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Fourth time lucky?

Fourth time lucky?

YOU’D think that after having picked three army chiefs of staff, Nawaz Sharif would have got pretty good at it. You’d be wrong.

Each time he has selected an army chief, the prime minister has been disappointed. In his eternal quest to get ‘apna banda’, or his guy, he has mostly picked somebody who was loyal to the institution of the army rather than to the person who elevated him.

In Nawaz Sharif’s book, this counts as disloyalty. In fact, if there is one thread that connects each of Nawaz Sharif’s three stints in office, it is his acute discomfort in dealing with the military high command. Over the years, he has stumbled repeatedly in his efforts to impose his authority over the defence establishment.

In this, he is not alone: Zardari was soon put in his place early in his tenure when he tried to place the ISI under the interior ministry. But Nawaz Sharif has been engaged in a long-running, bruising battle to assert control. From his attempt to open up trade with India to his determination to ensure civilian control over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it has been one retreat after another.

Of course he has been hobbled in his efforts recently by Imran Khan and his permanent destabilisation campaign. The dharna of 2014 greatly weakened the government, and Nawaz Sharif was dependent on the army chief to stave off the threat of a coup. Through his efforts to instigate a military intervention, Imran Khan has effectively ensured that the army will continue its dominance over an elected government.

Another problem in our complex civilian-military relations is Nawaz Sharif’s lack of understanding of the military mind. Loyalty to the institution is hard-wired into the officer corps at an early age, and reinforced through an interlocking web of perks and promotions earned by competence, hard work as well as total obedience to the commanding officer.

In Nawaz Sharif’s world, a ministerial portfolio is given as a reward for loyalty: competence and hard work are incidental. And some of our politicians switch sides as often as they change their underwear. Thus, most of those who now man the ramparts of the PML-Q are deserters from Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the PML. And many of Imran Khan’s ‘electables’ were earlier members of parties now deemed incapable of winning power.

And so it goes in a system devoid of ideological and moral moorings. Small wonder that Nawaz Sharif can’t get his head around a rigid hierarchy and chain of command. And yet the military is more collegial than it seems from the outside, with corps commanders and senior generals often engaging in debate before a decision is reached. But once a policy is agreed, everybody falls into line.

Thus, decision-making is not based on the chief’s whims, but on a consensus arrived at after debate and discussion. So in a sense, the army chief has to be aware of the thinking of the officer class that is reflected in the regular meetings of the corps commanders.

After the Kargil fiasco in 1999, Musharraf faced flak from the officer corps for having launched a campaign that cost many lives, and then having to pull back. In fact, it was Nawaz Sharif who saved the army from total humiliation by flying to Washington and begging president Bill Clinton to intervene. In the wake of the mutual recrimination and loathing that followed, it was a matter of time before Nawaz Sharif tried to get rid of Musharraf. In a bungled reverse coup against the army chief, it was the prime minister who lost his job.

The point here is that the corps commanders then were loyal to their chief and to their institution, rather than to the prime minister and the Constitution. Such is not the case in most democracies where the principle of civilian control over the military is firmly established.

After many direct and indirect military interventions over the years, the officer corps has become accustomed to the idea that it is they who are holding the country together, rather than the ramshackle political system they observe from their barracks. In this somewhat jaundiced view, all politicians are corrupt and incompetent, and the military is the only organised and efficient institution in the country.

But as we have seen again and again, the army has no durable solutions. No martial law could even get the trains running on time, or force taxis to use their meters. However, the public image of the military is a flattering one when contrasted with a deeply flawed political system that has repeatedly failed to deliver.

Thus, the army chief is confident of the support not only of his officers and troops, but of the general public as well. No wonder he stands tall, and no matter who is picked to succeed Raheel Sharif soon, he will never be Nawaz Sharif’s man.

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Published in Dawn September 24th, 2016

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