The most powerful institution in Pakistan has had a change of guard, with the baton of command handed over to the new Chief. The appointment of COAS in Pakistan always evokes a heated debate amongst the political pundits and the security Cassandras due to peculiar history of its civil-military relations. Though Pakistan has left behind its Garrison State legacy, it still remains a national security state where the security challenges, the weight of public expectations and the de facto realities of power relations put Army ubiquitously in the catbird seat. The weight of expectations from the new Army Chief therefore is not expected to lessen but increase in our yet to be fully consolidated polity. Three main factors would define the civil-military relations and the process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.
These include the security environment, the quality of politics, and the reconceptualisation of the civil-military relations in the country. The new COAS would face pressures on all three counts despite the de jure reality of military’s subordination to the civilian principals, operating within a much bigger de facto reality of military’s historically determined role, as a “deus ex machina”. The military traditionally in Pakistan has been looked upon as the “saviour of last resort” when all else appears to be lost. This role has come with its complications and problems. The military’s political abstemiousness is a desired end for democratic purists who long for Huntington’s separatist model of civil and military domains while scholars with an integrationist perspective, like Janowitz and Rebecca Schiff, suggest a cooption of the military in political decision-making to minimise its propensity to destabilise the polity.
Due to changing nature of warfare and the impact of technology the boundaries between the civil and military domains are getting blurred in the haze of gray zone warfare. Contemporary civil-military relations’ scholars like RIsa Brooks and Richard Kohn have warned of the dangers of the gulf between the societal and the military values recommending a reconceptualisation of the US civil-military relations. These scholars have argued that since warfare is getting increasingly complex, there is a need to involve the military leadership in the political decision-making to help them better appreciate the constraints under which politicians operate. Now transplanting the above concepts to Pakistani context, it is obvious that unless the structural deformities of the civil-military relations are removed, the military would keep getting sucked in the black hole of politics.
The contributory factors to the military’s involvement in national politics in Pakistan are conceptual as well as structural. The conceptual factors include weak political institutions, the military’s historically evolved saviour complex, and the expertise gap between the civilian and military leadership. The structural factors include the perennial high threat environment, lack of internal democratic culture in political parties, weak civilian oversight institutions, and the strong organisational strength of the military. It can safely be surmised from above that unless the contributory factors exerting a ubiquitous pull on the military to intervene in national politics are addressed, it would be very difficult for the military to stay out of politics.
The above precisely is the greatest challenge to the national leadership as well as the new COAS. General Asim Munir comes with a clean slate and unblemished record. His strengths include his professionalism, moral rectitude and fidelity to time honoured military traditions of frugality and service before self. His arrival also coincides with a new equilibrium in the civil-military relations based upon military’s avowed neutrality in politics. He is also not encumbered by a political baggage and thus not beholden to any political constituency. It therefore appears easy enough for him to sail through the choppy waters of political temptations. The de facto reality of our politics and security environment might throw him a few curve balls before he has time to settle down. The reason is the weight of the structural factors bedeviling our civil-military relations.
Would our high threat environment improve in the presence of a foe like India which has invested so much in proxy warfare and destabilisation in Pakistan? Would the global power rivalry subside to let Pakistan reap economic dividends of its locational advantage? Would the politicians improve the quality of democratic practices within their parties to gain public trust? Can the civilian leadership improve its capability to provide institutionalised oversight to the military in security matters and if not, would the military voluntarily abdicate its saviour complex? If the answer to most of the questions is no then the Army Chief is in for a bumpy ride. His first challenge is to keep the Army’s operational preparedness and organisational strength to its optimal level in a time of straitened economic circumstances. Cutting of frills and non-operational expenditures and getting back to good old soldierly basics like frugality and fighting fitness should be his prime focus.
A resurgent TTP, public protests in ex-FATA, externally inspired unrest in Balochistan and irredentist claims of Indian leadership on Azad Jammu and Kashmir should consume most of his attention. Living in a dangerous neighbourhood made worse by the global rivalry of world powers, Pakistan Army is a proverbial “Gideon’s Sword” and the sharpness of its blade cannot be allowed to get blunted. The political leadership needs to get Army’s help in all affairs like national emergencies and nation-building tasks without emasculating the ability of the civilian institutions. The new COAS needs to redefine the terms of engagement with the civilian leadership indicating army’s redlines and respecting those of the civilian leadership. A reconceptualisation of the scale, nature and intensity of military’s involvement in civilian affairs in addition to its core mission is essential in this era of gray zone warfare.
The COAS must carry out an appraisal of the contributory factors of civil-military friction and re-conceptualise the terms of engagement with the civilian leadership within his constitutional mandate. He should pull all stops to create a happy and efficient rank and file, equipped and organised, to fight and win the future wars. He owes it as much to over half a million soldiers under his command as to 220 million Pakistanis looking up to him.
Note: This article appeared in Tribune, dated 27 December 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.