By Ayesha Siddiqa Dawn 18 Dec, 2009
Now that the NRO problem has apparently been resolved people are jumping with joy. There are some commentators who believe that this represents the strengthening of the system and democracy, that the Supreme Court verdict is a warning for presumptuous, overly ambitious and corrupt politicians.
The decision certainly is a milestone, but what does it mean for the overall learning process of the various stakeholders in the country’s power politics? And will it influence the future of Pakistan’s politics? These are two basic points to ponder.
Although it can be argued that the NRO was always controversial and people were eager to sort the matter out soon after it came into existence, there was always the possibility of the issue getting sidelined due to workable political arrangements.
It cannot be ruled out that if relations between Asif Zardari and the PML-N — more precisely, the Sharif brothers — had been better there might have been a possibility of an agreement being reached. Or perhaps if the president had not made the fatal mistake of trying to change the balance of civil-military relations and getting caught in the act, the different forces might not have aligned against him so cohesively.
Not that the present decision is not welcome. However, it is also a fact that some hidden forces were making a point of exposing the president’s questionable behaviour and decisions and hiding that of many others.
No wonder Asif Zardari cooperated in the NRO case and did not really try to hold back information. After all, there are others who were part of the NRO as well, including the MQM. Though the NRO pertained to cases of financial corruption, military dictator Pervez Musharraf had also included in the NRO criminal cases that did not technically belong there.
It will now be interesting to see if the Supreme Court actually takes the matter to its ultimate conclusion by also questioning those who pushed forward the NRO. Surely, it will take Musharraf and those of his close aides who had cobbled this questionable law together to task. Since the highest court has jumped into the fray of supporting state institutions before they crumble forever, the task should be completed.
One cannot undermine the significance of public perception. It is equally important for people to have faith in a judgment and not see it as driven by any political or other bias. Building faith in the judicial system is vital and calls for accountability of all other state institutions as well to strengthen the perception that the decision on the NRO was in good faith and to strengthen the rule of law.
But if a question is asked about whether the decision signifies the strengthening of the democratic process and civilian institutions, the answer must be in the negative. Since the perception regarding the decision is that it strengthens the armed forces and their ability to manipulate political stakeholders, it is not possible to see a major shift in the balance of power.
The decision does coincide with the growing anger of the security establishment against the civilian government for becoming ‘too big for its boots.’ Given the friction between Islamabad and GHQ over the Kerry-Lugar law and other issues, the military is certainly coincidentally, if nothing else, a prime beneficiary of the Supreme Court decision. A humiliated president has lesser possibilities with which to tackle a rival institution.
The presidency-GHQ tension denotes a third critical attempt by the political class to curtail the military’s power. The first attempt was made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who inherited a relatively weak army and had ample room to reduce its relative power. He partly tried to do it through building institutional mechanisms such as the joint chiefs of staff committee and the defence ministry and putting all service chiefs under the supreme command of the prime minister. However, he did not put spirit into his reforms and ended up strengthening the military.
Nawaz Sharif was the second leader to get a similar opportunity. It was hoped that he could make headway because he belonged to the most powerful ethnic group and had managed to infiltrate the higher rungs of the officer cadre. Probably the reason that the army views Nawaz Sharif with suspicion is due to his ability to partially and temporarily divide the officer cadre. The appointment of Gen Ziauddin Butt as the new army chief replacing Gen Musharraf appeared to be accepted by a number of senior army officers. However, Sharif blew the chance because of his final rash move.
Most recently, Asif Zardari also thought of undercutting the phenomenal power of the military by convincing the United States to support the civilian set-up versus the military. Zardari was instinctively right in assessing that he had time on his side in making the move. The army was seen in a bad light due to a decade of Musharraf’s rule and people were talking about strengthening political institutions and decreasing the power of the armed forces. Zardari’s formula: it would take the Islamabad-Washington partnership to do the job.
But President Zardari seems to have fallen victim to his lack of understanding of the military, its institutional dynamics and the importance of creating internal partnerships and institutional protective barriers to achieve this objective. For instance, he did not realise that the same civil society that protested against the military would stand up to defend the ISI and oppose provisions in the Kerry-Lugar bill to defang the military. Nor did he understand the worth of putting life into the available institutions if the power balance had to be corrected.
In fact, what numerous politicians have failed to understand is the need to put life into the ministry of defence, to build its capacity and ‘civilianise’ its power or decision-making structure. Since the defence ministry is the only institutional cushion between the political government and the military, its capacity is critical. Politicians in Pakistan fall prey to their insecurity regarding lack of time and miss the point.
Now, the president can think about extending the deadline for repealing the 17th Amendment to be able to play a role in the extension or appointment of the army chief. That’s his last but temporary lifeline. He could buy some time by giving a cold shoulder to the US, but these are temporary mechanisms. It will be a while before another opportunity comes along for the civilian stakeholders.