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Does PM Imran Khan Face Marginalisation?

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Umer Farooq writes about civil-military relations in recent years and the reasons due to which these relations have been strained. He further ponders whether Imran Khan will face the same fate as his predecessors when it comes to his relations with the military.

In civil-military relations, everything, it seems, is hunky-dory. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa have excellent rapport; they are visiting world capitals together and meeting world leaders, hand in hand. There is no contentious issue between the army’s top brass and civil government. They are on the same page as far as relations with India are concerned and they both were equally belligerent in support of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom when things turned nasty inside the valley.

It is true that the economy is in bad shape, but the army chief acknowledges that the prime minister and his government are doing their best to improve the situation. And according to reports in the media, the army and government are equally averse to the opposition’s move to start an agitation in Islamabad. The army chief supports the accountability drive and reportedly tells businessmen not to support opposition’s agitation.

Contrast this with the situation of civil-military relations during former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s tenure; army showed visible displeasure with the way the government tinkered with the provisions of the defense budget in the federal budgetary proposals. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was visibly eager to normalise relations with India in a haste and army’s annoyance to this found its ways onto the front pages of newspapers. And last but not the least, the army’s top brass was angry with government’s perceived connivance in the efforts to malign the army as an institution in the media, as was reflected in the events surrounding Dawn Leaks.

So, could it be convincingly stated that Prime Minister Imran Khan is managing the civil-military relations in a better manner? Or that General Bajwa is more inclined to support the present government as opposed to the previous government? Or is it simply the fact that both the government and military leadership are handling the media in a better fashion this time and in the process not allowing any negative coverage of the civil-military relations? The media is more supportive of portraying a good atmosphere between the prime minister and the army chief, thus creating the image of stable civil-military relations?

Answers to these questions may be more complex than general expectations, but it is generally true that this is the first government in the post-Musharraf period, which is not facing the invisible and not-so-invisible juggernaut of propaganda machinery that was persistent in its attempt to bulldoze the civil governments that were formed in the wake of nine years of continuous military rule.

The narrative coming out of this propaganda machinery clearly showed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari as the bad guys in the story of civil-military relations. They are shown to be the ones who overstepped their mandate in damaging and maligning the national institution of army in connivance with their foreign masters, violated ‘national interests’ while making attempts to normalise relations with India, and allegedly indulged in massive corruption, which vitiated their relations with the army’s top brass.

This narrative clearly labelled the traditional political leadership as the guilty party in the process, which led to tensions in civil-military relations in the post-Musharraf period. Imran Khan is shown to be the new face of civilian politicians and it is argued, under this narrative, those bad old days of tense civil-military relations are now over. But this narrative also argues that PPP and PMLN governments in post-Musharraf period were aberrations in the otherwise ‘normal’ civil-military relations that are the hallmark of Pakistani political tradition.

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This narrative, however, ignores the fact that in the post-Musharraf period, army’s top brass was at one end of every tension in civil-military relations. At the other end was either the PPP government or PMLN government. And therefore, it was considered necessary to club PMLN and PPP together as the bad guys of old political traditions whose days were numbered in Pakistani politics.

This narrative, however, completely sidesteps the structural flaws that came to dominate the nature of civil-military relations in the post-Musharraf period. The said narrative and public discourse in Pakistani media clearly show the civil-military relations to be personality driven—which means if the prime minister is a bad guy like Nawaz Sharif, there are bound to be tensions in civil-military relations. However, when a good guy like Imran Khan comes to power, everything is well and good. Similarly, some chief of the army staffs are shown to support some types of politicians and oppose others. This type of thinking tries to portray the civil-military relations as a game, which is personality-focused.

The fact that Pakistani politicians’ attempts to control the institution of army through individuals have always backfired, has become a political cliché in Pakistani society. But this cliché contains within it a big political reality, which any one can ignore at their own peril; this reality is that the institution of army is a socio-economic structure with clearly defined political and financial interests. The rulers violating these well-defined political and financial interests have become the victims of political instability in the recent past.

