Civil-military relations (CMR) have always remained at the center of Pakistani politics and polity. The pattern, degree and scale of CMR is, however, context-specific. During the 1950s (pre-martial law period), the pattern of civil-military relations can be termed as bureaucratized and, during the martial law regimes, the pattern and scale can conveniently be classified as a militarized one. Nevertheless, in the post-Musharraf period (2008 onwards), a new pattern of civil-military interaction has emerged that is discussed in this article as the hybridized dispensation where, on the surface, both the civil government and the military seemed to have confided in each other in terms of policy deliberation and implementation. Politically and institutionally, however, the civil governments during 2008-2018 tried to assert contextually but in vain.
Indeed, both the PPP and later the PML-N governments completed their five-year tenures, but each with the loss of a prime minister, i.e. Yousaf Raza Gillani and Nawaz Sharif. The PPP’s case is very peculiar because it faced the wrath of both the judiciary and the military despite having extended the tenure of the then COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
Nawaz Sharif, for his part, did not deem it fit to accord extension to General Raheel Sharif despite some (social) media propaganda in favour of the extension. Rather, the elder Sharif appointed General Qamar Javed Bajwa as COAS, considering him comparatively apolitical. This, however, turned out to be a miscalculation since it was during his tenure that Nawaz Sharif got disqualified by the country’s apex court, that worked in tandem with the militablishment. With respect to civil-military relations, however, Sharif’s dismissal was much more about the chequered character of CMR where the militray, once again, distrusted him owing to his assertive but implicit mindset of intruding into the military’s internal mechanism of, for instance, appointment, promotion and pay.
PTI consolidated hybridity
Having disfavored the PML-N− which historically was engineered by the security establishment – the latter found a replacement in the form of PTI led by Imran Khan. In fact, Khan’s party seemed non-existent electorally before the 2013 election. In the said election, the PTI was able to form a provincial government in KP only. Nonetheless, due to a favorable electoral and strategic context in 2018, Khan’s party made (coalition) government in not only the Centre but also three provinces including the Punjab.
Having assumed the office of prime minister, Khan acted very shrewdly. On the one hand, he left no stone unturned to consolidate hybridity by allowing more space to the military in terms of foreign, security and especially economy policy. On the other hand, Khan was pretty much successful in establishing a corruption-oriented anti-opposition political narrative in order to not only socially denigrate his major political rivals but also institutionally punish them by invoking the instrumentality of, for instance, the NAB. Little wonder, during the fifteen months of the Khan government, the Sharifs and the Zardaris spent more time in courts and jails than drawing rooms.
Ironically, despite the government’s wrath, the mainstream political parties miserably failed to put up a political fight in terms of agitational politics. In fact, the PLM-N, which bore the brunt, could not muster courage to stage a sit-in, and that too in Lahore, when its first-tier leadership went through trials and tribulations. Instead, it seemed the PML-N preferred to engage the powers that be behind the doors to secure a negotiated exit for Nawaz Sharif, who ultimately flew to London for medical treatment despite Khan’s disapproval. The latter, however, castigated the apex judiciary in this respect. This also provides situational context to the extension saga discussed in the following section.
The extension saga
The last ten days of November 2019 will be remembered in Pakistan’s political history for a number of reasons. One, it marked institutional and somewhat personal tussle between the Khan-led political executive and the judiciary. Two, it apparently reflected institutional disagreement between the judiciary and the military. The said markers essentially revolved around the question of extension in the tenure of COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose three-year tenure was to expire on the 28th of November. In this respect, Prime Minister Imran Khan had hinted at extending the tenure in his early days in office. Practically, however, the civilian government worked on an extension notification in August this year−and, that too, unprofessionally. This was to prove a problem for the whole process.
In theory, the notification of extension was to be initiated by the prime minister’s office in consultation with the cabinet and then sent for presidential assent, after which it went back to the defense ministry which, in turn, trimmed it clerically. The way the government did it contravened the above mentioned process to the extent that the matter was contextually brought to the notice of the Supreme Court by a public litigant who questioned the legality behind the extension and the very motives of the civilian government. The court, in its proceedings, made the COAS a respondent, among others, in this extension case. This generated political and legal saga that attracted domestic, regional and global attention of interested public and stakeholders.
