the civilians read present politicos can’t put their act together then they don’t have any business to be there, they may go home or be sent back wherever they came from and “WE the people” want some one else to run the affairs of Pakistan as it ought to be and “WE the people” don’t care whether they are in or out of uniform.


  • Muslim Leaguer
    Apr 19, 2014 - 2:46PM

    The cahoots of a military dictator can not save him from the imminent punishment under article6 of the Constitution.


  • Apr 19, 2014 - 4:58PM

    indeed civil military complex is a fact which colurs politiking in pak. However besides the actual realities, it is being intensified by the so called democratic heroes and more particularly by pseudo scholars as they. Army must be treated as a dapartment like other departments under the complete control of civilian govt like in rest of the world l. False myths be not attributed and the ludicrous shows ve to stop the mastifications.


  • max
    Apr 19, 2014 - 8:36PM

    we need army rule fof next thirty years uninterruptedRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Apr 19, 2014 - 10:52PM

    Is it that difficult to break up the dysfuntional State that you need the assistance of the army specialists once again to do the work?

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Adnan Siddiqi
    Apr 19, 2014 - 11:05PM


    Yeah right and this whole country would become a DHA with real estate offices at every corner manned by uniformed real estate agents.Recommend

  • Yusuf
    Apr 20, 2014 - 1:16AM

    Look the M.A.Jinnah Road, one need military boots to walk on footpath. The military under President Musharrf over looked. Governor or Chief Minister do not drive on main road to Kemari.
    We cannot provide oil or petrol consistently to Lahore pumps. I am a COP, citizen of Pakistan, I do not receive retirement fund from government while the military, government employee and politicians do. I am still a Tax Return Filer for more than 40 years and no return. I am a COP, do I get respect or communicate on a Forum. Lets resolve by giving me same benefit in my retirement. Pakistan Paindabad.


  • Lalit
    Apr 20, 2014 - 8:18AM

    Military boot licking is the self made destiny of the people of Pakistan.they never gave sufficient time to democracy in order to take roots,expecting overnight dividends. swinging like a pendulum from dictatorship to democracy has become their fate..


  • truthbetold
    Apr 20, 2014 - 9:22AM

    Three elements of Pakistan’s existence, among others, are fixed: the nation-state, the military, and its political system.”

    Not quite correct. It should be “Army, Allah and America” according to prevailing and proven wisdom.


  • Sexton Blake
    Apr 20, 2014 - 10:50PM

    Obviously, the situation in Pakistan is not perfect at the leadership level, but show me a country that is. The US/UK are dominated by the industrial/military complex. Additionally, the US/UK/EU/Australia/Canada are controlled from above by shadowy figures, which I will not go into. Almost all countries, and this includes India, adore their military personnel who can do no wrong, although generally most military organizations have a low profile on the political scene. The writer Shahzad Chaudhry is somewhat critical of the Pakistan Government for its treatment of President Musharraf an ex-dictator, albeit a benevolent one, and he is not alone in this. Perhaps President Musharraf did good work, and the Government should have let sleeping dogs lie. Unfortunately, their are many senior, bruised Pakistanis out there and to put it simply they want payback. There are rights and wrongs on both sides, but the die has been set and the situation now has to play out to the end. Perhaps the best solution would be to allow President Musharraf to visit his mother, and have overseas medical treatment, on the firm understanding that he does not come back. Pakistan’s other political problems, like everywhere are very complex, I have no answers to them, and who is listening anyway..


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