Current state of civil-military relationship and future trends

Current state of civil-military relationship and future trends


Pakistan’s unique political history has made the relationship between the executive and military one of the defining features of the nation’s political spectrum. The civil-military relationship at times has been centered around a negotiation of roles and responsibilities between the two institutional structures, while at other occasions it has been manifest by a power contest between the two institutional rivals ending not only with submission, but also a formal expulsion from the power domain of one of the contestants.

The political setup that emerged after the departure of President Gen. Musharraf was one where the military after its overarching political presence of the last 10 years had decided to take a step back and allowed the democratically elected government to exercise political powers. Yet owing to the deteriorating security situation within the country, the military’s special vestiges within the policy making domain remained intact.

Meanwhile, in this reshuffling of the political cards, Pakistan’s supreme court in general and its Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in particular emerged and asserted himself as a powerful player by means of judicial activism  — instrumentalized through the use of suo motu notices on matters of public interest. It was the Supreme Court that eventually removed Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani in a contempt of court case.

It won't be wrong to say that this judicial intervention has not gone down well in certain quarters and has been considered an institutional challenge mounted by the Supreme Court at the very last moment. This inadvertently has brought both the civil and military leadership even closer. 

Umer Karim

The military was back into political grapevine as it was allegedly behind the rise of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that posed a significant political challenge to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). PMLN eventually won the 2013 elections convincingly, yet Nawaz Sharif never forgot his past with the military. The civil-military ties started on a positive note but gradually became bitter, first owing to a PTI-led sit-in in Islamabad and later on due to incidents like the Dawn leaks. The Sharif-military uneasiness was never resolved and ended only when the Supreme Court, while investigating the Panama Papers case, sent the prime minister packing. Essentially, Sharif was knocked out of the political fray but this time not by the military but by the courts, again establishing themselves as an independent institutional entity.

With the elections of July 2018, finally the political dichotomy of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League that had dominated the country's political fold for the last thirty years was over and it was the turn of the Khan-led PTI to form a government. This development had tremendous implications for the state of civil-military relationships. As the new government took charge, it was visible that both the executive and military essentially had developed a symbiotic relationship, with trust on both sides. This new political order was one where the two powerful components of the state rather than negotiating or contesting each other’s power domain, often at the cost of mutual damage, were actually happy in coordinating and helping each other.

From a civil perspective, Prime Minister Khan had no previous beef with the military and therefore no accounts to settle. His sole focus happens to be on recovering the country’s wealth primarily embezzled by politicians which is a point of no objection for the military. For its part, the military has been largely able to maintain its say in the national security and foreign policy-making domains.

This new dynamic in the civil military affairs still revolves around the personal relationship between two men – Khan and Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa – and their mutual trust. This has factored into the government’s decision to award General Bajwa a full-term extension. However, this personal connectivity must not be considered a hybrid regime as has been apparent from the recent saga involving Sharif and his departure from the country. It was understandable that any deterioration in Sharif’s health would have negative implications for the current political balance within the country. Yet Khan enacted significant hurdles to obstruct Sharif’s exit and without a court intervention the latter would not have been able to travel abroad.

This shows that even despite all symbiosis and the government’s decision to award an extension to Gen. Bajwa, there remains a level of disparity between the political goals of Khan’s government and what the security circles consider best for the country.  

As the Supreme Court took up the petition regarding the extension of the army chief and suspended the government's extension order, a new crisis emerged. Eventually the court gave an interim extension to the army chief for six months while instructing the government to draft a legal bill.

It won't be wrong to say that this judicial intervention has not gone down well in certain quarters and has been considered an institutional challenge mounted by the Supreme Court at the very last moment. This inadvertently has brought both the civil and military leadership even closer. 

Depending on how the country's political spectrum now evolves, there are signs that the current state of affairs within civil-military ties will be sustained until leaders on both sides bid farewell to their positions.

- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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