PAKISTAN’S civil-military landscape has begun to change quite significantly. The independent media, judicial activism, the military’s preoccupation with the fight against terrorism, and geopolitical developments had already set the ball rolling.
But a number of embarrassing developments for the military in 2011 have ended up opening up unprecedented space for the civilians in the national security and foreign policy arena.
The trend is nascent but not to be ignored. Most countries that have managed to correct civil-military imbalances start off with incremental steps and are often helped along by unplanned and unexpected developments that incentivise new behaviour patterns on the part of the militaries and greater responsibility by the civilian authorities.
Of course, not all manage this feat. There is voluminous literature attempting to identify the key factors that determine whether a country is able to redress civil-military imbalances. And while evidence shows that a host of complex factors tend to align before this paradigm shift takes place, one of the most critical happens to be the ability of the civilians to prove their capacity and competence by outperforming the militaries.
In cases where civilians have managed to use the space available to them to produce impressive outputs, the chances of a permanent correction in the institutional imbalance are much greater.
The past weeks have provided us with an opportunity to see the Pakistani civilian enclave take charge of one of the most critical foreign policy issues: the relationship with the US.
The development was entirely positive as it allowed a civilian-led process to take precedence over ad hoc, non-transparent decision-making by a handful of individuals that had otherwise been the norm in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the outcome has left much to be desired.
For one, the review process was dragged on for far too long. The upper hand — in terms of the US being on the back foot after Salala — that Pakistan went into the review with has been lost. In fact, as I discussed in a recent column in this space, the lack of closure on the review forced the US to consider alternatives, however imperfect, more seriously. Going forward, this experience will only lead Washington to reinforce channels that tend to reduce reliance on Pakistan.
But let us set aside this brinkmanship game.
The real issue is that if Pakistan is committed to peace in Afghanistan and wants to play a major role in the reconciliation process next door, it needed to re-engage swiftly. By dragging out the process, while it has certainly hurt the US agenda, it has not done itself any favours. The more time the two sides lose in terms of working together on Afghanistan, the lesser the likelihood of a sustainable deal and the greater the possibility of the dreaded civil war. Nothing could be worse from Pakistan’s perspective.
There is no better indicator of the problems with the review process than the fact that the civilian and military authorities themselves opened up parallel tracks to reinitiate interaction with US officials much before parliament approved the recommendations. This was contrary to the initial stance of ‘no contact’ till parliament agreed on a new course for the relationship. Heads of government have met; so have the Pakistani foreign minister and US secretary of state; as have the top military officials. Indeed, smart statecraft demanded this move. But it also undermined the sanctity of the review process.
Second, the very tenor of the debate, underpinned by emotive rhetoric rather than sound policy thinking bodes ill for parliament’s efforts to claim its right to oversee this business in the future.
Behind closed doors, some within the executive branch were wondering days ago how long the debate on the floor could continue before the executive would simply have to push for a closure to the debate and then determine a realistic set of final conditions for the relationship’s reset even at the cost of defying the mood in parliament.
This is still likely since in terms of the substance of the recommendations, the review has failed to balance politicking with the necessities of statecraft. The hawkish line has been pushed too far — to the point that the Pakistani position has been boxed in by rather dogmatic conditions. Some of parliament’s demands are ones that the civilian and military authorities themselves may be both unwilling and unable to implement.
The most obvious example is drones. It is not at all clear if the military is as opposed to selective drone strikes as it portrays in public and it is fairly obvious that there is little it can do should the strikes continue. Consider Pakistan’s options upon the next drone strike: will the state remain mum and thereby defy parliament, or will it respond harshly and create a fresh crisis in the bilateral relationship? Other recommendations like disallowing weapons to pass through the Nato supply route may also be impossible to implement.
Looking to the days ahead, the state machinery will inevitably end up bypassing or disregarding some of recommendations in the interest of keeping the relationship going. But since this would be done in defiance of parliament’s verdict, it would potentially widen the intra-civilian (government versus opposition) and civil-military divides.
Corollary: we are likely to witness far more politically motivated mudslinging on this issue among the civilians and between them and the military in the days ahead. The right-wing rhetoric is likely to gain further as it bashes the authorities for having disregarded parliament to appease the US.
The parliamentary review was a great opportunity for the civilians to begin claiming back more of their rightful space in decision-making on security/foreign policy issues. But what could have been a precedent-setting event may now be seen as a reason not to try the parliamentary channel next time round.
As unfair as this outcome may be given that Pakistani politicians have never had a real chance to develop collective thinking on these issues and that much of the problems that beset the US-Pakistan relationship originated under the military regime of Gen Musharraf, empirical evidence from elsewhere nonetheless holds out a staunch warning for troubled democracies whose civilian enclaves miss such opportunities to impress too often. The odds are stacked against them and in favour of the status quo power institutions — the military. This is just the reality of it.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.