Let’s examine the three points on which the previous government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif developed tense relations with the military and perceptibly violated its political and financial interests. All this was followed by political instability in the country.

Firstly, the image of the army was maligned by sections of the media allegedly in connivance with the government officials. We have an army, which is in love with its image, primarily because army drives most of its political powers from its image in the society. If the image is lost, everything is lost. So, the army’s top brass reacted very harshly when one of the leading newspaper, Dawn, reported that the prime minister in a closed-door meeting asked the military leadership to stop supporting militant groups as continued support to them would mean international isolation for Pakistan. A storm of criticism was unleashed on the government. The military came out in the open to oppose the government and the government had to sack the minister of information for leaking out this information to the media.

Secondly, the government aimed to improve relations with India. In early 2016, the military picked up information that the number of Indian visitors to Islamabad who had direct access to prime minister Nawaz Sharif or officials close to him have increased. The military leadership reportedly mentioned this in a meeting with the prime minister. This was the time when Nawaz Sharif was showing eagerness to normalise relations with India. This made the civil-military relations very tense.

Thirdly, the federal government’s inability to fulfil the financial requirements of the army was also a reason for tense civil-military relations. This happened between 2014-2016, when the army was dealing with the internally displaced persons in the tribal areas and was planning several battalions for CPEC security. Reportedly, the government failed to meet the financial demands of the army and cited reduced financial capacity under the 18th amendment and the new National Finance Commission award as a cause of this inability. Again, the relations became tense. This, however, is the army’s side of the story, which clearly shows the civil government as an inept entity and violator of national interests.

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The civilian side, although very few of them have a clear realisation of this side of the story, believes that the institution of Chief of the Army Staff has developed into a parallel executive authority in the post-Musharraf period.

After PPP came to power in 2008, Prime Minister Gilani’s government delegated all powers pertaining to the decision to apply force or to hold negotiations with the militants to the then army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. In other words, the government made the army chief the in-charge of the security aspect of governance in Islamabad. Since then, the role of the army chief in decisions regarding internal security has only increased.

Secondly, the last military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, throughout his nine years acted as a chief diplomat of the country. Musharraf used to hold meetings with foreign dignitaries and foreign leadership. The first army chief after Musharraf refused to lay down this mantle; he continued to act as diplomat-in-chief of the country. After that, it became a tradition with the successive army chief to visit foreign leaders like the King of Saudi Arabia, the Turkish President, US Secretary of State, British prime minister and Chinese leaders. The army chief gets more prominence in world capitals than the civilian diplomats.

In a security state like Pakistan, the army as an institution giving input for economic policy making could be described as a routine thing. However, what we see here is much more than that. Pakistan started to feel the financial crunch in the wake of Washington losing interest in the region after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Pakistan jumped from one financial and political crisis to another, which led the army’s top brass – which increasingly became more assertive in this period – to import financial wizards like Moeen Qureshi and Shaukat Aziz from international financial institutions in a bid to streamline the country’s finance. The bids failed but in the process, army’s role in the handling of economic policy and making of financial policy increased manifold.

Ironically, prime minister Imran Khan marginalized himself in his cabinet when he also imported financial and economic wizards, backed both by international financial institutions and the Pakistani military as chief managers of Pakistan’s financial and economic policy-making.

In the words of several senior political leaders who have had the experience of handling civil-military relations during the governments of both the PML-N and PPP, personalities matter the least in this game. A senior PML-N leader who did not want to be named said, “There are several other issues in civil-military relations, especially the financial issues, which never get mentioned in public discourse, which are important in this game.”

This is a simple story, although largely ignored by our media. Every civil government, which will try to reclaim the ground encroached upon by the Musharraf regime and conceded by successive governments, would face instability and resistance. And if the government ignores the calls for reclaiming lost ground, then it faces the possibility of becoming irrelevant or marginalised.

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