Promoting senior army officers without consulting the government: State within a state? – by Ayesha Siddiqa

The fact that Gen Kayani has the powers to promote senior officers without consulting the government is far too important to be brushed aside as a minor procedural issue. –Photo by APP

It is amusing to note that there has not been a thorough discussion in the media on the army chief’s decision to give extension in service to a couple of lieutenant generals on his own — something which has major implications for the state.

The little that has appeared in the print media indicates that Gen Kayani indeed has the powers to promote senior officers without consulting the government. The development is far too important to be brushed aside as a minor procedural issue.

While the decision is a part of the larger picture of AfPak politics, it is symbolic of the true nature of the Pakistani state’s inner power structure. It shows that the present army chief has, by not seeking prior sanction for giving the extension, yet again established his organisation’s autonomous status. He has, in fact, established a precedent which many would be tempted to follow even in the civil bureaucracy.

The prime minister, who seems to have raised no objection, must immediately restructure the state bureaucracy and pack up the defence ministry and the establishment division as their services are no longer required. If heads of departments can carry out such functions, why bother with keeping this section of the bureaucracy?

As far as the state’s bureaucratic function is concerned, Gen Kayani is what may be termed as the head of a department. Some may even argue that it is actually the secretary, ministry of defence, who is the head of the department. But then that might have been challenged. The general is clearly his own boss.

The concept of the head of department is important from the perspective of defining the powers of different office holders. During Musharraf’s tenure the establishment decided that heads of the department could give leave to their staff. This was done to provide relief to those who had to run from pillar to post to get their leave sanctioned. This was like setting up a one-window operation. However, this power did not interfere with the government’s authority to give its sanction to all other decisions including promotions or extensions.

Giving extension to an officer means that those below will not get promoted which has a ripple effect in a top-down hierarchical system. This means that some of the officers at every level of the bureaucracy would have to be retired which is an expense on the state. Since the government is the one responsible for the functioning of the state, it is the right authority to make such decisions. So, while Gen Kayani might like some of his men to remain on his staff, he would have to first seek approval from the right quarters.

Some may get restless with this view and refer to the corruption of political governments. Why bother with a couple of extensions when there is so much else going wrong? But this is not just about how much money is lost but the principles of governing a state. More importantly, this is about not encouraging the phenomenon of a ‘state within a state’.

The government’s first and only white paper on defence written during the 1970s had strengthened the defence ministry’s position as the main interface between the military and the civilian government. The first defence secretary was not only a civilian, he was a non-bureaucrat. This was the primary government organisation to deal with the armed forces for which a centre-point was created in the form of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC).

Unfortunately, neither institution could grow because of the military takeover in 1977. The JCSC couldn’t really stand up to the pressure of the military in the seat of power. Later, under Musharraf, the army more or less killed the institution by changing one of the core principles for the JCSC, that is the appointment of the chairman by rotation. Even Nawaz Sharif contributed to the malaise by appointing Musharraf as the chairman when it was actually the naval chief’s turn.

In Pakistan’s power politics it is the army chief who calls the shots. With the decision to give extension to his officers the current army chief has established his autonomy and power. Other service chiefs may not necessarily replicate this authority unless they get a tough-minded head. The air force is more likely to follow the tradition. This region’s history is witness to the fact that moves to alter the principles of governance are costly. The Indians suffered as a result of this during the 1960s. Their defence establishment got into questionable human resource management in the armed forces which lost them the war of 1962 against China.

Gen Kayani may have signalled to the government that human resource management in the army comes under his purview and that he does not want politicians to decide on issues close to the military’s heart. More importantly, however, this is part of the politics being played in the capital and its twin city to get the right man in before the Afghan operation gets to the crucial stage. Since Gen Kayani has caught the imagination of his American friends, there are many in Washington who are in favour of an extension for the army chief. In case that doesn’t work out, the army chief would position his cards to get the preferred man in line to take over from him.

Some in the Obama administration continue to bet on the military horse rather than the civilian government. Within the army the preference is for certain officers, especially the ISI chief Gen Pasha. Whether or not this personality-driven approach solves the AfPak problem to Washington’s satisfaction is another matter. Meanwhile, the Pakistani state’s structure is being altered to accommodate a ‘state within a state.’

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Source: Dawn, Friday, 05 Mar, 2010



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