New low in civil-military relations in Pakistan

From Dr Hamid Hussain

A brief summary of my response to many questions from non-Pakistanis (but keen observers of the scene) not familiar with background about recent friction in Pakistan. Pakistanis are much more informed about the issue.

“Neither to laugh; nor cry
Just to understand”. Spinoza

Past is Prologue – New Ebb in Civil-Military Relations of Pakistan
Hamid Hussain

“It is difficult to envisage some thirty or forty generals and a smaller number of admirals and air force commanders appointed solely by Providence to be the sole judges of what the nation needs”. The Times, April 6, 1961

In 2017, Pakistan is going through another cycle of severely strained civil-military relations. A certain level of friction in civil military relations is norm in many countries. This is especially true in the case of countries where military has maintained its dominance in national decision-making process. Opinions are so polarized that making a rational argument has become an arduous task. Anyone pointing to deficiencies of civilian leadership and improvement of governance is labelled as sweeping the floor for the military while anyone cautioning military leadership to pause and reflect is labeled as lackey of corrupt politicians and unpatriotic.

The Current crisis started when Supreme Court of Pakistan took an unprecedented step in the judicial history by assuming the role of a prosecutorial authority. In the aftermath of the leak of Panama Papers in spring of 2016, Supreme Court was approached by some opposition parties seeking action against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as names of his family members were included in panama papers. Initially Supreme Court rejected the petition in August 2016 stating that prima facie, the petition was frivolous. On 01 November 2016, Supreme Court reversed its own decision and took the case. In April 2017, Supreme Court not only ordered formation of Joint Investigations Team (JIT) to investigate the matter but also assigned itself the role of monitoring the progress. On 28 July 2017, a five-judge bench of Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif in a unanimous decision on controversial grounds. Even neutral international jurists familiar with the case were surprised at the methodology as well as the argument used in the judgement. In Pakistan, those against Nawaz Sharif hailed the decision while Sharif and his partisans cried foul.

Military got entangled in this saga for a variety of reasons. In the background is the history of strained relations of Nawaz Sharif with army high command on various issues over the last few years. In the spring of 2014, opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaaf of Imran Khan started a sit in protest movement claiming rigging of general elections. This was occurring in the context of recent change of command at the top level in the army. A complex set of factors involving old and new teams of senior officers were at play and there were allegations that opposition sit in had blessing of certain elements of the army. The second flash point was when former army chief and President General ® Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan against the advice of military high command. Musharraf was facing some serious legal challenges that included murder and treason charges. Military high command was put in a very difficult position but they maneuvered to help Musharraf fly the coop. New army Chief General Raheel Sharif was Musharraf’s protégé and owed his rise in the army to Musharraf. He did a huge favor to his former boss but in the process the gulf between civil and military had widened.

In the fall of 2016, a news leak of a high-level meeting of civil and military leadership suggesting differences on important foreign policy issues angered military high command. It was later known as ‘Dawn Leak’. Army wanted strict action against those who leaked the news further souring civil military relations. An army chief riding the high wave of popularity but with retirement clock clicking used this timing to exert pressure for additional benefit. Tehreek-e-Insaaf of Imran Khan announced another sit in protest movement in the capital now on the issue of Panama Papers. Nawaz Sharif stood his ground and appointed a new chief but acceded to the demand that panama case being heard by Supreme Court. The ball was now in Supreme Court and it let the guillotine fall on Nawaz Sharif. Institutional pressure on new army chief was enormous and despite shuffle at high command with sidelining of old team and bringing new brooms was not enough. In the end army, chief needs to listen to his own constituency. Nawaz Sharif offered some sacrifices by sacking his information minister and foreign policy advisor but when gods get angry, it is not easy to get on their right side.

Inclusion of two Brigadiers from military’s intelligence agencies (Brigadier Kamran Khurshid of Military Intelligence and retired Brigadier Muhammad Nauman Saeed of ISI) in JIT gave the impression that military was putting its finger to tilt the balance against Nawaz Sharif. Supreme Court put military in a no win situation. If military hesitated to get involved, it faced the accusation of ignoring court order and indirectly protecting corrupt leaders. If it obeyed the orders of inclusion of military officers on investigation team, then Nawaz Sharif and his party will accuse them being part of the conspiracy. Military’s spokesperson in its communication and army Chief in his meeting with a delegation of members of parliament tried to convey the message that they had nothing to do with court’s decision. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif and his party is convinced that the whole saga had full blessing and support of the army.

Governance is a challenging task especially in countries with myriad of problems. Every Pakistani government will have enormous challenges. Despite many deficiencies, civilians have provided all the necessary cover to the military in the challenging task of fighting extremists. Army has been given essentially a free hand in the conduct of operations with no questions asked about the methodology. In addition, parliament passed legislation for provision of military courts and judiciary acquiescing in view of extra-ordinary circumstances. In addition, at times of serious friction with military, Nawaz Sharif has sacrificed his close associates to please the military high command. Civilian leaders are guilty of many acts of omission and commission but rather than working to address anomalies, military higher command put many Improvised Explosives Devices (IEDs) in the path of government.

