I write these lines on the first day of Year 2020. While it is now a default practice to say Happy New Year to friends and loved ones, the reality is different. Serial time is a continuation of the past and its baggage. January 1, 2020 is no more a clean slate than January 1, 2019 was or January 2021 will be.
Corollary: each new year is silted up by what has flown under the bridges in the years gone by. There’s no new beginning outside of the simplicity of children’s primers. The year 2020 is no different.
How did we fare as a state and society in 2019? The analysts would say the glass remains half-empty; the government would claim it to be half-full and filling; the opposition would say it’s half-empty and leaking. It would depend on how we select our facts and where we put the stress. And that process of selection is necessarily and unavoidably linked with, and takes strength from, our interests.
Is there then no way to objectively figure out what has happened, what’s happening and what might be? There is. But for that one has to start looking at the forest rather than up close at the trees. In a diverse and complex society there will always be problems. Those problems need to be addressed, of course. But a polity also needs to have an overall compact, just like a complex system’s parts operate under certain principles and when something goes wrong at one place, there is a cascading effect leading to an incident or an accident.
Last week, which was also last year, I wrote about the idea of institutions as rules of the game. Therein, we surmised that the problem is not one of design but of the normative acceptance of the rules. That even laws are made to serve political ends. That unless we accept that everyone will play according to those rules, the transaction cost will continue to increase.
One issue that has been consistently problematic is the place of the military in this polity. This is not to say that the civilians have always played by the rules or that their track record of governance has been stellar. Far from it. But there are ways to correct that over time. Also, ironically, we haven’t really got to that point where we write about those issues resting assured that the system’s functioning is entirely the civilian remit and they are the only principals we have to deal with.
Why? Because we have failed thus far to settle the basic contradiction. What role must the guardians play? Peter D Feaver, a theorist of civil-military relations, has this to say about the question or the puzzle as he put it: “The civil-military challenge is to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorise.”
Today, we accept the normative belief that the military must be subordinate to civilian principals. In fact, one of the benchmarks for determining the quality of democracy in a state is how effectively the civilians control the military in that polity.
Yet, any analysis of the civil-military problematic must consider three important factors. Firstly, the control the civilians exercise, or can exercise, over the military varies from one polity to another. Even within democratic states where the military is considered to be subservient to the civilians – the United States, Israel and India, to name just three — the extent, scope and modalities of that control vary. This relates to their perceptions of, and responses to, their security environment.
It is important to remember the differences between civilian states (where the military is totally subordinate), civilian-led state (where the military is subordinate but remains seated at the high table) and military or quasi-military states in which the military is openly involved in the political process.
Secondly, the acceptance of the norm of civilian supremacy over the military and its reiteration notwithstanding, it is not very old. It has evolved with the coming into existence of professional and standing militaries.
The effective control of the military by the civilians has depended largely on how states perceive their security environment and whether the civilians understand the security sector. Beginning in the early 1990s, scholars of civil-military relations coined the term “second generation problem”, referring to states where there was no overt threat of a military takeover but where the civilians still lacked the capacity to understand the security sector and, therefore, relied on military officers to guide them. Predictably, that meant that, while civilians retained de jure control, de facto the security sector policies were formulated and implemented by the military.
Thirdly, quite often dictatorial or one-party regimes have exercised more effective control over the military than many democracies. This point needs to be stressed because the norm seems to demand effective a priori control of the military in a democracy. There is evidence to suggest, however, that effective civilian control does not automatically flow from democracy.
So, why should we insist on civilian control of the military?
My own view about why the military must be subordinate to the civilians is grounded, among other important reasons, in organisation theory. As I wrote elsewhere: “Government actions are not the outcome of individual choices but organisational inputs. To encapsulate: Organisations factor problems into different parts. This means they deal with them not holistically but non-simultaneously; organisations ‘satisfice’ rather than optimise; they deal with problems using known, standard processes. This limits choices; they deal with uncertainty by making decisions rather than resorting to finding alternatives; these multiple processes are generally not in harmony, and therefore, may not add up to a strategic picture.”
As we wade through 2020, we have a model where the political government is, for the most part, guided by the military. The military has also got acquainted with the use of information tools, builds its image through various means and counters critical voices through sophisticated and, sometimes, brazen ways.
Equally, there’s pushback from other actors. It’s feeble but it serves to complicate the task of the military. That requires a different article but sufficient to say that this year will see that tussle play out, though its outcome cannot be predicted. It is unfortunate that this comes at a time of multiple challenges to Pakistan. But then that’s the cost of non-acceptance of the compact.
The writer is former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider