Civil-military relations in the time of COVID-19: GVS special interview with Dr. Ejaz Hussain

In December 2019, Dr. Ejaz Hussain predicted that 'with issues related to misgovernance, and organizational weaknesses', the government was unlikely to enjoy the pleasure of 'the ultimate power center for that long'. However, he now believes that “till the PM does not cross the red lines, the lines makers and watchers would have no issues with the current dispensation which expires in 2023”. Read a special interview with Dr. Hussain on the current state of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

civil-military relations

GVS Assistant Editor, Farah Adeed, sat down with Dr Ejaz Hussain, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Iqra University, Islamabad, to understand the current state of civil-military relations in Pakistan. Dr Hussain’s latest analysis suggests that the incumbent government is likely to stay at good terms with the mil-establishment in order to complete its five years tenure in the office.

GVS: In December 2019, you noted that “With issues related to misgovernance, economic non-performance i.e. price hike, and organizational weaknesses of the PTI, it seems very implausible the latter [PTI’s government] could enjoy the pleasure of the ultimate power center for that long”. Do you hold the same when: 1) Asim Bajwa has been appointed as SAPM on Info; 2) COVID-19 disturbed the global economy?

EH: While analyzing Pakistani civil-military relations in 2019, I did argue that the country’s economic performance was abysmal as the GDP growth rate fell sharply from 5.8 % (revised 5.2%) in 2018 (under the PMLN government) to 3.8 %  in the first quarter of 2018-19; and it went further down in the following months. Since Pakistani military is a stakeholder in the political and economic system of the country, it views economic under-performance sceptically since poor economic conditions impact the overall health of the society and the state of which the military is an integral part. Indeed, to meet defence requirements such as weapons procurement, a stable economy is a must.

Moreover, shaky economic indicators carry the potential to compel the masses to stage protest politics- which can be capitalized by the opposition for its own political aims. Thus, it was very plausible that the PTI government might have witnessed popular unrest on account of, for example, a price hike. Nonetheless, owing to COVID-19 we are now living through unusual circumstances nationally and (extra) regionally. This pandemic has affected the global economy negatively. Pakistan’s economic indicators project negative (GDP) growth for current and, at least, the following year owing to the Corona Virus.

Thus, the latter has impacted Pakistan’s dwindling economy vis-à-vis regional and international economic dynamics in a manner where Pakistan’s case does not seem an exception. Hence, this has politically provided a sigh of relief to the Khan government since it empirically becomes hard for an opponent, i.e. PML-N/PPP, of the government to criticize it for economic under-performance and launch protest politics for the world’s top economies, such as the US and China, are expecting low growth of not juts GDP but also exports etc. Hence, in an unusual COVID-19 context, the government can expect to face little political challenges.

Read More: Civil-military relations in historical perspective

Moreover, being mindful of the existence of the powers that be, the government seems successful in having the confidence of the former- the appointment of General Asim Saleem Bajwa should be seen from this angle. To cap it, currently, the civil-military top leadership seems to be on the same page in political and policy terms.

GVS: In an article, you argued that the Supreme Court of Pakistan “seemingly challenging the powerful military, at least, at two occasions”. You quoted the example of Justice Khosa’s SC. My question is: 1) Was Justice Khosa-led SC challenging the powerful military or giving a tough time to the civilian government? 2) Is Justice Gulzar’s SC different than that of J. Khosa’s?

EH: The judiciary in our country has a very unique history. There are occasions when it accorded ‘legal’ legitimacy to martial laws, i.e. 1958, 1977, 1999. However, contextually, the apex court also acted differently. For example, General Yahya-led martial law of March 1969 was judged as ‘illegal’ by the Supreme Court in 1972.

Similarly, a section of the upper judiciary including Chief Justice Saeeduzamman Siddique refused to legitimize the Musharraf-led coup in October 1999. However, another section justified the coup by invoking ‘doctrine of necessity’. Importantly, in November 2007, when Musharraf staged another coup (which is generally called ‘emergency’), the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also refused to legitimize the coup though Chaudhry was part of the section which accorded legitimacy in 1999. What happened under (former) CJ Asif Saeed Khosa is not that unusual if the aforesaid is taken into account.

Moreover, in the post-Musharraf period, the judiciary seemed to have gained confidence institutionally. This has been sequentially reflected through ‘suo moto’ or judicial activism mostly vis-à-vis politicians/parliamentarians. Little wonder, two elected prime ministers were disqualified by the apex judiciary.

In the context of the debate on the extension of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Khosa-led judiciary faced a peculiar situation filled with political uncertainty, protest politics (i.e. Maulana Fazul-ur-Rehman), social (media) hype coupled with the bitter exchange of words between the CJ and the PM. In that particular context, the Khosa-led judiciary registered its institutional reaction primarily towards PM Khan in terms of caution- not to cross-institutional limits.

