Thursday, 20 February, 2020
A praetorian state?

A praetorian state?
Zahid Hussain

It is not unusual in Pakistan for the military’s spokesman to opine on everything from security to foreign and domestic affairs. His press talks are given live TV coverage and his remarks make newspaper headlines. After a brief respite, the ISPR chief spoke again last week. And, sure enough, it covered a range of topics.

DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor was pleased with the economy’s “revival” and the government’s overall performance. While calling for a political solution to the Afghan crisis, he wanted the American forces to stay in Afghanistan. He warned the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) against crossing a “red line”. But, more importantly, the good general had some piece of advice for the media: show only ‘progress’ over the next six months. Is there anything left?

Indeed, the general was presenting not his personal but his institution’s thinking on those issues. But should the military spokesman be holding forth on policy matters that do not come under his domain? Should he be commenting on the government’s performance and opining on political affairs? Does he need to tell the media what to portray?

The civil-military imbalance has remained a major source of political instability.

It also raises the question of whether there exists an elected civilian government or if this is a praetorian state. Such statements by the military spokesman not only fuel confusion, but also undermine civilian institutions. The extensive media coverage given to his remarks, which often takes precedence over even those of top civilian leaders, is itself a statement.

Is it hard to understand the obligation of the military spokesman to adopt such high personal profile? The ISPR is expected to confine itself to security and other issues related to military matters. But this military organisation seems to have expanded its role hugely over the past few years — getting directly involved in matters that must not fall under its sphere.

Despite the military’s predominance, ISPR chiefs tended to maintain at least some semblance of balance and avoided being engaged in political controversies. But that seems to have gone awry. One clear example is the latest press conference that dealt with domestic political and foreign policies. It is not that the military leadership has not been involved in those matters, yet one does not expect the ISPR to be defining state policy.

Maj Gen Ghafoor maintains that, being a national institution, the military is not linked to any party or person. It was apparently in response to the prime minister’s statement that the military stood behind his government. Should it be seen as a rebuff to the prime minister or simply a statement of fact? There may not be any inference, but the clarification was not required.

It is not the first time that the DG ISPR has spoken about Pakistan’s Afghan policy. But his latest statement on the Afghan reconciliation process raises some serious questions. More importantly, it is the job of the foreign office to explain Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Maj Gen Ghafoor’s statement that the American forces should not pull out from the war-torn country was not prudent at a time when the Afghan Taliban is engaged in direct negotiations with the US. One of the insurgents’ demands is that of the timeframe for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. It is better to leave any policy announcement to the relevant civilian forums. Such statements undercut civilian authority and fuel confusion.

His remarks on the PTM, too, have got the institution engaged in unnecessary political controversy. It is a political issue and should be left to the civilian government to deal with. Such warnings could only ignite the situation. Surely there has been provocation from some elements within the movement, but generally the PTM’s supporters have remained peaceful. The military’s involvement in the matter could only provide ammunition to vested interests. We must learn some lessons from our experience in Balochistan. There is always a political solution to popular discontent. Outside powers can only fish in troubled water.

The DG ISPR’s advice to the media seems quite interesting. What the good general may not understand is that journalism is the act of bringing information and opinion into the public arena. It provides a platform for discussion across a range of political, social and development issues. Only when the media is free to monitor, investigate and criticise the state’s policies and actions can good governance take hold.

Free, pluralistic and independent news media contributes to social, economic and political development. The job of the media is to provide credible information representing a plurality of opinions, facts and ideas. But, unfortunately, there is now a move to stifle freedom of expression and plurality of views in the name of national security. This is extremely dangerous for the political and social cohesion of the country. The ISPR’s job should be to provide information, not to try to impose a particular narrative.

A narrow-minded approach and suppression of press freedom intensifies polarisation among the media, as is being witnessed today. Surely the media, too, must show responsibility and be objective, but any pressure to toe certain lines is not going to help. In this age of communication, facts on the ground cannot be glossed over. The paranoia over so-called hybrid war has become a major factor in the move to control the media.

The civil-military imbalance has remained a major source of political instability hampering the democratic process. Despite three democratic transitions, the space for the military establishment has not diminished. Indeed, the PTI government has moved cautiously, trying to maintain good working relations with the generals.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is right in saying that the military is behind him, and that has given the civilian government some space to breathe. It is imperative that this space be maintained for the smooth functioning of the system and to dispel concerns of the rise of a praetorian state.

Source: Dawn

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