To the barracks they must go - Ayesha Siddiqa

VIEW: To the barracks they must go —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Daily Times, August 27, 2007

Given how the situation is unfolding politically, there is a sense that General Pervez Musharraf will either have to leave the scene or at least be forced to give up his uniform.

A third player has entered Pakistan’s politics: the Supreme Court. The Court does not appear to be in control of the GHQ or the politicians, and is taking decisions that will have a long-lasting impact on the country’s politics. While it is too early to say when and how Musharraf will remove his uniform, people hope that the honourable judges will not allow him to contest elections in uniform.

If the Court does prevent Musharraf from contesting elections while being the army chief, its decision will further curtail Musharraf’s powers. He will also be seriously challenged once the two political leaders in exile return to Pakistan. Most people are confident that Nawaz Sharif’s early return will increase the pressure of public opinion on Musharraf.

Pushed into a corner, Musharraf could either gracefully accept the new dynamics or fight his last battle with coercive methods. The problem with the latter approach is that Pakistanis are, by and large, prepared to stand up to the state. Musharraf’s best bet, therefore, would be to seek re-election after removing his uniform. That would also mean the end and disintegration of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League — Quaid (PML-Q); and unless some political parties guarantee their support for Musharraf’s re-election bid, he could be set aside. So far, only Benazir Bhutto has emphasised the importance of retaining the general-president.

But is Musharraf’s fate an important issue? No. He is at the tail-end of his political career and one does not look at him as a seasoned and mature old man with the acumen to survive in politics. Some politician or the other will push him out eventually. Musharraf’s departure is, however, indirectly connected to another issue i.e. how to deal with the military.

This is important, not least because one general’s departure would not make any difference to the larger issue of containing the armed forces. The military will still remain consequential to the country’s politics. The organisation is so deeply entrenched in state and society that curbing its power is quite another matter.

There are some who argue that with the ongoing war on terror, it would be difficult to push the military back into the barracks. Or to put it simply, the military will continue to have a role in governance and will remain a powerful actor in politics. The internal security situation in the country is such that the military would be asked to participate. This does not bode well for institutional balance in the country. But then the question is, are political players ready to push the military back?

No. Given the authoritarian tendencies of the political parties, they would continue to interact with the GHQ and accord it significant space in power politics. There is no evidence to suggest the political parties have the sense to put their own houses in order, the only way they can strengthen themselves institutionally. After all, strengthening democracy means that political parties significantly improve themselves and proportionate to that reduce their inherent dependency on the military.

What we certainly lack is the capacity to create neutral civilian umpires who can negotiate between opposing political faction or parties. The political leadership continues to look at the GHQ as an arbiter which, in turn, means the army remains significant.

Reducing the military’s power becomes even more difficult in a situation where the ruling elite are also dependent on external sources of capital for their own and the nation’s survival. For the country’s foreign patrons, the most important institution remains the military. Only the military can deliver according to the prescribed geo-strategic objectives of the US.

Certain key segments in Pakistan’s society feel threatened by the rise in religious extremism and conservatism which they believe can only be fought with a credible and secular political-military partnership. Pakistani society is completely divided on the issue of religion and related extremism. This is a kind of division that can only strengthen the authoritarian tendencies of the state and society. It is believed that a secular military is essential in securing a secular or moderate state, as was the case in Turkey.

The only problem with such an approach is that this is not a secular military, but essentially a post-colonial institution which changes colour based on the worldview of its leadership. It can move from one extreme to the other depending on what benefits accrue to it. For instance, General Zia-ul Haq would have cracked down on religious fundamentalists as severely as General Musharraf had 9/11 taken place in 1981 instead of 2001.

Referring to the issue of pushing the military back, we in Pakistan continue to lack clarity on: (a) should the military be pushed back and (b) how to make it vacate significant political space. It is true that the military has an important role in fighting terrorism. But this is a role which it can perform without dominating political life.

Militaries all over the world assist civilian authorities in natural disasters or other civilian emergencies. Political stakeholders have to conceptualise institutional mechanisms through which they could fight terrorism. This would mean retaining the military for extreme situations rather than involving it at every step. Internal use of the military is an extremely coercive tool: best avoided for the benefit of society as well as the military itself.

More importantly, the military does not have to undertake other functions that make it extremely visible. For example, according to a recent report in this newspaper, nine out of twelve electricity companies in the country are being managed by serving and retired military personnel. There are other stories as well. This visibility has to be reduced for the betterment of the institution, and the state and society in general.

No politician has thought of ways to negotiate political and social spaces with the military. The continued presence of armed forces personnel in public spaces reduces civilian capacity to perform, and increases the military’s political strength. Perhaps, increasing transparency and accountability of the armed forces is the first step towards a long-term accommodation between the civilian and military enclaves.

Pakistan’s military need not completely follow the Turkish model. It does not have the kind of history and social relations with its people which would make it a more acceptable instrument of governance. A better option is a phased withdrawal. The issue for civil society is how to make that withdrawal possible.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy


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