South Asia

Behind the Civil-Military Tussle in Pakistan Lies a ‘Military Guardianship’ Mindset

Pakistan needs to move away from the realist view of security that fans the military guardianship flame, advocates a Cold War mentality and zero-sum games.

General Raheel Sharif and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Twitter

General Raheel Sharif and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Twitter

Pakistan is a transitioning democracy. Its chequered history of state-building is marked by prolonged military rules and intermittently cut-short stints by civilian governments. Since the restoration of democratic governance in 2008, the institutionalisation of democratic norms has been under tremendous stress, which has often led to civil-military tensions.

The fledgling democratic process is trying to find a place in the country’s complicated decision-making machinery where institutional roles collide and mandates overlap. The marginal civilian inputs in the country’s security and foreign policies, despite parliament’s supremacy and sovereignty as the apex state institution, are at the heart of this never-ending struggle. Hitherto, civilian efforts to restore the institutional balance have not made much headway.

The federal government’s indirect and muted criticism of the military establishment – while itself struggling to keep good governance on track – has only strengthened the military’s narrative that the civilian regimes are not competent enough to run Pakistan’s national security, and domestic and foreign policies.

The recent episode in this civil-military tussle – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s bravado of first talking tough with the military’s top brass and instructing them to take action against certain terrorist groups, and then leaking the proceedings of this high-level meeting to a prominent journalist of an English-language daily – has only undermined the government’s own moral authority. These recent events have worked in favour of the military’s narrative.

In light of these recent developments, civilian efforts to assert themselves have encountered stiff resistance, deep suspicion and hostility from the deep state. This tussle has repeatedly spilled over into the public sphere, creating an uncertainty about the future of democracy in Pakistan. On such occasions, fears of the proverbial return of the man on the horseback start simmering.

The impending Panama leaks inquiries pertaining to the prime minister’s family, the ongoing protests by opposition leader Imran Khan, the expected changes in the military high command in November, the ongoing conflict with India since the Uri attack, the security operations in northern areas and Karachi, the deteriorating relations with Afghanistan and the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project – for which the military has almost entirely undertaken the security arrangements – display the multiple fronts of turmoil and the many layers of insecurity present in Pakistan. They also demonstrate, in the context of balancing the civil-military disequilibrium, the need to dissect the ‘military guardianship’ mindset prevailing in Pakistan.

Military guardianship

The concept of military guardianship is central to civil-military tensions in countries like Pakistan, enabling the role of the military institution in the political sphere and amplifying it through the processes of securitisation when threats to the status quo need to be framed and addressed under the banner of national security.

Securitisation is the process that communicates the potential threats that exist (terrorism or insurgencies) and extraordinary measures that must be taken by the guardian (the actor behind securitisation) to counter these threats. Through such processes, the narratives of security – monopolised by the military – seep into homes, places of worship and social conversations, fabricating reality and rationalising securitisation as the guardian sees fit.

Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt in Political Armies: The Military and National Building in the Age of Democracy, explain that the role of the ‘military guardian’ is founded on at least two principles, both of which can apply to Pakistan.

The first is the perceived ‘birth right principle’, their raison d’etre that had the army not made sacrifices during the formative years of this nation, the state of affairs would have collapsed. The second, the ‘competence principle’, is the perceived belief that the military is the only institution competent to deal with matters of national interests and is thus best suited to decide what is or is not a matter of national security. It thus becomes the key actor in the processes of securitisation and seeks to monopolise this.

Such interventionist approaches choke the space for alternative discourses and fresh thinking that are required in democracies. Communicating the establishment’s monopolisation over matters of national and international security represents a ‘discursive dominance’ or the prominent discourse that constructs ideas, narratives and by extension, a mindset.

Discursive dominance is often empowered through warmongering and war rhetoric – as seen during the recent exchanges between India and Pakistan – and directly or indirectly secures the position of militaries as guardians of states and state interests. This construction is emboldened over time while threats, from within the country or outside, keep bureaucracies and media fixed in the realists discourse analyses, horsemen are socialised into their ‘guardian missions’ and citizens have their social realities constructed for them externally.

Self-defeating mediocrity

The continuation of this ‘warrior state’ paradigm has not only bred mediocrity at the cost of excellence but it has also turned potential opportunities for change into challenges or security risks – whether it be the civilian government’s peace overtures with the neighbouring countries, independent journalism, or efforts to transform Pakistan from a security to a welfare state.

By definition, mediocrity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. The security establishment’s continued insistence on supporting the militant proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and expecting results different than the prevailing status quo is self-defeating. This approach has not only compromised Pakistan’s Kashmir and Afghan policies but the domestic negative fallout of these has also been the vertical and horizontal growth of religious extremism and militancy in the country.

Such a besieged mentality decapitates one’s ability to think outside the box and beyond the prevailing institutional paradigms. In such an environment, the continuation of the status quo is deemed as ‘stability’, and efforts to change the status quo are met with resistance and opposition and exhibited as destabilising factors. This leads to policy inertia that torpedoes efforts to look for alternative paradigms and define nationalism in a broader sense beyond animosity for the adversary. If patriotism is confined to hatred against a particular country through displays of aggression, unabashed chivalry and brazen displays of power, then the end result is not just closed borders but also closed minds and hearts as well.

Constructing security

Since Pakistan’s inception, this mindset has been trying to secure the state but in the process has generated tremendous insecurity among the people. The examples of Karachi, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan are good recent case studies where the writ of the state is restored but the credibility of the state among the masses is eroded due to the insecurities they harbour about their socio-economic futures and their participation in the democratic processes. This counter-productive approach saps energy, time and resources in blame games, instead of constructive debates on national security, foreign policy and other issues.

Security and insecurity are both politically constructed in Pakistan. There is a need to move away from a traditional, realist view of security that fans the military guardianship flame and advocates a Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, to constructive ways of approaching it that demand questioning how security is learned, articulated, imagined, processed and implemented in Pakistan, beyond the state and throughout the society.

Undemocratic processes, encouraged by traditionalist thinking, are only likely to continue fuelling insecurities and widening the divide between the nation and the state and between regional stakeholders as well.

Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore and tweets at @basitresearcher. Zoha Waseem is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, UK and tweets at @zohawaseem.