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Business News/ Opinion / Pakistan: a tragedy of errors

Pakistan: a tragedy of errors

In Pakistan's history, there has hardly been a civilian govt that has been able to take independent defence and foreign policy decisions

It makes great sense for the Pakistan army to take over what it thinks are its core interests—defence and foreign policy—and leave the complicated business of running the state to the civilians. Photo: ReutersPremium
It makes great sense for the Pakistan army to take over what it thinks are its core interests—defence and foreign policy—and leave the complicated business of running the state to the civilians. Photo: Reuters

Pakistan is finally witnessing the denouement of the political drama that Imran Khan has been staging since the middle of August. Khan, who started a protest march from Lahore to Islamabad on 14 August, has been insistent that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down because the elections that brought him to power were supposedly rigged. Sharif has refused to do so and the political class has been firmly entrenched in a deadlock for the last two weeks.

The situation is the best possible outcome for the country’s army.

Unable to come to any agreement with Khan, Sharif has had to rely on the army to act as a “mediator" between the government and Khan. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “The move follows a back-room political deal that government officials privately said ceded important powers over defence and foreign policy from the government to the military."

So instead of going all out and indulging in an overt coup, the army has ensured that policymaking areas that it believes are for the military to direct remain firmly in its control. The question to ask though is whether there was a time during Sharif’s one-year tenure when the army did not have a say in these matters.

In Pakistan’s history, there has hardly been a time when a civilian government has been able to take independent decisions with respect to defence and foreign policy. If Sharif coming to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony looked like him trying to assert the civilian government’s independence, look where he finds himself merely three months later.

Generally, when an elected government takes over, it is supposed to have complete sway over policymaking. On key issues on foreign and security policy—nuclear weapons, India and Afghanistan—all governments have had to listen to the army. This is more than just a mere “consultation".

What is happening now will ensure that civilians have no role, at all, in any of these matters. One could say that this is only a formalization of what is already happening.

In one important respect this is different. The internal arrangement is not only a matter for Pakistan but it involves foreign interlocutors as well. For example, why should the Indian government talk to a civilian government at all when it knows it has no control over these matters? India, like other countries, is not interested in the cultural affairs of Pakistan. Its interests are in those areas that affect its defence and security.

The army has ensured that no foreign government will hold substantive talks with the Sharif government.

There are theories, not hard to believe, that this entire charade by Khan has been an elaborate ploy of the army to pressurize Sharif and showing him the cost of “independence".

For two reasons though, Sharif has called this mess upon himself.

First, since he took office in May 2013, Sharif has done precious little to make the civilian government look credible.

According to a Reuters report, “Apart from the annual budget, not a single law was passed in his first year, a legislative watchdog said...Fourteen months after Sharif’s election, key posts remain unfilled, and government regulators lack heads. There is still no foreign minister. Defence and the water and power ministries share a single minister, as do the information and law ministries."

Pakistan faces a huge power shortage, an issue that Sharif could and should have well made his priority but hasn’t. The slow pace of economic and infrastructure reforms have given space for Sharif’s detractors to call out his mismanagement.

Second, while making tall claims about civilian supremacy, he has himself accommodated the army’s needs in matters that it should be kept away from. In August 2013, Sharif reconstituted the defence committee of the cabinet, a civilian body meant to look at national security. The military was invited to the committee when needed. Sharif remodelled the defence committee into the cabinet committee on national security and made chairman joint chiefs of staff committee and the three services chiefs as permanent members. In effect, Sharif himself brought the military into a body which was only supposed to consult the army when needed.

In his book, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (published in April 2014), Aqil Shah, a political scientist at Dartmouth, presciently said, “ could be reasonably speculated that Pakistan might be heading toward a new civil-military arrangement in which civilian supremacy becomes a euphemism for the military’s formal and active participation in matters of war and peace. In other words, this would constitute a situation in which the military does not seize direct power but formally insinuates its non-democratic privileges into the functioning of a democracy." (The Army and Democracy, Conclusion, page 286)

It makes great sense for the army to take over what it thinks are its core interests—defence and foreign policy—and leave the complicated business of running the state to the civilians. Earlier coups have taught the generals that they are no good in running electricity generation companies and providing water to Pakistan’s citizens. Take your pick and leave the mess for the civilians.

This is exactly what Pakistan is witnessing today.

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Published: 29 Aug 2014, 11:47 AM IST
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