The Pakistan Army and civilian democracy

April 28, 2009

The Pakistan Army has been getting a lot of flak over the past week or so for its alleged failure to take a tough line against Taliban militants expanding their reach across Pakistan’s north-west.  And although Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued a statement promising to fight the militants and security forces began a new offensive, doubts remain about the military’s willingness to take on Islamist groups that it once nurtured as part of its rivalry with India.

Among a spate of articles about Pakistan’s powerful military, Newsweek ran a piece headlined “Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Army”. It argued that far from serving as a bulwark against chaos, the military had helped destabilise Pakistan by undermining the development of a civilian democracy in the decades since the country was founded in 1947.

David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert, called during a Congressional hearing for “fundamental, root and branch reform of the Pakistani military, and bringing it firmly under the authority of civilian elected officials”. Arguing that U.S. aid should be channelled into building up the police rather than the military, he said this ”would protect the Pakistani people, improve counterinsurgency performance, enhance the rule of law and weaken the stranglehold of the army over the civilian leadership of Pakistan.”

The arguments in favour of civilian democracy were well rehearsed when President Pervez Musharraf was forced out of office last year, and then endorsed by the administration of President Barack Obama. Kayani himself has so far stressed his commitment to civilian democracy. So to some extent the latest talk about the role of the Pakistan Army is a rehash of old news.

What I have not seen however, is a coherent and clear explanation of how the army is supposed to do more in fighting the Taliban, while also doing less by subsuming its power to that of the civilian government. Were the civilian government determined and united in fighting the Taliban, there would be no contradiction – in a constitutional democracy, the army is supposed to follow the orders of the political leadership. But there seems to be something of a suggestion creeping in that the army should be ready to take the initiative, with or without the backing of the government.

My impression, and readers will correct me if I am wrong, is that this suggestion crops up far more in the foreign media than in the Pakistani (English-language) press, which acknowledges the ambiguity of an army that is supposed to rescue Pakistan from the Taliban while also reducing its power.

According to the Daily Times, “the army cannot act in a political vacuum at home. It cannot fight a war on which there is no national consensus, and politicians are scared of losing popular support if they stand up to the Taliban challenge”.

Dawn newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying before the latest offensive that the Pakistan Army had said it would launch a new military operation only after clearance by the provincial and federal governments.

Before everyone piles in with comments, this is not meant to be an exhaustive piece about the role of the Pakistan Army (defence analyst Brian Cloughley has a round-up on the Bradford University website for anyone who wants to read more.) What is interesting is the ambivalence of the outside world about what the military should be doing. Should it only obey orders from the government? Or is it seen as the ultimate safety net that would guard Punjab (and Pakistan’s nuclear bombs) if the Taliban posed a real threat – even at the price of launching a coup?

Fox News had an interesting line in a follow-up article on its interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she fretted publicly about the keys to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“A senior U.S. official travelling with the Secretary said whatever concerns Washington has about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are longstanding and unrelated to the Taliban’s recent advances,” it said. “The official indicated that if the Taliban were to succeed in toppling the government of Pakistani President Ali Arif Zardari, the United States believes the likeliest event would be a coup by the military similar to the one that placed Pervez Musharraf in power in 1999.”

So which please? Does the United States want the army to cede ground to the civilian government in the interests of the long-term stability of Pakistan? Or preserve its power, just in case everything goes wrong and it needs to step in?


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