The civil-military struggle within — by Sher Ali Khan

Changing the pattern of the civil-military relationship is a difficult task to achieve. Thus far the Pakistanis have gained some political space through their recent stand against the last dictator. This has not necessarily translated into governmental autonomy in decision-making

From the political perspective, the role of the ISI has been much debated. Last week, the ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, received a one-year extension from the army chief, General Kayani. This announcement highlighted the role of the army in decision-making. The history of the ISI in subverting democratic regimes has always strengthened the military politically. For this reason, today the military is the strongest institution in the political ladder. For a nascent democracy that Pakistan is, it is essential that the current regime establishes its authority as the executive institution in the country, as stated in the constitution.

One of the remnants of extended military rule has been that the civilian government has a limited role in defining national interests and policies. The decisions the government takes are limited in scope due to long-term interests and policies created by the military. More specifically, every civilian regime that has come to power has the odd task of first establishing its autonomy to the public and ensuring compliance by the army. As a dominant actor in the political setup, the army today is seen as the only institution fit to deal with key domestic, foreign and security issues. This hinders politicians whose role in governance is related to policy-making and law-making.

To be certain, the issue of the agencies plays into a grander drama of civil-military relations. The extension given to Lieutenant-General Pasha has illustrated this fact. There is an inherent confusion about the ISI chief’s allegiance since General Zia’s time. Since the appointment depends specifically on the Military Secretary Branch at the GHQ, to get transferred and posted the Director General (DG) has usually been loyal to the military. This naturally handicaps the civilian government’s role in deciding issues of foreign and domestic policy. In the US, the FBI and CIA are put under the executive wing of the government so that it complements the policy of the civilian government.

Attempts have been made in the past by the civilian government to limit the powers of the ISI to strengthen the role of the civilian government on national affairs. The first instance took place during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister when she announced that a former army man would lead the ISI. This move met immediate resistance from the top ISI officials who did not accept the appointment. In her second term, she tried to move the ISI under the ministry of interior; as a result the ISI chief would not be invited to the corps commander’s conference. Nawaz Sharif also tried to oppose the army chief’s recommendation and again faced the same prospect of being shunned at the corps commander’s conference.

This theme continued in 2008, when the prime minister’s office announced that it would place both the ISI and IB under the control of the interior ministry. Within 48 hours, the government issued a statement that it was just looking to “re-emphasise the ties between the interior ministry and the ISI in relation to the war on terror”. These episodes showed that the agency is, at times, running contrary to the government policies and constitution.

From the constitutional perspective, the agencies do not have any neatly defined role or powers. They are supposed to operate under the general powers of the federal government. The main clause regarding the agencies is specified in Article 90 of the constitution, which specifies the executive’s role. However, the constitution does not provide any leniency regarding unlawful actions against the people in Pakistan. Thus, the agencies also must remain under the jurisdiction of the courts and the general law of the land. In practice though, the intelligence agencies have a role outside the government system because the orders come from the GHQ.

The democratisation process in Pakistan can only continue if the civilian government is willing to take steps to increase its decision-making powers on key issues. Several strategies have been voiced as ways to create this autonomy. One is the strengthening of the police, as it will extend the powers of the civil government while curbing the involvement of the ISI and the army in domestic issues. It all boils down to having a strong ministry of defence, which is supposed to balance the powers of the army and the civilian government.

Furthermore, a civilian debate regarding the agencies will go a long way in de-legitimising the role of the agencies and the army in the greater sphere of national and domestic policy making. This debate can only be marketed by the elected government via parliament. Collectively, this will develop the political will of the civilian government. The main role of parliament is that it ensures debate that defines Pakistan’s national interest. Once the debate on foreign policy and security issues is also put on the table through parliament, it will prove that the civilian government can create policies of such nature. Parliament’s involvement is crucial in ensuring that kind of strong civilian set-up as well.

Changing the pattern of the civil-military relationship is a difficult task to achieve. Thus far the Pakistanis have gained some political space through their recent stand against the last dictator. This has not necessarily translated into governmental autonomy in decision-making. The real battle for Pakistan is to balance the powers in the current set-up so that the civilian government has a more active role in defining the direction of the country.

The writer is a freelance journalist and recent graduate from UC Riverside with a degree in Political Science. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times



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