Monday, October 22, 2007

Defining the Army

Bangladesh is at the critical juncture of redefining the role of military in civil and political affairs. The current military backed Caretaker Government is increasingly involving itself to institutionalize army's role in civil affairs. A national security council for Bangladesh is going to be formed to formalize military's presence in civil and political affairs. The infamous Rapid Action Battalion mostly comprised of military personnel has already taken over critical police role. National Defence University has been proposed to take over higher education. Corporate economy has already taken over by military welfare associations. This increasing trend of militarization is taking dangerous turn for Bangladesh. Army's increased role in civil affairs is becoming a dangerous trend that threatens the stability of democracy and equitable social growth. Read this critical article from Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa who provides insights from the Pakistan's case:
The Pakistan army continues to be a crossbreed between the Indonesian and the Turkish models. It is systematically trying to expand its role and justify its presence. Whether it will manage to do this at all depends on the resilience of civil society and political institutions

Author Shuja Nawaz, a former IMF and IAEA official, recently offered some glimpses into his forthcoming book, “Crossed Swords” on the Pakistan Army in a talk at the Johns Hopkins University. One of the issues raised by him pertains to defining the nature of the army.

According to Nawaz, Pakistan’s army is more like the Indonesian army rather than the Turkish army. He further contended that the difference from the Turkish model relates to the different political roles of the two armies. The Pakistani army is not as well-entrenched in politics and is not seen as part of the liberation or state-creation movement as its Turkish counterpart. Defining the nature of the army is important because therein lie the necessary clues as to how to deal with such a powerful institution.

Nawaz is absolutely right in stating the basic historical difference between the Pakistani and Turkish armies. While the former is a bureaucratic institution inherited from the colonial past, the latter played an essential role in building the new Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Kamal Ataturk played a critical role in building the new Turkey that fundamentally defines the relationship between the Turkish military, state and society. While the majority of Turkish people might have problems with the ideological bearings of the state, their relations with the military are less tense than in Pakistan or a number of other countries.

Pakistan’s armed forces are a bureaucratic institution and a reminder of the colonial legacy in more than one way. The military and civil bureaucracies of South Asia are colonial institutions created by the colonists to establish their control on the indigenous people. These institutions were trained to support a grand national strategy made thousands of miles away in London and this allegiance was transferred to their respective states after the partition of India in 1947.

Then onwards, officers, soldiers and civilian bureaucrats assisted the civilian leadership in solving the teething problems of these newborn states. In Pakistan’s case, the role expanded due to a number of factors, including the ambition of the state bureaucracy to dominate politics and governance, the authoritarian nature of the ruling elite, and the relative weakness of political forces.

But let’s not get too deep into a historical discussion. It is sufficient to remember that the army’s relationship with state and society is quite different. This historical relationship is also the basis of the latent resistance of civil society against the military or accepting the organisation as a neutral arbiter.

Nawaz equates the Pakistan army with the Indonesian military. One assumes that this similarity is based on an assessment of the behaviour or style of the two forces rather than their origins. Looking at the birth of the two institutions, one cannot but notice the difference. The Indonesian armed forces have also grown out from a revolutionary force, which then expanded its role due to the dependence of political forces and the larger civil society on the military to help build the new nation. The Indonesian military’s role in nation-building is what allowed it to expand its influence into politics, governance, and the economy.

And this is what Nawaz is referring to when he equates the two armies. Despite their different backgrounds, the two armies have expanded their roles, established themselves politically and engaged in economic exploitation as part of the ruling oligarchy. In both cases, the military elite joined hands with other members of the civilian ruling elite to exploit national resources and to strengthen their control of the state.

President Suharto’s rule was extremely predatory during which he shared the spoils with senior members of the officer cadre with some trickle-down to the junior officers as well. The civil-military divide in these two countries, hence, is both vertical and horizontal. There are occasions when it is about the divide between civil and military and at other times it is about the ruling elite versus the common people.

Such exploitation can only be sustained effectively through soft and hard coercion. People will resist exploitation by the military as is evident in Pakistan and Indonesia. Up until 9/11, the civil society supported by multinational aid donors had begun to question the Indonesian military’s authoritarian and predatory role.

It could be argued that resistance against the army’s exploitation has been relatively less in Turkey. Although the Turkish military used coercive methods to protect its utter lack of transparency, the military as an institution has far greater acceptance in the society than in the other two cases. Such acceptability has helped the military carve out a role in politics: the Turkish military has a constitutional role and is represented in the Parliament as well.

This is probably the difference that Nawaz has tried to point out in his forthcoming book. According to the author, Pakistan’s military does not have a political role like its Turkish counterpart. But then why do the roles have to be similar? The Pakistani military has systematically struggled to create an acceptable role for itself by bringing about legal and constitutional provisions. These refer to the National Security Council Ordinance in combination with article 58(2)b of the Constitution. Although this particular article is not army-specific, the understanding is that it is meant to strengthen the defence sector’s position vis-à-vis other political actors. Such provisions are being used to break into the political system so that the people accept that the military will have a role in politics and governance.

Creating a role is not an easy task. It also involves preparing the civil society to accept the role, often done through the media which, in Pakistan’s case, has been used effectively to propagate the significance of the armed forces and its image as the only credible national institution. Such image building is essential in expanding the military’s role in state and society and also in deepening its political significance. So it would be unfair to suggest that Pakistan’s military does not have a political role. It has always had one. The only issue is that of society’s acceptance. In this respect, there is a difference between the Pakistani and Turkish armed forces or even the Indonesian and Pakistani military.

A military that does not have a role in nation-building or state-creation faces problems in getting its multiple roles accepted by the civil society. There is always the issue of legitimacy that results in conflict. Additionally, the exploitation factor dilutes the possibility of such a military gaining greater legitimacy. Moreover, defining this military as an institution representative of the middle class doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of legitimacy at all.

In short, the Pakistan army continues to be a crossbreed between the Indonesian and the Turkish models. It is systematically trying to expand its role and justify its presence. Whether it will manage to do this at all depends on the resilience of civil society and political institutions.
The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy

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