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Entrusting hope
Pakistan’s new CoAS and civil-military relations

After intense speculation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Lt General Raheel Sharif as the new Chief of Army Staff (CoAS). He indeed reached the decision after carefully considering crucial factors, keeping in mind the political history of Pakistan and his own personal experience.

As the army is as good as a power center of the country, the appointment of its new Chief is significant. Whether or not General Raheel Sharif brings changes in the ISI or the system changes him is for time to tell.

But if PM Nawaz Sharif really wants to bring about a long term change, where the civilian leadership is not threatened by the military establishment and their relation is mutually beneficial, then a mere tactical appointment of the Chief of Army Staff is not enough. What is required is a restructure of Pakistan’s security apparatus and decision making process, even at the cost of his personal interests.

Military control

Nawaz Sharif has been the victim of a military coup once before and Pakistan as a country has suffered enough political turmoil from the overarching control of politics by the military.  

General Sharif has been elevated over two senior generals, one of whom is considered to be a close confidante of the outgoing chief-General Kayani. Even though the new army chief was reportedly handpicked by Nawaz Sharif to move away from the ‘Kayani doctrine’, his apparent non-interest in politics and celebrated reputation as an ardent professional soldier will not be enough to tilt the overall civil-military relations in favor of the civilian leadership.

The appointment comes at a time when a significant transition in Pakistan’s civilian government is slowly consolidating democratic institutions. However, the country still faces fierce domestic and security challenges. Hence, for a country that has been ruled under direct military control for half of its political history, the appointment of the new Chief of Army Staff holds relevance, for that will decide the future course of the country. Debating the appointment of the new army chief is crucial because it is a challenge to establish civilian supremacy and democracy.

Although a coup isn’t a possibility in Pakistan today where an otherwise divided polity is united against the army’s intervention to derail democracy, there still exists the need to tilt the balance of power genuinely in favor of the elected government.

Nawaz Sharif must amend the entire structure of the security apparatus and decision making hierarchy in such a manner so that all institutions enjoy reasonable autonomy and independence that allows the political and military system of Pakistan to operate with a balanced approach and coordination to further its long term national strategic interests.

Currently this is not the case. Although technically the ISI falls under the control of the ministry of defence, it has realized that because it has special powers like unaccounted and unlimited funds and is under direct control of the Prime Minister, which the Prime Minister often uses against his/her political opponents, the ISI knows it can very well take control even by bypassing the Prime Minister, the highest authority of the country. This has been proven by Pakistan’s political history.

The ISI in Pakistan has emerged as a monstrous body that seems to operate thinking that it is beyond the purview of the rule of law. It often politicizes military activities and interferes in domestic politics. Also, it often operates in opposition to the civilian government in Pakistan and its foreign policy.

Transition phase

Since the successful transition of power took place from one democratically elected government to another earlier this year in Pakistan, there is significant hope that the balance will gradually tip in favor of the civilian government. However, the army will continue to maintain influence, as Kayani has molded the role of the army in such a manner, where day-to-day running of the government is left to the civilians, and the generals’ control national security, foreign policy and certain strategic elements of the economy.  

Even though a little after the newly elected PPP government assumed office in 2008, General Kayani ordered all his army men out of politics and ordered the withdrawal of serving army officers from civilian posts. Despite General Kayani’s support to democracy, vital decisions regarding foreign policy and national defence continued to be taken at the General Headquarters (GHQ).

Although General Kayani didn’t intervene directly and resisted the temptation to stage a coup, he pursued a parallel foreign and security policy on most important issues-the insurgency in Balochistan and North Waziristan, and relations with Afghanistan, USA and India. Even though there was a consultation process with the civilian government, it was nothing more than a one-way briefing to get a nod for the decisions the security establishment had already made.

Furthermore, on issues like covert support to the Afghan Taliban, Kashmiri insurgency and done strikes, there has hardly ever been any transparency. Thus, Kayani evolved a new pattern in civil-military relations. The civilian government was allowed every power under the Constitution, except the one’s on defence and national security.

