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A Case For Civilian Supremacy

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Pakistan’s political class has the potential to carry out scrutiny of GHQ’s plans and strategies, because reviewing adventurous plans and strategy requires political acumen—which is in ample supply among political class in Pakistan, writes Umer Farooq.

On September 17, 2018 Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited the Headquarters of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and met PLA chief General Han Weiguo. The topics which came under discussion were regional security environment, security of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and bilateral security cooperation between the armed forces of two countries.

However, during the meeting, PLA chief said something which indicates the increasing relevance and importance of Pakistani land forces in the regional security arrangements and edifice. General Han Weiguo asked General Bajwa that People’s Liberation Army would like to benefit from the vast combat experience that Pakistani Army has acquired during the past 15 years.

“PLA chief appreciated and acknowledged high professional standing of Pakistan Army displayed while combating terrorism. The Chinese general expressed his keen desire to benefit from Pakistan Army’s combat experience and also expand bilateral cooperation”, a senior military official said in a background interview.

Interestingly, the Pakistan Army could be described as the only regional land force with the vast experience of combat operations acquired during the past 15 years of war against terror.

Chinese Army, in contrast, despite all the state-of-the-art military equipment at its disposal, is totally devoid of any combat experience. In the words of a senior military analyst, the combat experience that Pakistani Army acquired during the past 15 years is just like a ‘Gold Mine’ in purely military terms. He said that Pakistan military’s standing and status as a combat force in the region is on the rise for the past few years and one of the reasons for this is the vast amount of combat experience that it has acquired over the years.

Pakistan Army has remained engaged in counter insurgency and counter terrorism operations in the tribal areas close to the Afghan border during the past 15 years. “This has given Pakistan Army a vast amount of combat experience”, said the military analyst.

This and other corresponding realities have increased the importance of military in Pakistan’s domestic arena. And it has enhanced the hold of military’s top brass on the power structure of the country. This fact is recognised by most of the analysts. But what is new is that this deep involvement of the military has also served to enhance Chief of the Army Staff’s role in the overall state of affairs.

It’s not that acquisition of combat experience is the only thing in the emergence of Pakistan Army has new regional player. This combat experience has come with corresponding political reality at the regional level, which has afforded the opportunity to military top brass to present itself as an important player at the regional level. This political reality projects Pakistan military as an entity, which has been performing the role of a combat force against religious militancy in a highly volatile region that includes West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.

It’s true that this role of Pakistani military has come under tremendous criticism from its regional opponents who cast doubts about its continued hobnobbing with militant groups that originally come from other regional countries. For instance, Pakistan’s North Waziristan region used to provide sanctuary to regional militant groups from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chinese Turkistan and Russian Federation’s Muslim regions.

Pakistan also acted as a hotbed of regional militant groups, which were operating against India.

But consider how some of the regional countries including Iran, Russia and China are increasingly relying on Pakistan military to counter new regional security threats emerging in the region. Russian, Chinese and Iranian military and political leadership have started to talk to Pakistani military’s top brass about the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan.

Russian Federation is concerned with the rise of ISIS in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, which borders Central Asian states including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; as Russia security establishment considers Central Asia to be within the security zone that comes under its sphere of influence.

Similarly, ISIS-led violence in Western Afghanistan is a cause of concern for Iran. However, Pakistani officials said that Iran is concerned over the overall rise of ISIS in its neighbouring country.

Pakistan Army is also concerned about the rise of ISIS as a militant force in Eastern Afghan province of Nuristan, which borders the Pakistani territory.

Pakistani military officials have publicly expressed concerns over the rise of ISIS in Nuristan, which, they say, is a source of sectarian violence on Pakistani territory.

Pakistani security experts say that in Nuristan province, some Salafi groups, which were formerly allied with Taliban, have joined hands with ISIS.  Most of the sectarian attacks in Pakistan appear to have been carried out by ISIS and its local partners, which are mostly banned sectarian groups. Although Pakistani government strongly denies the organised presence of ISIS as threat on its territory, in a recent meeting, Pakistani civilian and military leadership have considered the new regional security situation arising from the ISIS-led violence in Afghanistan and Pakistani city of Quetta.

