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The general behind the throne

There are two ways of approaching the full-term extension granted to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani by the current Pakistan Peoples Party government — the ideal, which may also be called the abstract; and the real, which may be termed contextual. Conclusions will differ depending on the approach taken. Let’s consider both in the same order.

The ideal approach would challenge the extension. It can do so by appealing to the concept of civilian supremacy which stipulates that the civilian principals must enjoy effective control over the military, this decision being clearly violative of that principle. Everyone knows where the decision was taken and why it was stamped by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

The ideal can also appeal to the organisational framework and dismiss the gloss that is being put on the concept of continuity of command. Continuity of command is an institutional function, not a device to keep individuals in cushy jobs. Early into Muslim conquests the second Caliph, Umar, removed Khalid bin Walid, decidedly the best and the most successful general commanding the Muslim armies and made him fight under Abu Ubaidah as an ordinary commander. This, while Muslim forces had made huge inroads into the Eastern Roman Empire.

There is another, obvious problem with arguing the concept of continuity thus. It presents other generals, in line to be promoted, as lacking in professionalism or the understanding of higher strategy or, worse, both. As a student of military strategy and a long-time observer of the Pakistani army, I would be the first to reject such a conclusion. But precisely for this reason it is difficult for me to swallow the implication that sans Kayani the army and, by extension, the country will become dysfunctional.

By no means does this argument take away from Kayani his several attributes. He is a good, thinking general; has done much to restore the image of the army; likes to listen more than speaking himself; asks intelligent questions, a trait greater than the ability to formulate a thought; can be self-effacing unlike his predecessor who believed in Oscar Wilde’s saying that one should fall in love with oneself because that is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

The positives, ironically enough, work against his decision to seek another full term. At a dinner once, Kayani quoted Einstein on simplicity and complexity. So he should know the difference between this side of the complexity for which he wouldn’t give a nickel and the other for which he would give his life. He seems, in this case, to have chosen to fall on a third side of complexity that even Einstein hadn’t worked out.
But then this is Pakistan and it’s time to get to the real and the contextual.

Because Kayani is smart, much smarter than his panache-infested, Glock 17-carrying, strutting predecessor, he has managed to get the army what the army has always wanted without having to be in the driver’s seat. Talk as we do about civilian supremacy, we forget as easily that effective control is a function of capacity and will. And this civilian government is as much lacking in both as the previous ones.

Look where we might, FATA, Malakand, Balochistan, the army is doing a range of things: providing security and acting as the federal, provincial and local governments rolled into one. Its record of success in other roles is mixed. Its approach can be faulted on many counts. But what goes in its favour is that in a vacuum, it is doing something, acting instead of abdicating.

Given the history of civilian-military relations in Pakistan, civilians have to grab the space and that is only possible if they take governance seriously.

On one occasion, before the passage of the 18th Amendment, I suggested to President Asif Zardari that it would be good if he went to the operational areas and met with the jawans and officers deployed there. It would be in keeping with his supreme command of the armed forces. He told me that this was my “opinion”. I wanted to send him my copy of Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command but realised he didn’t need it.

The civilian government has taken the line of least resistance and is happy with the army deciding national security while the civilians are free to run daily affairs. That they mess up even those doesn’t help their cause. Additionally, this particular arrangement underpins a quid pro quo: the continuation of the present setup without further instability. Most analysts consider that a plus for which the nuances against Kayani’s extension can, and must, be ignored.

Whether this is simplicity become complex or complexity become simple is anybody’s guess. Over to Einstein.

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