General Kayani was the longest serving army chief in Pakistan’s history never to have overthrown the government. However, he jealously guarded the army’s dominance of foreign policy and national security, which, according to most of the army thinking is their non-negotiable traditional hold.

General Raheel Sharif surely understands the context and situation under which he has been made the Chief of Army Staff. Not only does he have to prove to be his own man, he also cannot be seen playing a second fiddle to the civilian regime on issues on which the opinion is strong within the army. He will have to at least seem to be safeguarding the army’s traditional areas while engaging with the Prime Minister. Once in the seat of power, the CoAS is bound to follow the interests and thinking of its institution.

Thus Nawaz Sharif must realize that there is a loophole in the basic structure of Pakistan’s decision making process at the leadership level of civilian and military authority which the ISI has often used to its advantage. If he is really serious about addressing this issue for the long term interest of Pakistan, he must fix this loophole so that the ISI is tamed.

Thus, while the appointment of the Chief of Army Staff and even the Joint Chief of Staffs Committee is a mere tactical, political concession, the real change must happen in the context in which these leaders function.

The mightiest problem in the civil-military relations in Pakistan is that there is one outfit which can overpower all other outfits as well as challenge the head of the Pakistani army, which is its creator and also the Premier of Pakistan, who is its direct controller.

PM Nawaz Sharif must control the outfit by using constitutional amends and placing the outfit directly under the control of its creator, which is the Pakistani Army and not under the Prime Minister. If the civilian government deals with the ISI directly, then they misuse it and add to the trouble. Therefore, the control of the ISI should go directly under the Pakistani Army in order to restructure the civil military relations in an equitable form.

By appointing Lt General Raheel Sharif as the new Chief of Army Staff, a third in rank officer with an impressive military background that provides his role the much needed apolitical and professional outlook, Nawaz Sharif has tried to address the issue. However, the claim that General Raheel Sharif is uninterested in politics has also been made by his predecessors who later went on to promote themselves to presidency.  But this is a gamble, for currently Nawaz Sharif is relying too much on Lt General Raheel Sharif’s clean image. In the long run, if the system makes him overambitious, just like some of his predecessors, Nawaz Sharif could end up in a serious trouble.

Maintaining balance

This is why other measures like amending and restructuring the security apparatus of Pakistan’s civilian and military decision making process is important.

Since the successful transition of power took place from one democratically elected government to another earlier this year in Pakistan, there is significant hope that the balance will gradually tip in favor of the civilian government. The appointment of a man like General Raheel Sharif will also add to the hope, since he seems to be a thinking man with the understanding of what’s best for his country.

In addition, with the new army chief appointed, there is a fresh opportunity to consolidate, strengthen and regain full power under the Constitution by the civilian government. Conversely, if the security establishment and the civilian government are divided, Pakistan will remain weak, untrustworthy and vulnerable to foreign manipulations and extremists.

For smooth civil-military relations, there is a need to alter the differences when it comes to key issues like the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban. The civilians, both in government and the opposition want to halt all military actions and negotiate a peace deal. Unless they have the army feel the same way, they cannot possibly go ahead with this plan, because the army will not let it happen.

Another area where the civilians and generals have friction is over India. Since coming to power, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signaled his intention to improve relations with India and open trade links. But with the army creating tensions along the LoC, the army has shown its disapprovement towards any rapprochement with the Indians.

In addition, the imposition of the rule of law is perennial to the entire situation because in the long run it will help the Prime Minister to consolidate power. They also need clarity on their security, defense and foreign policy so that the civilian and military leadership work together on important security and defense issues.

If the Prime Minister really wants the best for his country, he must resolve to balance the civil-military relations in Pakistan, even if it means that he has to give-up certain absolute areas of power. Streamlining the decision making structure will work in the long term interest of Pakistan. However, Nawaz Sharif cannot rely on constitutional moves along.

Parallelly, he must also deliver on social services and economic development, because that will act as a natural catalyst to change the opinion of Pakistani people that the army is more caring than the government.