The fear of ‘difficult times’

Pakistan has travelled a long distance in many ways. Our democratic traditions may not be as deeply rooted as one would wish them to be, but we are not a Banana Republic either

Every country has few clichés. In Pakistan have our own set. “Pakistan is passing through very difficult times” is the most popular cliché. The third generation of Pakistanis are stepping in to their middle age under the fear of difficult times. We have turned into a nuclear state. We have developed one of the finest and most elaborate irrigation systems of the world. Our doctors and scientists are working on every corner of the planet but we are still passing through “difficult times”. It is uncertain as to when will we get out of the difficult times.

Pakistan has travelled a long distance in many ways. Our democratic traditions may not be as deeply rooted as one would wish them to be, but we are not a Banana Republic either.

We have a very vibrant electronic and print media which is free and independent by any standard or definition. The higher echelons of the judiciary are powerful and like to assert themselves. There is however a concurrent narrative which suggests that it is politicians who are the weakest and are at the mercy of a powerful establishment and judiciary. This may be partly true but is not the whole truth.

Power politics in Pakistan is generally a zero-sum game. You either take all or nothing statesmen in other parts of the world who have learnt to share the spoils but that lesson has not reached Pakistan despite the communication revolution. How unfortunate.

Recently, Mr. Ahsan Iqbal stood under the spot light for professing the right reasons at the wrong times. His “state within a state” and bashing of rangers, implying establishment, was seen by some analysts as untimely if not utterly unnecessary.

He publicly snubbed DG ISPR for commenting on the state of Pakistan’s economy. We all know the way things work in Pakistan. DG ISPR is not a person and his views are not his personal thinking. He is conveying what the Army, if not all the branches of armed forces, feel or think. So when you snub the spokesperson on “his remarks” you are only shooting the messenger.

Even in the most democratic countries, the security establishment has considerable clout when it comes to security policy. And the harshest of military dictators have historically relied on the political class to further their political agendas

The military is the decisive force when it comes to foreign and security policy in Pakistan. This state of affairs took decades to reach. One reason of such a mess is the absence of institutional mechanisms to discuss and evolve coherent policy which alleys the concerns of all stake holders. As a result, we have a civil — military tussle in our system of governance. Energies of the various organs of the state are not harmonised to achieve a higher level of national growth. Part of the energy and effort of every important organ is spent on averting the `plundering of Pakistan’s territory’. That is very sorry state of affairs for a nuclear armed country.

The current episode of Mr. Ahsan Iqbal giving a public snub to ISPR can be considered as seen as guarding the “civilian only” territory of economic and financial policy. This is a prized area where money flows. It is here that resources of the state are doled out to supporters and cronies. This policy decides which geographic or ethnic part will see a change in fortune in the near and long term. And this policy also foretells the future of the security apparatus. An empty coffer can’t offer solace to soldiers.

Politicians would jealously guard their economic turf. They will do whatever it takes to cling onto it. Unlike security policy, there are hordes of economic experts in the political class and they understand the macro and micro part of economic and financial management. More than anything, the political class will not allow the loosening of its grip over economic policy out of fear of extinction. After all, what is left to govern when you have no control over finances. Politicians don’t spend tons of money in elections to supervise the desilting of canals. Nor will they be content with ribbon cutting ceremonies. They will want to exert their constitutional powers to satisfy their supporters and constituencies. They will have ample support from the vibrant media and energised civil society.

Control of foreign and security policy by military establishment didn’t occur over night. It took nearly six decades and by the time politicians realised, they had actually no control left over these. This gradual slipping of authority created a vacuum of seasoned and informed leaders who understood the imperatives of security policy. Overtime, this vacuum was filled by the military and political class who abandoned this arena altogether. Other than a few casual statements here and there, the political class has not made any concerted efforts to reclaim its lost territory.

Pakistan’s polity suffers from the perception of imbalance in power sharing. Politicians grudge the Army for taking away their important role in building a modern welfare state. The military considers the political class to be too naïve and incompetent to design and implement security policy. Both sides are partially wrong. Even in the most democratic countries, security establishment has considerable clout when it comes to security policy. And the harshest of military dictators have historically relied on the political class to further their political agendas. Both are inevitable partners even if they despise each other.

The military may have chosen the best time to march towards economic turf. Political chaos is prevailing and PML-N is exacerbating it. In fact, no political party has ever experienced such a situation in Pakistan. It is the ruling party but is fighting to bring its rule to an end. It is a scenario no one ever contemplated

The military is also bewildered. The biggest political leader is out on the streets, raising political temperature, but is unable to direct his anger against a tangible opponent. Four martial laws haven’t prepared any SOP to tackle such a scenario. But confusion or absence of rules of engagement may bring unexpected harm to both sides and Pakistan can only ill afford it.

Both sides should mend their ways. The security establishment and government should not indulge in dialogue through tweets and press conferences. There are more organised communication channels available for this purpose. With both sides not knowing how to act, opportunists seep into ranks and files which creates an ugly situation. Both sides should act with sanity since no one can win in such a situation. One thing is very clear. It’s a war for a new and prized turf, economic control, and it is going to be long drawn and reasonably causality intensive.

 

The writer is defence and security analyst based in Rawalpindi

Published in Daily Times, October 25th 2017.