Political leaders will never get an upper hand in civil-military relations until they address some fundamental issues. First and foremost is separation of criminal elements from mainstream political activities once and for all. Civilian decision-making process needs to be institutionalized and even if loyalists need to be picked up they should have minimal qualifications for the job. Parliament needs to revitalize committees with expert input on national security issues to educate legislatures. Legislatures can then reclaim some lost ground and influence policies. In the absence of that, military will remain paramount and public will either cheer or remain a silent bystander when soldiers come to knock some heads for course correction.

In asserting its role and claiming a veto on all matters, military points to corruption and criminal mafia type characteristics of the current political make up. Military brass is agnostic as far history is concerned and conveniently forgets that their own very actions helped to create the anomalies. To move forward, those in government need to improve governance and organize their own thought and action while those in opposition need to fight their political battles at polling stations and in parliament and resist the urge to use crutches and wooden swords provided by General Head Quarters (GHQ). On its part, GHQ needs to divest from the business of ‘dry cleaning’ of politicians and close the printing press in the basement that prints certificates of ‘patriot’ and ‘traitor’. In the absence of that country will simply roll from crisis to crisis and everyone will be loser.

Military high command needs to pause, reflect and take a step back. The ghost of Bhutto was haunting GHQ for three decades and military high command used all the tricks up their sleeves but unable to exorcise it. One five-year term for Pakistan People’s Party government and it is relegated to a small regional party. Strengthen the system and encourage the rule of law to sideline corrupt through a transparent process and try not to short circuit the system. It is not good for the army and not good for the country. A look at Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) today may provide some more scary lessons. A dominant military dictating its wishing to civilians, with approval ratings of over ninety percent and admired and trusted by general populace. Along comes a politician with only forty percent of votes and a reasonable governance recipe. TAF refused to adjust to changed environment and a group of officers jumped the gun. The revenge was swift and brutal. TAF was decapitated from top with over forty percent of generals and admirals sacked and jailed, eviscerated from middle with sacking of over 500 Colonels and dozens of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) booted out caving the floor. TAF is now a shadow of itself. Pakistan’s ‘Erdogan moment’ is not in near future, however nobody would have also predicted the fate of TAF merely five years ago.

Every pillar of state has its unique role and that keeps a country strong. Just like a weak army is not good for the country, similarly a weak parliament is detrimental to country’s interests making country vulnerable to internal fissures and external pressures. Unfortunately, in the fight for personal and narrow institutional interests under the grab of patriotism or democracy is resulting in more serious injuries to the country.

“The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late”. Reinhold Niebuhr

Hamid Hussain
Defence Journal, 2017

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Most Muslim democracies tend towards Authoritarian democracies. Be it Pakistan, Turkey, Iran or Malaysia. Pure democracy is difficult to attain in Islamic countries with Islam around. The case is quite similar to Catholicism. It is difficult to imagine now that both Portugal and Spain were dictatorships right unto 1970’s.


// Political leaders will never get an upper hand in civil-military relations until they address some fundamental issues. First and foremost is separation of criminal elements from mainstream political activities once and for all. Civilian decision-making process needs to be institutionalized and even if loyalists need to be picked up they should have minimal qualifications for the job. Parliament needs to revitalize committees with expert input on national security issues to educate legislatures. //

This the really the nub of this post for me, and I think (with all humility) that the author is wrong.
The fundamental “issues” the author refers to here are not really issues, but part and parcel of democratic evolution. Political power will *always* attract the unsavoury, morally questionable sort, especially in fledgling democracies. Just because one may hate politicians, one can’t simply do away with the democratic process, i.e. defer to military or any other unelected (& irremovable) body for “course correction”.

A good democracy is about well-oiled institutions and to uphold such institutions, statecraft is employed to co-opt such people. But there’ll always be error, corruption and leakage. E.g. political loyalties will always play a part in government appointments, financial corruption and bribery will always exist, justice will always be denied to some. We cannot wish these shortcomings away and this is true even of highly mature democracies like the UK. What we can do is create institutions for proper mitigation of such error – and democracy is an optimal way forward for it. [ Shameless replug of my earlier piece on Democracy: ]

It seems to me that Pakistanis (esp. opinion makers) are extremely impatient with their political class and prefer immediate short-term solutions (via their military), to gradual, incremental and very dirty work of building civil institutions. This is a very silly and dangerous attitude and is certain to bring more ruin to the country.

In the end one should always prefer an arsehole in power who can be voted out to a good Samaritan with one’s “best interests” at heart who can’t.

6 years ago

I agree with slapstik.

The Pakistani upper class has always been enamoured with the man on horseback fantasy, and this article reflects those biases.

Nawaz Sharif was doing a pretty good job. Certainly above fiftieth percentile when compared to other South Asian national and subnational leaders. A lot better than his first attempt.

He was deposed by a politicized supreme Court on risible grounds because he had defied the army.

Brown Pundits