Master of the Game

EJAZ HAIDER

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?) — Juvenal, Satires

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.” — Peter D. Feaver

On May 16, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority suggested to TV channels that Corps Commander, Karachi, Lt.-Gen Naveed Mukhtar, was going to address a National Defence University seminar, attended by the city’s elite and business community, and it would be helpful if the channels could live telecast his speech.

Every channel did.

Mukhtar, a rather well-spoken officer in an age when the English-language is not a strong suit of military officers, barring exceptions, made no bones about what ailed the city, a crumpling, atrophying megalopolis of over 20 million people, if guesstimates are to be believed.

His speech was declared by most observers of the scene to be directed at the political actors in Karachi, notably the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the city’s strongest political actor, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which rules Sindh and has acquired notoriety for being remarkably dysfunctional and corrupt.

PEMRA’s ‘request’ for live telecasting the speech and the speech’s content were clear proof, if one were required, of who steers important policy matters in Pakistan. Mukhtar’s speech followed earlier comments, staccato, compared to his explication, by the Chief of the Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif. Observers were convinced that the General Headquarters (GHQ) had decided that the city, Pakistan’s financial hub, needed to be cleansed of its criminal and disruptive elements, regardless of their genesis and affiliations.

Whether that can, or will be done, is a separate debate and outside the scope of this piece. What’s important is that since the beginning of Operation Zarb-e Azb and later during the sit-ins by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek, the army has, masterfully, managed perceptions to show that it is the only organisation that thinks nationally and has the capability to deliver results. But the exercise in perceptions management is as much about signalling the inefficiencies of the civilian principals as it is about priding itself on its own ability to multi-task. In fact, it achieves the desired result by showing the contrast and, unless one were trained to think rationally and go below the surface, the contrast does appear very obvious and, often, stark.

The important point in the new strategy to show the civilians up for the nincompoops they are is that it is not crude. For instance, during the PTI-PAT sit-ins, there was much speculation about when the army would take over. The speculation missed the point since it presupposed the old strategy of the army to send in elements of the 111 Brigade to take over PTV and Radio Pakistan buildings, as also other important building on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue.

That was not to be and, unless something very drastic happens, won’t be. And yet, the takeover is complete. The army sits at the high table and it dictates its terms. The civilians can either take it or lump it. That they choose to meekly submit to the army’s advice is what ensures the form of democracy. As for the substance of it, there wouldn’t be much even if the army weren’t on the scene. But that too is another debate.

Corollary: it works fine for both sides.

The army is smart enough to let the civilians be seen to be in the driver’s seat even as it navigates the bus. This way, if and when something goes wrong, people will hold the civilians responsible. In other words, the army can rule without being subjected to direct responsibility for any action. Whoever said that one could not have one’s cake and eat it obviously was not thinking about the Pakistani army.

The civilians are taking the hit on economy. But not many would pause to realise that it is the very policies, foreign and security, as directed by the army which continue to trap the country in a poor economic cycle. Not just that, military-directed policies also shrink the space for the civilians to handle foreign and security policies and threats through means other than military.

India, where Narendra Modi’s government has been particularly poisonous towards Pakistan, is a case in point. The army has carefully crafted and directed perceptions towards a confrontation, given the confrontational tone emanating from New Delhi. The fact, however, is that atmospherics can be improved by using non-military means, including by movement on the trade front. But that’s a closed chapter, despite the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is deeply interested and invested in trade with India and appointed one of the best in his team, Khurram Dastgir-Khan, as commerce minister.

It’s easy to manage perceptions on India because the Modi government, unlike the Vajpayee and Singh governments, thrives on challenging Pakistan directly. As things stand, relations with India are going to go from bad to worse. Ironically, that impacts Islamabad’s relations with Kabul, despite genuine efforts by President Ashraf Ghani to improve the optics and substance of relations through a three-phase, short- to medium- to long-term engagement.

That window, too, is closing. With the Taliban launching an intense Spring-Summer offensive, this has been the bloodiest year of fighting in Afghanistan. Ghani’s political risk at home is increasing exponentially and unless Pakistan moves fast to give him operational space, the downward spiral will not be stopped.

Both areas are crucial for Pakistan Army. But lest it be misunderstood: The army is not being villainous. It is reacting and acting to these developments. The problem is that as managers of violence, their kitty does not have non-military solutions. That is the job of the civilians and the civilians have already conceded space to the army. The army, like all large-scale bureaucratic organisations, is afflicted with bounded rationality and systematic stupidity. Not because the officers are stupid but because organisations ‘satisfice’ rather than ‘optimising’. They are essentially tactical in problem-solving and they go sequentially rather than looking at the broader picture and understanding the imperative of simultaneity.

At home, it’s the same story. General Sharif has been presented as a man of action. He went into North Waziristan without the hemming and hawing of former chief General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani. Great. But an operation with limited objectives that has already taken a year was presented, from the word go, as a final showdown between the state and the terrorists. Now, the focus is not on hard questions but notions of chivalry, the heart-warming songs, the symbolism of the flag and the state et cetera. All of which is very well, except it doesn’t proffer answers and it begs too many questions — questions that very few are prepared to ask because they begin to clear up the smoke screen that will show the army up for its own limitations, no less remarkable than the inefficiencies of the politicians.

No one knows how the operation has been conducted. What exactly were the objectives? How much has been achieved and what remains? What operational techniques were employed? Has the fighting been discriminate? How long will it take for the IDPs to return, if at all? This is not even an exhaustive list.

The painful irony of all this is that perceptions have been managed cleverly. Not through, as I said, activating the 111 Brigade but through handheld gizmos, smart phones and even smarter use of social media by DG-ISPR, Maj.-Gen Asim Bajwa and his team, all of them smart, hardworking officers. I call it the Twitter coup. They work round the clock, tweeting strategically, using bots to spread messages, focusing on sacrifices rather than operational questions, providing information to those who will lap it up uncritically and cutting loose those who have an annoying habit of being critical.

They are helped in this by many young officers who have also taken to social media and put out news and pictures of men in uniform, sacrificing their lives and being away from their loved ones, contrasting that spartan existence from the lavish laziness and apathy of civilian rulers. And social media, especially Twitter, offensive require this kind of bombardment. The 140-character brevity, which certainly is neither the soul of wit nor of lingerie, thrives on the attention span of pea-brained people that swarm the electronic space like flies, and is tremendous help to anyone out to tell lies or, if he is generous, merely withhold the truth.

Facts, subtleties, nuances and hard questions are lost, however. What is lost is the obvious, in-one’s-face fact that this is a war that killed some 2,000 Americans but has ended up killing more than 55,000 Pakistanis. If this is our idea of grand strategy and victory against real and ghost enemies then we need to revisit it badly.

Civil-military relations theories have amassed a huge corpus of literature since Samuel Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State. But what the army has managed to do in the last year-and-half is the employment of a strategy that no civ-mil theorist has ever written about — or could possibly have conceived.

Why? Because it is essentially a takeover without a physical takeover and it is underpinned by perceptions management through a clever use of social media. If anything, in the years to come, the Pakistan Army’s use of social media will become a case study.

This article, written for Newsline Magazine, was published in the July 2015 issue.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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