This increased regional role has enhanced the confidence of military’s top brass in handling domestic political situation according to its whims and wishes. Excluding domestic political opponents from the political process and shunning the calls for civilian supremacy becomes easy in such a situation, when your control over power structures in the society is increasing.

But can Pakistan military assume a permanent and stable regional role without making itself subordinate to the concept of civilian supremacy? Can this dysfunctional political system provide Pakistani military the foundation on which to build the edifice of regional influence beyond its borders? Excluding well-entrenched political forces from political process will only deepen the fractures in the society. In such a situation, can a fractured society enable the military to remain a stable regional player?

Let’s consider the Bhutto’s model for an answer. After Bhutto assumed power in Islamabad, he started to coax the military generals not to be distracted by involvement in petty military conflicts, instead he convinced them to harness the capacity of Pakistani society to produce military manpower for a regional role. Pakistan’s region of Punjab had developed considerable military traditions during more than 100 years of British role.

In this period, Punjabi society became recruiting ground for British Indian army. Bhutto wanted this military manpower to become Pakistan’s asset in gaining regional influence among the manpower-poor Gulf States. These Gulf States had the cash to buy state of the art military equipment from the international market or to finance defense industries in Pakistan, but didn’t have manpower and expertise to do it for themselves.

Bhutto wanted to become part of this regional security arrangement, but wanted the Pakistan military to do this at a political level only, and while remaining under civilian control. It proved to be impossible when Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup in July 1977. And then Zia implemented a much more adventurous version of Bhutto’s model of security role for Pakistani military, in the absence of any public scrutiny of his plans.

Bhutto was more at ease with diplomacy and regional political role for the military. Zia embarked on path of adventure in Afghanistan and active military duties for Pakistan land forces in the Gulf States. Let me pose a hypothetical question. Could Pakistan have averted Afghan adventure and Saudi deployment—with their corresponding drawbacks of sunnification of state, society and military establishment? If Pakistan military had continued to operate under civilian control and coup had not taken place? Answer would be academic in nature, but the ideas of sustained democratic process and civilian supremacy is too enticing to ignore.

The horrors of Afghan adventure started to unfold in the post-Zia period—drug and gun culture, extremism, fractured society, disruption of political process at the hands of intelligence services and military establishment and militancy became the new normal in post-Zia period.

In the first decade of new century, we had another military government—which did away with the idea of civilian supremacy. Pakistan Army played an active role in Afghanistan without civilian and elected institutions watching over the military. This time again, we had to face another rise in militancy as we had to face a civil war-like situation in the country.

Now Pakistan military, though, claims to have broken the back of militancy in Pakistani tribal areas, it has yet to monopolise the violence completely within the territory of Pakistani state. But just like post-Zia period, we have seen military engaging in a soft intervention in the political system with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif becoming the first victim of the military’s assertiveness in post-Musharraf period.

Civil supremacy appears an impossible objective with the elected government of Prime Minister Imran Khan appears to be playing second fiddle to the military top brass. In such a situation, Bhutto’s ambitions of using Pakistani military manpower in regional role may appear outdated. But as Pakistani state can hardly afford to remain aloof from asserting itself in regional politics—Bhutto’s regional ambition will assume different form in the days to come.

And the concept of bringing military under some kind of public and political scrutiny will assume increased relevance if we want to avoid another disaster like Afghan adventure, which brought death, destruction, disruption of political process and curbing of civil and political liberties in the Pakistani society.

If regional ambitions are allowed to run free without some kind of political and public scrutiny, we might again see complete disruption of political process or may be another regional adventure, which will again be carried out with utter disregard of country’s security interests, as we witnessed during Zia era in the process of Afghan adventure.

The critics of parliamentary democracy might object that Pakistan’s political class doesn’t have the required level of expertise in strategic and military affairs to carry out any scrutiny of GHQ’s plans and strategies. But in my opinion, reviewing adventurous plans and strategy requires political acumen—which is in ample supply among political class in Pakistan—and not expertise in military strategy.


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