Pakistan and the Future of the Civil-Military Balance of Power

3 MINS READDec 23, 2011 | 06:00 GMT

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Thursday issued some unprecedented remarks against the country’s military and premier intelligence service. During a speech before parliament, Gilani said that the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate cannot be a “state within a state” and must “be answerable to this parliament.” Responding to reports that the defense ministry had told the Supreme Court that it had no control over the armed forces or the ISI, the prime minister told lawmakers that “if [the military and ISI] say that they are not under the ministry of defense, then we should get out of this slavery, then this parliament has no importance, this system has no importance, then you are not sovereign.”

Gilani’s statements are perhaps the toughest remarks made against the country’s powerful security establishment that has directly ruled the country for 33 of its 64 years. That the current civilian government, which came to power in March 2008, has decided to take such a tough stance against the generals illustrates just how influential civilians have become within the Pakistani political system.

More important is the timing chosen by the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to take such a strong position: It is currently the subject of a Supreme Court inquiry into a memo seeking U.S. assistance in reining in the country’s military allegedly written by Islamabad’s former envoy to Washington with approval from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

The PPP’s confidence comes from the current situation where the army is no longer in a position to threaten the government with a coup. The PPP government also realizes that it would be difficult for the army-intelligence complex to support its ouster via constitutional means. Most opposition forces, particularly the largest one led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are not willing to empower the army despite its rivalry with the governing PPP.

The larger question concerns the future of the civil-military balance of power in the country and by extension the nature of the republic itself. Political developments since the fall of former President Pervez Musharraf’s regime have led to a situation where civilians are increasingly becoming stakeholders in a system where the army has historically enjoyed a near monopoly.

Over the past four years, Pakistan has indeed witnessed the rise of civilian forces, but this doesn’t mean that the locus of power has definitively shifted away from the armed forces. Civilian supremacy over the military is a generational process to say the least. It assumes uninterrupted and successive electoral cycles, which have never happened in the South Asian nation.

Pakistan’s traditionally powerful security sector is facing a considerable challenge from civilian forces in terms of its influence over policymaking. But civilian governments must demonstrate their competence in managing the country’s political economy before they can really assert themselves vis-à-vis the military. The current government has not been able to do so and the ability of its successors remains questionable as well — which means it will be a while before political forces can really gain the upper hand over the military.

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