NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 02

Civil-Military relations

Relations between the civilian or executive rather general administration part of the government and the military leadership, which to all intents and purposes is a part of the government, have always been a topic of great debate, particularly in terms of power balance between the two sides. In Pakistan, civil-military relations have been a topic of hot debate because of the very pronounced role which the military has played in the country’s steering and behind the scenes in the political arena.

The era of recently retired Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa will always be seen as a very critical period in the civil-military relations. It was during his tenure that two elected prime ministers went home. Although, the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2018 was not due to any tension between him and the military but he accused General Bajwa of influencing the Supreme Court decision to disqualify him in the Panama Leaks corruption scam. Since his ouster and defeat of the Sharif party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) along with Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the rise to power of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan in the 2018 national polls, floodgates opened of allegations of meddling of the military by the defeated parties, which labelled Imran Khan government as “selected.”

On the other hand, when the PTI government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was replaced through an apparent no-confidence motion by the 13-party current ruling (then most in the opposition apart from the MQM and Balochistan Awami Party), which in April 2022 came to form the government in the headship of the PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif. Imran Khan termed the ouster of his government as a result of a US-hatched conspiracy. Although General Bajwa vehemently denied it, he and the military did agree with Imran Khan on the National Security Committee forum that Washington had interfered into Pakistan’s internal affairs by wishing the removal of his government. What happened after that is history and one shall not repeat it. However, the events really roiled the image of General Bajwa but the more concerning aspect of it was that of his institution.

It may be important to recall that a year or so before his ouster, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had been claiming that the relations between his government and the military establishment of the country were exemplary. One used to think that had it been so it was a great achievement for the country and for the continuity of democracy and democratic consolidation in the country. Although former PM Imran Khan made several statements during his early stint in power that ties between the civilian government and the military high command had been excellent, on one occasion his divulgence about civil-military relations was quite noticeable. In 2020, after two years in power, Imran Khan, in an interview to a private TV network, said that had he not been fully supported by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence Director General Lt-Gen. Faiz Hameed, he would not have been able to run the country smoothly as the state was passing through a very difficult time. However, after his ouster he accused General Bajwa of his government’s downfall.

As a professional military, the high command shall fully support the civilian government. However, Pakistan has been quite unfortunate in this regard as military commanders in the past mostly did not fully put the institutional weight behind the elected governments. The reason may be that most of these governments were brought to power as a result of under-the-table dealings between political bigwigs and the military commanders of the time. Thus, the military commanders did not trust politicians’ capacities to rule while calling the shots on important policy matters from behind the scenes. However, since 2002, at least three elected, if not democratically-elected, governments completed their tenures and the military desisted from playing any role in dislodging them. This speaks volumes about the professionalism of the military high command. But the events which led to the ouster of the PTI government raised the fears of the military’s unceasing interference.

Still a very disturbing question has been that since 2008, if the military has not been interfering into the affairs of the governments at least in a big way, then why most political parties’ heads, when they were in the opposition under the umbrella of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), openly accused the military of interfering into the political process. One explanation that comes to one’s mind is that as the military has adopted a more off-hand approach in politics, it has emboldened the parties which remained in power in order to settle old scores. This is a very bad strategy and not at all in the interest of the country. The reason is that the military may be, as an institution, responsible for many wrong things in the history of Pakistan, like launching military operations in March 1970 in the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. However, there is a significant difference in the outlook and approach of successive military commanders. Thus, politicians may take the military as a monolithic institution but at the same time it is a very dynamic one also in the context of the change of command. It seems that the behaviour and action of the military as an institution also transformed in Pakistan and this is a good development.

However, the military may not have meddled into politics in a big way since 2008, but it does have interfered. This is not an allegation but very much self-admitted by previous Army Chief General Bajwa, who said that it was in early 2022 that the military had decided that it would not interfere in politics. This means that the military has been interfering in politics before it. The PTI and Imran Khan accused General Bajwa of bringing down his government and imposed the 13-party government which he has been calling an ‘imported government.’ The revelation in the events after the retirement of General Bajwa would most likely throw more might on how his commanded army interfered.

It is ironic that now the leading ruling coalition parties, the PML-N and the PPP, which formed respective individual governments in 2013 and 2008, and worked with generals but when in power they did not complain against the military high command. While in the saddle today, they are also appreciating the role of the military. However, when they may be thrown out of power, probably through the next elections, then they would unleash vitriolic verbal attacks on the military. This means that when the PPP and PML-N are in power together with their junior partners, like the JUI-F, ANP, PkMAP, BNP-M and others, they would remain contended with the role of the military. This is totally illogical and really damaging for the country.