Read More: Civil-Military relations on social media: Has Pakistan turned into a laughing stock for the world?

Moreover, Justice Seth’s comments in Musharraf’s case were supposedly meant to gauge the reaction of the military as an institution. The latter communicated its concerns accordingly, i.e. appeal to Lahore High court. To cap it, from the perspective of civil-military relations, the Pakistani judiciary has gained considerable institutional confidence vis-à-vis the political class. However, it is struggling to do so vis-à-vis the military- which stays as a principal actor within the civil-military equation.

GVS: Pakistan in the post-Musharraf period has, what you call, a hybridized pattern of civil-military relations. Why do you think it’s a hybrid system when the army chief gets an extension in service by the executive head? 

EH: The hybridization of civil-military relations in Pakistan is a contemporary phenomenon. This type of CMR was not witnessed or practiced in the past. In simple terms, hybridity (or duality, which is my original model that has been developed in my co-edited forthcoming book titled Perspectives on Contemporary Pakistan (Routledge, London/New York) refers to political, institutional and constitutional processes where the civilians (read politicians) appease the (powerful) military by offering the latter a role in, for example, governance institutionally (i.e. apex committees) and constitutionally (21st and 23rd amendments).

The politicians, both in-office and in opposition, accord such roles/positions to the military rationally in order to, on the one hand, prevent coup/martial law and, on the other, complete tenure and/or avoid cases, etc. The military, on its part, also desires such a role/position as it deems itself a stakeholder in politics, economy, and the state- and at the same time, it wants to avoid stage another (hard) coup. The extension saga, or any such appointments, should be seen from this perspective. At least, this is how I analyze contemporary civil-military relations in our country.

GVS: Can you please enlighten us as to why militaries in most of the post-communist states are no longer directly involved in politics? What stops the military in countries like Pakistan from directly leading the country?

EH: It is a very good question of comparative politics. In most of the former communist European countries such as Hungry and Poland, civil-military relations were patterned on democratic lines by the political leadership. The latter, however, moved in an enabling environment whereby external variables, i.e. US/NATO support in the post-Cold War period, played a crucial role in conjunction with internal factors, i.e. political and social consensus on establishing civilian control over the military. Civilian control, in academic terms, means functioning within institutional and legal/constitutional domain; it does not imply subjugation of the military. The latter remains an important institution of the state with the primary task to defend national sovereignty.

However, there are different types of democracies as well such as electoral, liberal etc. Most of the former communist countries of Europe fall between electoral and consolidated democracy. However, Pakistan comparatively is far behind the East European case.

Ours is a ‘defective’ democracy where civil-military relations have remained unstable and a major cause of political instability. Pakistan needs to move in the direction of democratic civil-military relations where each institution works within its legal/constitutional and institutional domain. This could only be realized through social and political consensus- which unfortunately is lacking. We have a dynastic party system in place- which overall is true of all South Asian countries. Consequently, political parties in Pakistan lack in inner-party democracy. Moreover, we are socially conservative in terms of abhorring innovative ideas, i.e. generating social consensus.

Read More: The civil-military argument – Saad Rasool

In addition, there is chronic distrust between political forces and the military. At best, it is a marriage of convenience in a given context; in all such cases, there is ultimately separation or divorce. Nonetheless, without having social and political consensus on the nature of the political system and type of civil-military relations, political and socioeconomic instability will linger on.

GVS: You believe that “It seems unthinkable [that] Khan could have pardoned them [Sharifs and Zardari]”, then how do you see the future of Civil-Military relations in Pakistan?

EH: Imran Khan is an egoistic politician with clearly chosen political foes, chiefly, the Sharifs and the Zardaris. The latter is deemed corrupt, and hence they got to be punished. The Sharifs have been jailed; the same happened with the Zardaris. Nonetheless, the Sharifs somehow managed to get out not just from jail but also the country. Its explanation is logical than empirical- as we still require verifiable data.

Logically, the Sharifs particularly Nawaz Sharif could not have got out of Pakistan without some sort of understanding with those who guard the gates of this country. The prime minister may have reconciled with the reality- or maybe not.

Read More: The Myth of Civil Military tensions

Nonetheless, if the PM keeps insisting on putting all his opponents behind bars or getting all done on his own- while the powers that he thinks otherwise- this may generate distrust within the civil-military circles, with the potential to gradually put an end to the same-page mantra. Till the PM does not cross the red lines, the lines makers and watchers would have no issues with the current dispensation which expires in 2023.

Finally, until there is social and political consensus on the nature and character of civil-military relations, cumulative instability will continue.

Ejaz Hussain did Ph.D. in Political Science from Heidelberg University (2010). He has studied M.A and Msc from renowned universities. His articles have appeared in prominent publications. Currently, he is Associate Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. 

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