In Pakistan, the person occupying the office of Chief of the Army Staff should be properly schooled in political affairs. This includes the country’s political history, dynamics of political forces, the political and economic interests that determine political structures and power relations. The outgoing Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa appeared extremely naïve when he claimed that the 1971 civil war was a political failure and not a military one. Ironically, he was absolutely right and yet naïve at the same time.
Pakistani Army soldiers fought gallantly in East Pakistan. They were no match to the numerically and militarily superior Indian Army. They were fighting against their own population which was distinct from them ethnically. The Pakistan Army was ill equipped with absolutely no air support and no noticeable naval presence in East Pakistan. It was and is difficult to describe it as a military defeat. It was undoubtedly a political defeat, but whose political defeat? From 8 October 1958 till 16 December 1971 Pakistan was under direct military rule. The military was re-structuring the political system of the country, it was undermining the political aspirations of major ethnic and political groups with its high handed and exclusionary political policies and its deliberate policies of disruption and destruction of political processes. Until 1971 the independent republic of Pakistan didn’t hold its first parliamentary general elections. Indigenous and native elites were excluded from political, social and cultural processes that state sponsored or supervised. State bureaucracy—both civil and military—comprised of officials from ethnic groups that didn’t form the majority of the population. Bengalis were in majority till 1971 as far as population was concerned and yet they were barred from taking pride in their language and culture. It was not abnormal in those days to hear outlandish proposals that Bengali literature should be translated into Arabic (Language of Religion) and should be taught in East Pakistan schools. These proposals kept coming from intellectuals and religious scholars loyal to military governments in those days. Military officers were drawn from Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic stock and therefore Bengalis understandably perceived the military rule as dominance of Punjab. The matters were irreversibly aggravated when Bengalis were deliberately excluded not only from bureaucracy and military but also from the military dominated and supervised political processes.
General Bajwa forgot to mention that it was a political defeat of the military. The military not only dominated the political processes and state structures, it also put a lid on every possible way through which public anger and discontent could have vented out. The result was large scale violence and civil war in which Bengalis fought relentlessly against Pakistani state machinery and armed forces. So, General Bajwa’s statement was a partial admission of guilt. Full admission of guilt would have been as follows: “1971 was a political defeat, which resulted from the ill-advised policies of military governments to curb political processes and political freedoms and rapacious and greedy economic policies of military governments to control the economic resources of the society through which marginalized ethnic groups were excluded from political and economic processes”.
General Bajwa in his speech also made another admission that everybody made mistakes including his own. “This is the reality that there have been mistakes from every institution, including political parties and civil society” he said. “………In February last year the army, after great deliberation, decided that it would never interfere in any political matter. I assure you we are strictly adamant on this and will remain so.” he added. The problem with this assertion is that just like everybody else who matters in our society, General Bajwa too is defining politics in a narrow sense. For him politics means not taking sides in the political conflicts. This is a welcome development, although the military leadership has learnt this lesson the hard way. No favorites in the political arena seems to be the new policy. Some experts, however, say that it is old wine in new bottles—as in the old version of military’s political doctrine the military never kept all its eggs in one basket. This in other words meant no permanent allies in the political power game.
Pakistani military is deeply immersed in the functions of the state and its leadership considers statecraft to be its forte—foreign policy, security policy, both external and internal, economy and last but not the least how to run a strategic media policy, all this they consider to come under their purview. In the post-9/11 regional security situation, Pakistani military has come to completely dominate the internal and external security decision-making. But the bigger problem is that on the civilian side there is an absolute lack of expertise and capacity to deal with security matters. But that is the result of historical trends whereby Pakistan’s military has dominated the affairs of the state through its control of external affairs of the state—security relations with powerful states and foreign relations more generally. Furthermore, the military through its strategic restructuring and redesigning of the political system has consolidated its control. Smart utilization of international connections by the military has led to the deepening of its hold on domestic power structures. Successive military regimes have also redesigned the constitutional structures of the country thereby remaining the most important actor in national politics.
In May 1954 Pakistan’s military establishment paved the way for signing of US-Pakistan Defense Assistance Agreement. This happened at a time when Pakistani political forces were in complete disarray. Since then except for the Bhutto years in 1970s the military never relinquished the strategic control of the state. The political class through the decades has always been a junior partner in statecraft.
There are no signs that this arrangement will undergo any change. External legitimacy of the military is at its height in the current situation. The political elite is confronted in official meetings with claims from military leaders that they are the one who facilitated foreign loans in the times of financial crunch. General Bajwa claimed that the military decided to remain aloof from politics in February this year. At least one public stance of the military leaders contradicts Bajwa’s claim: in the first week of April General Bajwa in his speech described Washington as a strategic partner, only days after the country’s Prime Minister (Imran Khan) accused Washington of hatching a conspiracy to dislodge him from power. Military publicly took a stance that there was no conspiracy from Washington. Apart from the merit of the statement or public stance no apolitical military leader would like to contradict his own Prime Minister. Secondly, General Bajwa in his tenure kept on insisting that 18th amendment was a bad policy.
Will the new COAS ensure that he doesn’t take a position on such political matters?