Civil-military Relations and Democratisation in Pakistan

Sunil Dasgupta
Sunil Dasgupta Former Brookings Expert, Director - University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

December 21, 2001

There is an absolute benchmark in civil-military relations: civilians have a right to be wrong. Advocates of military rule in Pakistan have argued that civilian leaders have not done their job in providing security, economic development, and arguably, even social cohesion. But the solution to civilian incompetence cannot be military intervention. Why is that?

The concept of modern statehood and governance has two consecutive levels of agency. The first is accorded by the people, presumably through free and fair elections, to elected leaders. This is a very broad appointment of agency, that is, the people empower the elected leaders to make decisions on their behalf. The second act of agency is accorded by elected representatives to specialised bureaucratic institutions such as the military. This is a narrow agency, what is called an “administrative agency,” and requires the agent to follow the directions of the principal, in this case the civilian leadership, to good and bad decisions.

Militaries take over power by arguing that they are temporarily violating the second order of agency to be able to protect the first. The argument is predicated on the generals? claim that the civilian leadership has violated their trusteeship of public confidence, and in order to repair that primary relationship, the secondary administrative relationship must be broken as well. In effect, two wrongs will hopefully make a right.

The military?s logic in this context is incommensurate. The military?s approach of throwing out civilian governments is akin, if the saying could be reversed, to bringing a needle to a war (as opposed to bringing a sword to mend torn clothes). The first order of agency from the people to the government is a much larger problem than the relatively smaller second order of agency that the military violates when overthrowing civilian governments.

Moreover, the entire logic of military rule?we want to fix a broken system?necessarily implies that the military has to give up power once the system is fixed. There is an obvious problem with this argument: how does anyone, and especially the generals, know when the system is fixed and it is time for the military to get out? The timing issue is a difficult one. But given the conceptual limitation on the length of military rule, generals tend to lose whatever legitimacy they can muster faster than democratic leaders.

To remove a military from power requires a pact between moderates in the military and moderates in civil society. A military regime composed entirely of hardliners will believe that it can perpetuate its rule and will not allow any political liberalisation. This route ultimately leads to totalitarianism. Thankfully, Pakistan is not on it. An opposition of radicals, on the other hand, wants perfect democracy and the persecution of military officers who committed excesses during martial law. They scare even the moderate generals to want to keep their hold on power. Thus, an agreement of transfer of power between moderates on both sides holds the key to successful democratisation. We have seen this process at work in countries from Spain to Chile.

There is nothing?no empirical proof nor a conceptual argument?to suggest that military governments have ever been successful in any of the tasks they have set for themselves, including providing security. The example of how Argentina waded into a war of defeat over Falklands should be a salutary reminder of the fact that militaries when they are in government are unable even to provide security, their primary task as an institution. The use of force achieves its best results when combined with political initiatives. Even military officers know that the pursuit of political goals must guide armed action. A government that is in effect an instrument of coercion, however benignly led, becomes a government of one policy?the use and the threat of use of force.

As for larger social, economic, and legal issues such as land reform, unemployment, education and other sectors, the military does not even usually attempt to bring change. What it can do and indeed often does?primarily for the purposes of public relations?is to appear to bring political stability, when stability is a nothing more than a sign of inaction. As raucous as Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?s rule was, as corrupt as his son-in-law could be, and as air-headed as Mr Nawaz Sharif became, there was political action and movement in Pakistan. In comparison, General Ziaul Haq?s period was the most sterile time in Pakistan. It was also the time when the middle-class began to flee from the country.

The moderates in civil society have to show certain characteristics. First, they must show a readiness to become involved with national security issues (conversely, it is in the interest of moderate generals to bring into the national security debate moderates from civil society). Second, they have to forgive and not insist on persecuting past regimes for crimes and corruption. This might sometimes include politically neutralising the radical opposition. This gives the democratisation game a forward rather than backward-looking perspective. Third, they have to assert the absolute standard of civil-military relations mentioned above: that elected officials have the right to be wrong even in national security decisions. This creates a political legitimacy for the civilian leaders and sets the rules that allow regime change negotiations to occur. Where this pact does not emerge, and a military government continues to extend beyond its organisational capabilities or moderates in the civil society are unable to neutralise the radicals and provide a vision of security, it leads to cataclysmic events that compel regime change.