There is yet again talks of military involvement in politics. Imran Khan says no NRO will be acceptable referring to NRO signed by former military dictator Musharraf with PPP and PML N that paved the way for return of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says that his government was derailed through a conspiracy using an Iqama as a legal technicality to justify it. He does not publicly say it but many credible media has reported that he refers to military establishment citing their surprise inclusion in a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) formed by Supreme Court to investigate Panama Papers. Last week Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said that troika of ex-servicemen, some technocrats, and a section of the media is promoting the narrative of a technocratic government being imposed by overthrowing the elected government. In all these formulations one thing is common that military despite their public pronouncements is still involved in politics. This requires a review through finding a comparable models working in other countries.
In Iran the political involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is quite similar to the situation in Pakistan. IRGC is under the command of leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It technically stays out of politics but has extensive business interests in real estate, telecom, banking, and oil & gas sectors. According to some estimates it controls almost 25% of the Iranian economy. In every presidential election, they have a candidate but in last two elections, their candidates lost elections against moderates led by former President Hashmi Rafsanjani and incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. There are also news reports that IRGC is not under civilian control and exert considerable influence in foreign and security policy.
The Pakistani military has almost similar footprint considering their business interests represented by Fauji Foundation, Frontier Works Organization, Army Welfare trust, Defense Housing Authority, National Logistic Cell, and Askari Commercial Bank. General Bajwa may say that military will support democratic government and respect constitution of the country but that is not the end of the political involvement of the military. Senior politician Javed Hashmi has publicly stated that 2014 Dharna and 2016 lockdown was scripted and supported by the military establishment. There has been no formal denial from the military about it neither has any formal inquiry being conducted to ascertain facts. Civilian supporters of military establishment are actively engaged in promoting a narrative that all politicians are corrupt and cannot be trusted with making decisions for the state. There are also suggestions that so-called electable are told to leave or join a political party at the behest of the military. Some politicians make public remarks about the political thinking of military and there is no denial of these statements. Electronic media complain that they get calls to suppress some channels while promoting others. Many speculated that attack on an investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani by unknown assailants was because of his reports that were critical of the military establishment. Some senior-level ex-servicemen write derogatory and accusative pieces on their social media that shed light on their view of democratically elected government. To give one example, former Corps Commander Lt. Gen Tariq Khan facebook page is full of such writings and they are shared on WhatsApp groups too. Although it could be a fake account which is yet to beconfirmed by the general.
So the key question is should we consider formalizing military role in politics through some institutional arrangement? I believe that the dangers lurking around our borders are so serious that we cannot allow the military to be distracted by involvement in politics whether formal or informal. The other worry for me is that despite public assurances by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Bajwa that military will not intervene in politics there are reports of continued involvement of the institution. This means that either Gen Bajwa public position is different from his private views or that the institution has its own approach that may or may not align with its chief. Both situations are bad and have to be corrected. Another worry is that military has to play a significant role in the formulation of foreign and security policy but it cannot have a controlling role which has been the situation for many decades. COAS can and should meet with foreign dignitaries but it has to be in the presence of a foreign ministry note taker. During Gen Kayani’s tenure, he presented a 59-page memo to President Obama directly rather than channeling it through either ministry of defense or ministry of foreign affairs. Similarly, during the visit of Sec of State Rex Tillerson, a separate one to one meeting happened with Gen Bajwa, as reported by foreign media, without the presence of a civilian note taker. These actions create perceptions of division, state within state, and can cause misunderstandings that could be costly for the nation.
Ex-servicemen are experienced people that have led large bodies of personnel. This leadership talent can’t be wasted as most of them still have many years of service left in them. They should either form a political party of their own to gain mandate of the people or join other political parties. Many former ex-servicemen are playing a key role in PML N, PPP and PTI. Lt. Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch and Lt. Gen Abdul Qayyum are just two of the many examples.
Politicians and civilian bureaucrats are asked to submit themselves to accountability which they do. But Generals and Judges are exempted from it. Does this mean that no corruption happens in these institutions? Are their institutional accountability mechanisms working perfectly? If their own mechanisms are working for them then the same arrangement should be made to deal with politicians and bureaucrats rather than create NAB that has so far been an instrument of political exploitation. Judges and Generals may say that they did not ask civilians to exempt them but they also did not make public statements that they are ready to be held accountable to same standards that are applied to politicians. Not only that even retired COAS cannot be allowed to be held answerable to courts. On social media, I engage with activists that support military role in politics and almost all of them justify Gen Musharraf takeover as an individual act.
Balance between institutions is very important for politically, socially, and economically stable Pakistan. All stakeholders have to play their role in arriving at that balance.
by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi