Strong army, fragile state

[The article appeared in Pakistan Today, Fri, Oct 15, 2010]


General-President Pervez Musharraf, now former on both counts, has set up a political party. If and when he comes to Pakistan to stake a claim on political space, it would be interesting to see how he would interact with the army, the institution he once headed and on whose strength he rose to power and exercised it for eight years. As a general he presented to Pakistan his theory of the army’s place in the system through an epigram: if you want to keep the army out, bring it in. Does he still believe in it?

In an interview to NDTV’s Group Editor, Barkha Dutt, aired Oct 10, Musharraf argued that “The army is the only organised institution… which integrates Pakistan…. and it is the strength of Pakistan”. He also said that the army does not “run” the government. As for “control”, it doesn’t, “no, not on every issue at all”. Here’s more:

“We don’t interfere, but what happens, now, let me put it very realistically to you… Why have governments not been completing their tenure? It is the people of Pakistan who have been running to the Army Chief – including politicians, who run to the Army Chief… do something, save the country… Now what does the Army Chief do? He does go and talk to the Prime Minister whatever he is hearing from the people. Now to that extent I would say, the Army Chief is a good check and balance on good performance of the government. But…I believe strongly that this check and balance which is inherent… to Pakistan’s political reality, political scenario, should be institutionalised. And that is where people start blaming me that I want army in the politics of Pakistan.”

Let’s deconstruct this.

First, says Musharraf, and we can be sure this is also institutional thinking, that the army is the only disciplined force that integrates Pakistan. If this is correct then, at the minimum, it must also be accepted that Pakistan has failed to develop the contract essential for keeping a state together.

In other words, we have failed to develop an evolved process of negotiations among internal actors and interests which defines not just the borders of a state but also the core aspects of the identity of a state. It is through this process of negotiations, the basic and essential factor of politics, that such an identity is precipitated and then internalised by a people to a point where it is not disputed, and where any external challenges to the state are simply not entertained by that group of people.

A state that needs to be integrated by an organisation, to the exclusion of all other actors, should be a very worried state. And the most worried with the situation should be this integrative organisation itself. Is the army worried? If it is, does it realise that part of the problem, if not the whole problem, may lie in how it views the idea of the state and the concept of integration itself? That while in theory it may, at some point, want to start Project Integration, the most essential part of any such project would be for it to steadily reduce its own power within the state in favour of greater space to other organisations and processes?

But this is not to be, as should be clear from the various coups we have had. Note, at this stage the second point: Musharraf’s rather unquestioning acceptance of the army chief’s role as an arbitrator. Since everyone and Charlie’s aunt run towards him in times of crises, he has no option but to go and talk to the prime minister and perhaps the president. The not-so-hidden assumption again relates to the army’s self-image of not just being the protector but also the definer of the state. What this acceptance eschews is the thought by any army chief about whether this is how it should be; whether this speaks of strength or a tragic flaw? Because while this practice may retain the supremacy of the army as an organisation, it continues to corrode the state itself. And if the army indeed looks at integration beyond jury-rigging a situation gone bad then it must rethink its arbiter’s role.

The third point, which flows from this and should be obvious, is that the army does not seem to realise that by continuing to intervene in the system, whether through soft or hard power, it perpetuates the stasis that informs the absence of a viable process of negotiations among other actors. Moreover, to accept the situation as it stands is to deny the element of agency. That is the worst kind of determinism.

Finally, note Musharraf’s use of “we”. “We don’t interfere” etcetera! And this, when he is not the army chief, has launched a political party and wants to make a difference. Am I right to assume that he still believes in his epigram? And if he does, would he be prepared to bring the army in if he were to become prime minister?

Roman poet Juvenal, in his Satires, is said to have posited the question quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who will guard the guardians themselves)? But the question dates back to Plato. It retains its significance to wit. Political scientist Peter D Feaver identified the puzzle succinctly some years ago: “The civil-military challenge is to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorise.”

This puzzle has no easy solutions. True also is the fact that Pakistan is stuck in a Daedalian maze. Analyses that posit the issue in dichotomous terms of civil-military relations usually come a cropper. There is need to develop a different theoretical framework to deal with the problem. But one thing should be clear, though this is not the place to go into it: any solution that reduces space for political processes can only end up increasing the fragility of the state.

Both the army and the civilian principals have to keep this in mind.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times

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