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“On its own, no military can deal with political problems”

Columnist and security analyst Ejaz Haider analyses the role of the military in shaping the contours of state policy and direction

“On its own, no military can deal with political problems”

The News on Sunday (TNS): You have always held state as your unit of analysis. In Pakistan’s context, the state has been understood in terms of ‘security state’ or ‘deep state’. Howsoever one may define it, the fact remains that in today’s Pakistan, state is not the only entity that has monopoly over violence. Is it time for the state to redefine itself.

Ejaz Haider (EH): Yes, I have used, and still do, state as the unit of analysis. But I do it with the full knowledge and appreciation of the fact that state is a deeply problematic concept and it has been problematised. What is it; where can one situate it; what is its relation to society that it seeks to govern; is it about the traditional notion of power, defined as ‘power over’, or the more inclusive, though less-accepted concept of ‘power with’; is it nothing more than the people or does it acquire a life of its own; do we need to ‘bring the state back’ or push it away; is the relationship between state and society always conflictual or should it be cooperative. The list of such questions is long. It is important also to challenge the accepted epistemological notions regarding state and its role, especially because we know that it is an imagined entity.

And yet, I employ it as the basic unit of analysis precisely for the reason contained in the second part of your question — i.e., “…the fact remains that in today’s Pakistan, state is not the only entity that has monopoly over violence”. And when you follow it up with, “Is it time for the state to redefine itself”, I assume that you believe that the loss of state’s monopoly of violence is not a positive development, that such loss has not redounded to the advantage either of the state or society. At the same time, the follow-up question’s not-so-hidden assumption is whether there is any possibility for state-society relations to improve, which is a legitimate concern.

I’ll say that one, though not the only reason, the state of Pakistan has seen an erosion of its monopoly of violence is because of rising tensions between itself (state) and society. Mending that relationship is, in fact, crucial for state to reacquire what is legitimately its.

Every collection requires an organising principle. Even anarchists, were they to sit down to decide on a political course of action, would need to elect a chair. Once you do that, you create a hierarchy and hierarchies, like it or not, begin to lead to exactly the same structures that an anarchist would like to pull down. That’s the paradox. And it must be understood.

Golding did an experiment with schoolchildren. He marooned them on an island in his dystopian 1954 work, Lord of the Flies. Within days we see the emergence of power structures and the associated “evils”. So, the question is, if an organising principle is important and if it is accepted that every such principle will end up creating what it originally seeks to destroy, then does it make much sense to uproot that organising principle and create a vacuum rather than using it as the unit of analysis even as one continues to hold its power in check?

My answer is scattered in hundreds of article I have written over several years. I will critique, criticise, challenge the functioning of the principle but I find it fallacious to huff and puff and bring the house down and then have to work again to construct another one, much the same way.

TNS: Military is believed to be a major player in agenda setting. Apart from external threats, it is also guarding against internal weaknesses because the political class and the democratic system are believed to be too weak or corrupt or inept. Do you think the military has the capacity and capability to take on this huge charge and deliver too?

EH: The military is a major player in setting the agenda but it is also stretched and stressed. The irony is that what we, including the military, are passing through, is, for the most part, the doing of the military. I do realise that it is not always useful to hark back to the original sin but that said, it is important to keep things in perspective. The military has continued to weigh in on issues that should best be left to the civilian principals. Its argument for doing so is operational rather than strategic. To that extent, given the immediacy of the circumstances, one can be empathetic. Something needs to be done and the military is efficient enough to do it so let’s let it do it. The problem is that we then begin to conflate the operational and the immediate with the strategic and the normative. That is deeply flawed.

While there are institutional interests involved, there is also the factor, less talked about, of military’s frustration with civilian inefficiency. There is a kernel of truth in it but the argument is not very savvy. The politicians are a fractious lot, for sure but then that’s what politics is about. Equally, it is the politicians that are deft with aggregating conflicting and often contradictory interests. The military’s managerial efficiency runs contrary to political haggling. The two entities could not be more different. The problem is that problem-solving is not the same thing as optimising results. So, even when the military seeks to work diligently, it ‘satisfices’, like all organisations. This is why it is important for it to remain subservient to the overall directions given by the civilian governments and to act in concert with them. The military is the most potent coercive tool in state’s arsenal. It must, therefore, be used sparingly and in ways which result in optimisation. On its own, no military, however efficient, can deal with political problems.

TNS: After the APS attack in Peshawar, some extraordinary steps were announced to fight the enemy, e.g. military courts. You had argued against the military courts calling them “knee-jerk measures”. Considering that incidents of terrorism have not stopped, do you still hold on to your view?

EH: I was and remain opposed to military courts. There are many reasons for my opposition, which I have listed in my writings. But just to recap some, the issue of poor prosecution, ostensibly the reason for setting up military courts, is not about what a judge does or doesn’t do. In a trial, the judge is as good or bad as the prosecution is. If that is how it works then unless the military can also provide from among its ranks thousands of prosecutors — which it can’t — it doesn’t matter if you put someone in uniform in the judge’s chair instead of the black robes. Also, higher courts have tended to overturn verdicts by ATCs because the anti-terrorism courts tend to overlook the fine print of law. There is also the issue of deterrence. If we want to prosecute and sentence to death terrorists, then it is legitimate to ask the question of why the over hundred death-row prisoners that have been hanged to death by now have such high percentage of those who were involved in murders, even if they were sentenced by ATCs. Why have we stopped executing hardcore terrorists. Why did the Interior Ministry put out a notification that it was lifting the moratorium on death sentence overall without informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or consulting with it. I do not believe in the absolutism of those who are opposed to the death sentence per se, though I respect their views and I think they have some very strong arguments. But equally I find it abhorrent that others should take pleasure in hanging people by the neck till they die, as if taking someone’s life is a mere trifle, which it is not.

I realise that there is a sunset clause for military courts. But I believe that too many of us conceded to the 21st Amendment too soon and too easily. The Amendment is an act now but that should not stop us from continuing to debate the issue.

TNS: Some people suggest the state is correcting its course. How satisfied are you with the National Action Plan both as a short-term counter-terrorism strategy and as course correction in the long term?

EH: The NAP, as general guidelines go, is a fair document. It lists problem areas which many of us have been identifying for a long time. There is also a sense in the government that course correction is important. The scepticism is about implementing the NAP. Some of that is justified. My own sense is that implementing mechanisms must target strategic areas which can also have spin-off benefits in areas that are not targeted directly. That is always the challenge and the opportunity.

TNS: The reaction on social media after Sabeen Mahmud’s murder and the hinting of involvement of one particular agency shows the army has a serious image problem. Is it aware of this problem and is it doing something about it?

EH: The army is aware of the problem but while we tend to focus on the problem on army’s side, we ignore, to our own peril, the problem on the side of the people. By no stretch of the imagination can anyone accuse any person or entity without proof. Yet, that’s exactly what happens when something like this occurs. I think while the army needs to look into the problem on it side, the people need to look at their knee-jerk reactions and non-sequiturs also. Unfortunately, often, these illogical reactions emanate from very educated people.

TNS: In one of your earlier interviews, you had argued that counter terrorism in urban areas is not the job of army but the police. What do you think of the Rangers and army’s attempts to bring peace to Karachi?

EH: The apex committee dealing with Karachi brings together the civil-military leadership and reps from all law enforcement agencies. That coordination is called for. That said, the most effective agency dealing with urban CT operations has to be the police. I have written a lot about this basic fact. My argument doesn’t go against Rangers or the army. Combined efforts are important. But the lead agency must be the police. As for how to make the police effective, that’s another topic. 

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