Domestically, it was the first incident where a serving COAS has been involved in court proceedings. It also raised political temperatures for the general public glued to their TV screens, all trying to know whether the court extended the tenure of the COAS or otherwise.
Ironically, however, the political parties including Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s JUI-F maintained a studied silence – with the exception of the second-tier leadership of the PPP, which spoke in favour of extension. Regionally, the Indian media in particular played with the extension saga negatively. Internationally, the major powers such as the US, England and China watched the developments keenly.
The matter was, ultimately, judged by the apex court on the very last hours of the very last day (November 28) of the COAS tenure.
While registering “judicial restraint” in the absence of provisions related to extension in tenure under Article 243, the Supreme Court accorded a six-month conditional “extension in service” to COAS General Bajwa, while urging the Khan government to ensure required legislation related to reappointment/extension/retirement etc. of COAS/General(s) within the stipulated timeframe. Non-legislation will amount to termination of the six-month extension on the due date – as after that it will be “illegal” to continue in the command assignment. The SC’s short order received a mixed response from the public as well as the legal community. The pro-extension camp including the Khan government welcomed it wholeheartedly whereas the anti-extension sentiment viewed it in terms of the hybridized “doctrine of necessity”.
However, from the perspective of civil-military relations, one can posit that this was probably the best, most rational course available to the apex judiciary given the involvement of a serving COAS who heads the most powerful institution of the country. Non-extension on the part of the judiciary would have sent undesirable signals to the military as an institution, which is very protective of its fraternity and value system. In addition, the SC acted very cautiously by not transgressing into the executive and the parliament’s domain. Thus, it shifted the burden of legislative responsibility to where it principally belongs.
Khan gets more confident
The Supreme Court’s verdict has resulted in a political and social victory for the Khan-led PTI government since its opponents, especially the PML-N, had expected a legal and political blow to the government. They believed that a new COAS would give a tough time to Khan. This, however, could not be the case. Quite to the contrary, the Khan-Bajwa duo is very likely to tread the same path at least in the immediate post-extension period, and there is little expectation of a change of policy on domestic and foreign affairs. Moreover, in order to improve governance especially in the Punjab, the government had already reshuffled the civil bureaucracy to remove the so called “pro-Sharif elements”. If this move becomes successful, it will further boost Khan’s morale. Importantly, since Khan was the primary initiator of the extension, he will be feeling psychologically more confident to have the confidence of the COAS on all important matters. The latter also needs Khan’s support to get further extension on account of legislation, which is very likely to be initiated by the civilian government sooner than later. The latter is very likely to do the required legislation as an “act of parliament” that does not require a constitutional amendment. Thus, with a majority in the National Assembly and a considerable number of seats in the Senate, the Khan government, with the support of its allies, is very likely to achieve the stated goal since it knows that any failure in legislation will result in another tense institutional crisis – something that the government can not afford once more.
Smooth sailing till 2023?
Being aware of unintended consequences, it seems the Khan government will do its best to provide a long-term extension to General Bajwa for political and electoral reasons. Being a politician, Khan will be eyeing the 2023 election. If he is able to carry on with the established decorum with the COAS − where the former does not offend the latter personally and institutionally − Khan’s government is likely to complete its tenure despite intermittent quarrels with the opposition over, for instance, economic under-performance.
For its part, the combined opposition is overwhelmingly weaker organizationally and ethically. Moreover, it has already been embroiled in various corruption-related cases. Hence, a weak opposition further adds to Khan’s advantage. Onwards, however, along with cordial ties with the military, Imran Khan will have to manage governance and the economy, too, in order to ensure smooth sailing for himself, his party and the Powers That Be.
In view of the above, there are certain takeaways surmised.
First, the military stays as a principal actor whereas the judiciary, political executive and the parliament are comparatively weaker and, contextually, dependent on the former for political and institutional survival. Second, the current phase of civil-military relations has been patterened along hybridity which has been consolidated on account of the earlier mentioned variables, especially this extension. Third, our politicians and political parties lack in organizational and ethical zeal and are likely to prefer pettiness over their collective interests. Lastly, if Khan’s government is able to avoid offending the military personally and institutionally, his government’s chances of survival are high.
The writer has a PhD in civil-military relations from Heidelberg University. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and taches at Iqra University, Islamabad. @ejazbhatty