Feisal Naqvi

Fifty Shades of Khaki

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2015 at 5:53 am

One swallow does not a summer make. By the same token, the odd pundit beseeching the armed forces to take over is no signifier of the national mood. Unfortunately, we seem to be well past the lone pundit stage.

There are two variants of anti-democratic sentiment currently making the rounds.The first variant is the standard ‘Bring in the Faujis’ melody. As we all know, this very same song was not only a hit in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999 but remains perennially popular in every year and every decade.

Not only do the lyrics remain the same every year, but so does the logic: the civies suck at their job (see eg lack of petrol, gas, electricity). Hence we can’t do worse than by asking the faujis to do the job of the civies.

There are multiple flaws with this argument. I concede that democratically elected civilians suck at governance. However, just because civilians suck at their job doesn’t means that faujis will do better at governance issues. Running a country and running an army are two entirely different things. A hammer is good for bashing nails. But it’s not very good at doing the job of a screwdriver.

More importantly, I fail to see any clear evidence that the faujis don’t suck at their job. Yes, General Raheel Shareef seems to be making intelligent decisions these days and the ISPR has either got the Pakistani equivalent of John Lennon working for it (or else has secretly hired him). But let’s look at the larger picture.

The army has been in charge of our national security policy since forever. And our national security situation is as dysfunctional as all of the things occasionally entrusted to the lowly civilians. To take just one small example, our largest province is in armed revolt, as it has been on and off since 1970. We used to bomb Baloch rebels back then. Now we just have them picked up and ‘disappeared’.

Lest we forget, the genius who came up with the concept of ‘strategic depth’ was the then head of our army. Apparently our national salvation lay in integrating Afghanistan into our battle plans so that if pressed, we could retreat across the border there. We’ve never had reason to retreat across the Durand Line. On the other hand, a whole host of jihadi nutcases regularly troops back and forth across the Durand Line, making life hell for us over here in Pakistan.

Let’s skip internal security and look at external security issues. We have a terrible relationship with Afghanistan, a worse one with India, and even the Iran border now features attacks by ‘non-state’ actors. We are nowhere close to making Kashmir a part of Pakistan, the Chinese privately think of us as annoying beggars and the Americans publicly think of us as a bunch of swindlers.

But there is an even better argument available. You see, when it comes to military competence in matters of civilian governance, we don’t need to rely on either logic or the army’s past record on national security issues. Instead, we have the benefit of decade upon decade of military rule to show us exactly what happens when you put military men in charge.

Ayub Khan’s ‘Decade of Development’ produced Bangladesh. Ziaul Haq gave us the Hudood Ordinances and the predecessors of the savages who murdered children in Peshawar. Musharraf gave us Kargil, the ‘Good Taliban/Bad Taliban’ distinction and the blessedly limited tenure of Chaudhry Shujaat as prime minister of Pakistan.

Let me freely concede that I am being unfair. General Musharraf’s first three years in power saw a concentrated effort at bringing disinterested technocratic governance to Pakistan, and yes, those boys had a bunch of good ideas. Unfortunately, most of them haven’t lasted. Remember police reform? Killed by Musharraf’s own political stooges. Local government reforms? Ditto. And the list goes on.

Lasting political reform requires a hell of a lot more than good ideas. It requires the consistent application of political will at every level of governance, not just at the highest. No dictatorial regime can boast that public commitment. That is precisely why every military dictator sooner or later crowns himself president with the help of the Jamaat-e-Islami or something like it. And since the venality of politics has remained undiluted, it then quickly overwhelms all the bright ideas. Which is why military/technocratic regimes seldom achieve lasting reform.

Let me put it as bluntly as possible: putting the army in charge of civilian politics is not only a great way to ruin our country, it also a great way to ruin the army. For God’s sake, let the army and the civies stay in their separate spheres. And let us bury this debate once and for all.

What then about the other variant of ‘democracy sucks’?

So far as I can tell, this apparently more sophisticated version consists of (a) moaning about how bad things are; and (b) being very shocked at being called a closet martial law groupie.

Let’s start with the first observation: yes, things are bad. Yes, our politics is dysfunctional. Yes, power is controlled by a narrow elite. Yes, the poor are disenfranchised. And yes, we seem to lack both institutional will and institutional competence to deal with our problems. On the other hand, let’s not confuse the system with the personalities currently dominant in it.

Democracy is a system. It doesn’t guarantee you anything in terms of governance, particularly in the short term. What it does give you – in the long run – is the best possible chance of achieving a functional, inclusive and humane political regime.

Complaining about things is not a solution. Actually doing something is a solution. If you don’t like the way things work in Pakistan, then do something about it. Get elected and voice your discontent in parliament. Set up an NGO and convince donors to help convince governments to do something positive. Lead people out on the streets. But whining about the dysfunctionalities of democracy is only acceptable if you plan to do something about it. As the saying goes, lead, follow or get out of the way.

Let me give one last example. Our ‘free press’ in Pakistan produces some of the most nauseating and putrid television in the known universe. Flip through the talk shows and you can find every shade of bigotry and hatred. But that doesn’t mean that we give up on the concept of a free press. What it means instead is that when the media oversteps its boundaries the rest of Pakistan lets them know that they have gone too far. To quote Jefferson, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

I have nothing against the army. I am thrilled that they finally seem to have understood the danger of religious extremism and I wish them all the best in beating the stuffing out of the Tangos. But I do not want them running the country. We have fought too long and too hard to get the little democracy that we have. It is in both the army’s interest and the civilians that we, the people, grow up; that we accept the responsibilities which come with democracy; and that we finally stop fantasising about strongmen in uniform.

This column was published in The News on 22 January 2015 under the title “Let us grow up and out of this debate”

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