Throughout our history, Pakistan has been consumed by (an ongoing) debate about civil-military imbalance. This argument stands on two assertions, one factual and the other circumstantial. On the factual side, the civil-military imbalance debate gets its fuel from protracted periods of military rule (which account for almost half of our national history, unfortunately). On the circumstantial side, the argument is that even when democracy was ‘allowed’ to rule the country, the military junta has always remained suspicious of civilian leaders, and tolerated them only to such extent that they can be ‘controlled’. Or that they tow some form of a Deep-State line. Any deviation from this idea, and the military finds ways to interfere in the governance of the country by either declaring martial law or by tinkering with the process in a manner that installs a pliable democratic regime.
The argument is further extended by pointing out the fact that all popular political leaders in our history were ‘creations’ of the establishment. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in the cabinet of General Ayub Khan, and found national prominence in that capacity, before starting his own (anti-establishment) political party. Similarly, Nawaz Sharif was born and raised in the warm embrace of General Zia-ul-Haq. He made his political party under thee patronage of General Zia. In fact, General Zia also helped the Sharif family gain their financial muscle. And up until the entrance of Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif remained the favourite child of the military, despite minor differences from time to time.
In the same breath, it is argued that Imran Khan is nothing more than a “military stooge”. He was brought to power as a proxy for the Khaki forces. And that he will only be tolerated till such time that he does not irk the wrath of the forces that reside in Rawalpindi.
This idea has its subscribers and critics. There are those who (wrongly) assert that military has never interfered in the democratic functioning of the State (during periods of civilian rule). And those who (just as wrongly) assert that military is behind every shift and tweak in our political diaspora, always in pursuit of the unspoken goal of ‘controlling’ democracy, especially in regards to internal security and foreign policy.
This debate has once again taken centre-stage in our polity. Ever since the Panama scandal, and resulting disqualification/conviction of Nawaz Sharif, a few people seem bent upon painting this as military-orchestrated regime change. Because everything must be about civil-military imbalance, right?
For this to be true, the following would have had to happen: back in the early 1990s (when Nawaz Sharif was still the darling of Zia-inspired establishment), the military encouraged the Sharif family to buy property, worth millions of Pounds, in London, through money that remains unaccounted for till date. They planned (apparently) that some thirty years later, when Nawaz Sharif decides to turn ‘anti-establishment’, they will ask some international watch-dog (in this case, the ICIJ) to leak documents/proof concerning the Sharif family property. And, of course, use that information to get a future Supreme Court to disqualify and convict him. Of course, we do not know about it yet, but the military must have a similar plan for Imran Khan and his PTI, just in case they need to unravel the party some three decades from now (in case it turns anti-establishment, of course).
On a more serious note: there is no cavil with the proposition that military dictators (e.g. Pervez Musharraf) must be tried for their crimes, and punished. And that military should not be an active participant in domestic polity. But does that mean that any attempt to prosecute politicians in our country must be halted till we first try all military interventionists? Is that an argument for criminal immunity to all politicians? And in Nawaz Sharif’s case, was he tried by a military court? Was he denied an opportunity to defend himself before the honourable Supreme Court, or the JIT, or the Accountability Court? And if the august Court disqualified him, and the trial court convicted him, must we assume that it would have to be at the behest of the military establishment? Is there no room for the contention that the judges of the honourable Court were honestly of the opinion that Nawaz Sharif be disqualified or convicted? Is a Qamar Zaman Chaudhary NAB acceptable to us (because it believes in supremacy of corrupt politicians), whereas Justice (R) Javed Iqbal NAB a stooge of the military? Are we really arguing for the idea that Nawaz Sharif’s conviction is based on some sordid military grudge alone… because otherwise his financial dealing and off-shore wealth was entirely lawful?
In the same vain, there has also been much hue and cry over Imran Khan’s reception at the GHQ a few days back. It is argued that the Army has, for the first time, treated an elected Prime Minister with deserved respect, and not seen him/her with intrigue. It is also pointed out that when Nawaz Sharif visited the GHQ, after his electoral victory in 2013, he was not allowed the chair the meeting; instead, he co-chaired all meetings at the GHQ, sharing the limelight with the then Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif. In stark contrast, Imran Khan was allowed the chair the meetings at GHQ, and was given an extended 8-hour briefing on domestic and foreign threats.
Now, keeping all biases aside, is that really unreasonable? Is it unreasonable for the military to not be open and receptive to Khan, compared to Nawaz Sharif or Yousaf Raza Gillani (who met with the Army Chief along with Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman)? Do we really expect the military to see Imran Khan the same way as those who were involved in purposeful intrigue against the Khaki forces? If you were the Army Chief, what would you do? Would you be willing to share our strategic secrets with Asif Zardari (who was part of Memo-gate) or Nawaz Sharif (who orchestrated Dawn Leaks, kept a sworn silence on Kalboshan and made treasonous statements about the Mumbai attacks)?
We must debate the civil-military imbalance issue in our country. Of course it is important, and has resulted in very consequential impact for the country. But civil-military imbalance cannot be argued as an ideal in void; it cannot be discussed without keeping one eye on the personal integrity and history of the players involved.
So let a new debate about civil-military relations, under the new government, begin on a fresh page. Now that there seems to mutual trust between the players (for now), let us talk about the role (if at all) that military should have in issues such as internal security and foreign policy. But let us have the integrity to make this debate purposeful, as oppose to using the civil-military slogan for settling partisan scores.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.