The Civilian Alternative
The civilians should grapple with the country’s problems while the military should be left to defend the national borders.
As a uniformed body with the ability to use force, the military in any country, but more so in developing ones like Pakistan, has the capacity to influence political power without having been called upon to do so by popular suffrage. Because of long involvement of the military in politics, Pakistan’s case inevitably invokes keen interest beyond our frontiers wherever the subject of writing a new constitution is discussed. Domestically, incorporation of the military’s role in the constitution therefore has been a topic of interest for as long as one remembers
The creeping of the military in political space, whether by design or due to incompetence of the political order and administrative machinery, constitutes a major challenge for establishing democratic systems and to has taken deeper and stronger roots. By extension, relations between the civil and military, as structured in the constitutional texts, come under sharper focus and warrant particular attention. The resultant rules of law as a result of this interplay, determine crucial elements of democratic transition and consolidation through which Pakistan is passing these days and the subject accordingly invites a re-visit every now and then.
A glance at the activities of the Chief of the Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, in the recent past is quite illustrative. He visited the embassies of the ambassadors killed in the Naltar helicopter crash, called Prince Karim Aga Khan to condole the loss of innocent lives in the Karachi bus massacre, dashed to Kabul with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to discuss foreign policy, which in the Af-Pak context is incomplete without high khaki optics, and held a series of meetings in Karachi to further pursue the law and order objectives there.
A segment of Pakistanis would think that visibility of the Army Chief, performed constitutionally, would help remove the dichotomy in which the military establishment is frequently perceived as overshadowing the federal and provincial governments although they have no constitutional role otherwise. This view gets support from ISPR tweets or, as it happened recently, the damning pronouncements of the V Corps Commander, on the political paralysis and administrative inadequacy existing in Sindh.
Former President Pervez Musharaf has been one of the most ardent supporters of a constitutional role for the military. During his tenure, he formed the National Security Council (NSC) to build the army’s role in the country’s security and other important decisionmaking processes so that there could be, as he put it, complete understanding between politicians and the military
on critical issues. In his view, the NSC would act as a forum where the members could freely debate any issue, including internal and foreign threats, as well as national security matters.
However, the composition of the NSC was tilted in favor of the military which is just a fraction of the total population of the country. Gen. Musharraf intended the NSC to play an effective role in removing bottlenecks and hurdles in the path of national development, end uncertainty during serious challenges facing the country and encourage cohesiveness in the national polity. This purpose was far from achieved.
On the other end of the spectrum, opposing any constitutional role for the military in the affairs of the state is the judiciary which firmly believes that the role of the military has been clearly defined in Article 245 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 245 already stipulates that the military under the direction of the Federal government should defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war and, subject to the law, act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so.
The judiciary is clear in its mind that a government elected under the constitution can only perform its functions and ensure observance of the provisions of the constitution by making civil power superior and not subordinate or a partner in the exercise of its authority during war and peace. The foundation of the Constitution of Pakistan, as reflected in Article 2-A, rests in the belief that sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him, is a sacred trust. As such, the state shall exercise its powers through duly elected representatives of the people.
Such clarity obviously precludes any role for the armed forces in the Constitution of Pakistan and any amendment is likely to be seen as altering its spirit and basic structure in a milieu where some experts already question the validity of the 1973 Constitution. They argue that the National Assembly elected in 1970, which was required to frame a new constitution for the country, was overtaken by events of the 1971 war in which Bangladesh emerged as an independent country.
They contend that remnants of the 1970 National Assembly were not competent to frame the Constitution and that a new National Assembly should have been elected for the purposes of framing a Constitution. A petition whether the 18th and 22nd Amendments by the Parliament have altered its basic structure and spirit of the Constitution is being heard in the Supreme Court these days. Its verdict, as and when it comes, will be interesting.
But within the Pakistani military, the officers corps apparently worship the words of Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, first spoken in 1932 to the cadets of the Indian Military Academy at the time of its inauguration (though those lines were in Britain’s’ own interest). He said: “The safety, honor, and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time. The honor, welfare and comfort of the men under your command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety comes last, always and every time.”
This raises the question often asked as to why in India, the Indian army took this advice within the framework of a broader democratic order while in Pakistan, its soldiers took the advice hook, line and sinker and stepped into governance matters to induce stability, as it would be claimed, only to leave a greater mess when it left?
A partial answer may lie in the fact that India was able to adopt a Constitution within a year or so after Partition, which helped the government to contain its military within a more stable parliamentary democracy. Pakistan, on the other hand, struggled with this exercise for years and suffered setbacks with the loss of Quid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and its first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, too soon after independence.
India, like Japan, China, Russia and many other states, has been a historic state in existence for centuries while Pakistan is a nascent one. It is more sensitive to any vulnerability as its borders could get demolished sooner if its rulers were not sincere in serving the people in whose name they get elected. Likewise, if they did not pay due attention to internal and external threats facing the country, the margin towards becoming a failed state could get narrower, which would not be true for unlike other historic states. In the instance of countries like Pakistan, this would keep the military on the edge most of the time. The Indian army therefore should only be given so much credit for keeping away from politics as is warranted.
While deliberating a possible role for military in the Constitution, we must take a long view though it is likely that short-term dividends appeal to us more than the cherished objective of consolidating democracy in the long run. It is the civilians who have to strengthen various pillars of the state such as affordable justice for all in a reasonable time frame, universal application of law for all and an accountability process in which everyone has faith.
It is the civilians who have to build the capacity to provide instant relief to the citizens in case of disasters while the military should be called in only when the country is faced with catastrophic conditions and not for mundane functions like reading electric meters, recovering bills, guarding prisons and supervising polling stations. If civilian rule starts to deliver, the military will automatically begin to cede space as is happening in Turkey where, after decades of the military’s role in governance, the sound performance of the civilian rulers has succeeded in pushing back the military’s influence in running the country.
The crux of the matter is that the primary role of the military is defense against external threats and should always remain so. It should be called in aid of civilian power only in times of national crisis. The military already has a full time job, more so because the threat-response equation vis-avis our neighbors, particularly on the eastern side, is asymmetrical. Over dependence on the military will also retard the civilian capacity-building process and reduce the military’s combat potential when it is actually called upon to defend the country.
As a parting thought - what good are the Constitutional provisions of civilian supremacy over the military if civilian rule lacks the enthusiasm to gear itself up to take charge and lead from the front?
The primary role of the military is defense against external threats and should always remain so.