Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, speaking at a full-court reference last week, made some highly pertinent remarks and useful suggestions on wide-ranging issues. Among other matters, he spoke of the need for deliberating on how to ensure civilian supremacy along with civilian accountability — a subject of vital relevance for Pakistan’s future democratic development and institutional harmony.
Although the PTI government is the third successive democratically-elected government, civilian supremacy on vital national issues still remains illusory. The armed forces, and primarily the army leadership, play a leading role in determining relations with our neighbours. This is especially so in respect of India, Afghanistan, China and the US. In addition, the defence and security policy, for all practical purposes, remains under their overall control. In matters associated with CPEC the military works closely with the Chinese. The army leadership actively engages with Middle Eastern monarchies and our armed forces have a highly-cooperative relationship with them.
Realising the prominent role of the military, foreign dignitaries attach great significance to their interactions with its leadership. Ambassadors regularly interact with military and foreign government delegations make it a point to meet them.
The regional security situation, specially the perennial hostility with India, the civil war in Afghanistan and problems related to smuggling, drug and human trafficking across the borders have further enhanced the role of security forces.
Nuclearisation of South Asia is another factor that has further expanded the responsibilities and the power base of the military. In all nuclear-armed countries, with the exception of North Korea, the nuclear establishment and control rests with civilian or political leadership.
Major national activities such as conducting national or provincial elections, or managing nationwide census that in a democratic country would normally fall in the orbit of the civilians, is conveniently passed on to the armed forces. Floods, earthquakes and other national calamities that generally are handled worldwide with the help of armed forces, justifiably fall in the scope of its responsibility.
Defending the eastern and western borders both of which are in a state of semi-war conditions remain its primary professional responsibility that draws most of its energy. Our officers and other ranks continue to shed their blood valiantly defending these borders. And this state of affairs is likely to continue until relations with India move towards normalisation and peace efforts in Afghanistan succeed. In addition the internal fight against militancy and extremism also falls in the orbit of the military’s responsibility.
The object of cataloguing the current major responsibilities of the armed forces was to show the extent of their spread and the magnitude of challenge that faces the correction of the civil- military imbalance.
Other major area that the chief justice rightly identified was civilian accountability that remains very weak. The question arises what measures are to be taken to overcome it without which the political governments will never be able to gain the confidence of the people or that of the armed forces to remain within constitutional boundaries.
This weakness stems from several factors. The structure and leadership of political parties is not adhering to democratic norms in the conduct of choosing its leadership or taking party or national decisions. Unless political parties do not become internally democratic, they will never command the respect of the electorate or those of institutions. If party leaders do not attend parliament regularly, fail to take their responsibilities of legislation and policy formulation seriously, they undermine their importance and prestige. A cursory glance of the activities of the National Assembly and the Senate will confirm this negligent behaviour. Imran Khan prefers tweets rather than making any profound policy statements or discussing national issues in parliament. This is in sharp contrast to what we witness in Britain, Malaysia and Turkey or near home in India where the prime minister and the leader of opposition initiate debates in parliament and attend sessions regularly. A classic example of the neglect of parliament was evident when no substantive policy statement by the PM or the FM was made after their return from Saudi Arabia, the UAE or China apart from flaunting over the loans and financial assistance that was offered. What were the terms of these financial agreements and what are their expectations in return remain shrouded.
By being more focused on governance, accepting greater participation in matters that fall in their jurisdiction and having a clean reputation would definitely leverage politicians to assert for their rightful place. Another point that needs serious attention is the genuine activation of the various committees of the National Assembly and the Senate. It has taken five months to formulate some of the committees and it is time that they started functioning soon. The quality of discourse in parliament, interest and understanding in matters related to economy, security and foreign relations need to be compatible with the challenges that the country is facing. Most of the chiefs of staff in recent years have displayed a much better grasp of global and regional dynamics than political leaders. This is not to acknowledge that our history is replete with major military decisions taken by military dictators such as the 1965 war or the Kargil conflict and which made the nation pay a very heavy cost.
Accountability of civilian leaders has to be broad based and not confined to any particular political party or group specific. And it should be by civilian institutions in which the military should have a minimal role otherwise it would be construed as a perversion of the legal system and of the Constitution. Over the years, people have lost confidence in integrity and competence of state institutions and are resorting to alternative ways of seeking justice and finding solutions. Loss of trust in the justice system and bureaucracy is an ominous trend that can only be corrected by better performance and honest public dealings.
By and large, experience of other countries demonstrates that as the performance of government improves involvement of the military and judiciary gets limited to its constitutional boundaries.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2019.