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Civil-military relations 2.0

We have some pretty complex problems in Fata, Balochistan, Karachi. How we frame these problems is always interesting. In our discourse, the problems are faced by our troops who are fighting a good fight against evil-doers. Unapologetic Pakistani patriots would have no problem swallowing this narrative, hook-line-and-sinker. Except that the way we are framing the problem may be a bigger problem than the problems themselves.

The problems are easy to identify. In Karachi, the MQM and APMSO went from being vehicles of Muhajir identity to becoming vehicles from which bullets are shot, to kill innocent people. In Balochistan, our love-hate relationships with sardars went too far, when we let a dictator put out a hit on Akbar Bugti. Since, then it is a hate-hate relationship, and we’re convinced that the road to victory is paved with defeated adversaries, some dead, some alive. In Fata, we let our pan-Islamic zeal and fiscal indiscipline become the precursors to infecting an already complicated and volatile region with violent extremism – and we stood by and let not one, but two countries suffer the consequences over three decades. We supposedly woke up after the December 16 massacre in Peshawar.

The way we frame these problems is roughly along these lines: bad guys hate Pakistan, and work for Pakistan’s enemies. We have to kill them all. When we do, peace will prevail.

If you think about it carefully, there’s something strange about this framing. This framing essentially erases the victims of conflict from the equation.

Let’s put this all another way. When I sit in Islamabad and pontificate about the need for Karachi to be ‘cleansed’ of the rats that have been feeding off the HMS Nine Zero, I am expressing a natural desire to see Pakistan’s biggest city be free of the criminal mafias that dominate our city of lights. Yet as someone based in Islamabad, one may wonder whether my stakes in the cleansing of Karachi are larger than those that live in Karachi. One may wonder, whether we are framing the problem correctly when we pit the ‘state’ on side and the perpetrators of criminal violence on the other. One may wonder: whatever happened to the voice of ‘the native’? Where are the victims of the bad guys’ violence in this conversation? (Oh, look – they’re voting for their tormentors again. Rinse. Repeat).

This is a safe thought exercise to invest in, viz Karachi, because it is an open wound. Blood oozes from it daily, but Karachi is Whitman-esque, large, and constituted of multitudes. In Balochistan, it is a thought exercise wrought with danger. On Balochistan, small bits of the left-liberal enclave stand alone, trying to challenge the framing – at great risk. In Fata, it is a thought-exercise no one is particularly interested in. On Fata, the extreme right, and slivers of the far left are the only ones asking for a more detailed conversation about victimhood. We can pooh-pooh these complicated conversations in one theatre, but when we keep doing it across the country we have ourselves a pickle.

In an ideal world, the state’s decision to strike down upon non-state actors with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy the delicate balance of society, would be informed by a clear narrative about victimhood. Someone is suffering violence. The state must go to their aid. When framed in this manner, isn’t it likely that there will be more clarity about both the problems in various parts of the country and the solutions that those problems demand? Simply put, the state should be seen as the saviour and protector of those that suffer from the actions of bad guys, or evil-doers.

In the current framing, one of the core problems the state faces is that the victim is ‘the state’ itself. Now, some of us are pretty gung-ho about the state. I, for one, believe that the state is instrumental to solving problems at scale, in a way that nothing else can. So ideology, identity, and philosophy all take a back seat – especially when we live in a world that has produced the Tennessee Valley Authority, the British National Health Service, Bolsa Familia in Brasil, pretty much all of Sweden, Norway and Canada, and here at home, things like the Lady Health Workers programme and the Benazir Income Support Programme.

However, this romance with the concept of the state, I realise, is a luxury for romantics who can afford to be romantic about the state. If you’ve been the victim of police high-handedness, if the patwari cheated you, if your shipment has been held up by customs or exorbitant demurrage fees, if you lost a loved one at a medical facility in a routine procedure, if at any time you have been victimised by any element of the state, then this romance with the state will seem ridiculous.

Too many Pakistanis feel victimised by the state. Now whether this victimhood is real or is imagined can be debated. The short version of the debate ends pretty quickly however. If you feel victimised by the state, even if you aren’t, then feeling sorry for the state becomes a bit of a challenge. It is hard to root for the team that you feel victimised by.

Here then lies the dilemma for the Pakistani military establishment. The state, writ large, is not just the pathetic courts, or the corrupt cops, or the dirty patwaris, or the filthy contractors. The state is the whole package, including Aabpara and GHQ. The state, like Bad Boys, rides together and dies together.

For decades, we have been framing the civ-mil debate in terms of a frontal contest between the military institutions of the country and the elected civilian individuals and groups. That is a fair and fun way to try to understand some of our deepest problems.

However, there is another, and more worrying, way to see all of this.

You can kill all the filthy terrorists you like, jail every last thug in Azizabad, kill all the separatists and eventually, when the time is right, or ripe, maybe even go after the Jhangvis and the other paraphernalia of formerly covert war. The whole time, though, rather than having the victims of the violence of those non-state actors cheering you on, you will have to dodge questions of legitimacy.

This is a terrible place for the best among us, our upstanding soldiers and spies to be. You risk your life and limb to serve the country, and those in it. Then, instead of being rewarded with the thanks of a nation, people gleefully call the institutional moorings of your actions into question. Constantly. Just because Ayub Khan, or Ziaul Haq, or Pervez Musharraf messed things up a generation or more ago? It will seem terribly unfair.

Indeed, it is a pickle of a place to be in. What’s worse is that demonising the civilian infrastructure, which is what has always been the bread and butter of the military establishment’s appeal in the popular imagination, has now become a liability rather than an asset.

Here stands the edifice of the civ-mil imbalance, version 2.0. A broken, dysfunctional civilian service delivery infrastructure that not only slows down the military establishment’s ambitions for the country, but actively contributes to the manufacturing facility of doubt and dissent about how the violence the state enacts to eliminate evil doers and bad guys.

Suddenly, the military’s stakes in civilian competence grow geometrically. Suddenly, the military needs a civilian infrastructure that produces enough goodness, enough neighbourhood level safety, enough social capital, and enough jobs for people to feel like the state is on the same side as them.

Until the state, the whole package, can deliver that kind of a situation, it doesn’t matter how many RAW conspiracies are unfurled on prime time national television. People will continue to consider it their patriotic duty to question the manner in which we frame violent contests between state and non-state actors. Bridging the civ-mil divide is no longer a frontal contest between institutions; it is now an urgent question of long-term national security.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Civil-military relations 2.0," The News. 2015-05-05.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political relations , Karachi situation , Target killing , Raid-Nine zero , Military establishment , Muhajir identity , Criminal violence , Civil-Military relations , Karachi , Pakistan