By Arifa Noor
Surely, the clichés should also be new in ‘naya Pakistan’. The civil and the military being on the same page is so ‘purana Pakistan’. So purana that a government claiming it is on the same page as the military should not even be news.
When has any government ever claimed anything different? From the chaudhries who promised to continue electing a uniformed Musharraf as president (a few months later they realised — or so they said — that he engineered their defeat in the 2008 election to ensure a win for the PPP) to the PPP who never stopped referring to this famous page the civ-mil leadership never moved on from, to the PML-N, which too, lover-like, was forever gazing at the same page, there has not been a single government in recent times which admitted to differences with the military in public.
(This is why the state-within-the-state speech of Yousaf Raza Gilani was big news, as were Nawaz Sharif’s various pronouncements after his disqualifications.)
But despite these exceptions, the ‘page’ was always what the governments spoke mushily about (while in power). And the PTI’s naya Pakistan is carrying on with this tradition, but with an unprecedented fervour.
The goal is not to have the military and the civilians thinking alike, and with no difference of opinion.
To be fair, it is not just Fawad Chaudhry who is starry-eyed; the other side also seems to be equally hopeful. The long meetings, the detailed briefings, the visuals of the conference rooms with the naya prime minister at the head of the table and even the bonhomie the government claims, is not being subtly undermined or rejected by ‘sources’. There is a new beginning because no one is saying anything to the contrary.
Indeed, some would say after the havoc wreaked in the past 10 years by an internecine civil-military tug of power, the new romance is a wee reassuring. But at the same time, it’s hard to understand the unseemly eagerness of the government to wax lyrical about the new arrangement.
When the new information minister goes on and on about the same page and the unprecedented briefings, he may think he is marking the ‘beginning of a new friendship’ but it simply ends up reaffirming the belief that the PTI is the new protégé of the establishment and that it was guided to an election victory.
And a protégé — even if on the same page as Pygmalion — can simply follow; for a Pygmalion can never become an equal.
In other words, the government’s pronouncements are simply adding to the perception that it is the junior partner in the civil-military balance, which will try its best not to step on the big toes for the sake of a smooth tenure.
Surely, this is not the impression the new government would want to give.
But this is not the only reason all politicians, including those commenting on civil-military affairs, should stop obsessing with worn-out clichés about pages and books.
The policies of a state in any sphere should, ideally, emerge out of jostling and negotiations among the many stakeholders. Whatever the final shape the policy takes, there might be some official, some institution or department with a dissenting view. A policy choice, after all, is not some ‘truth’ clearly visible to all. It is simply a process of weighing various options and picking what appears to be the best possible one.
Take the example of the Obama administration, which was a house divided on the Afghan policy, a story told frequently enough by now in accounts such as The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr or Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
After coming into power, Barack Obama took almost an entire year to review policy in Afghanistan, during which the Pentagon and the diplomats vied for his attention for their solutions. The State Department under Hillary Clinton, with Richard Holbrooke as special representative on Pakistan and Afghanistan, wanted to pursue negotiations with the Afghan Taliban while the military wanted to give ‘war’ another chance.
Obama finally weighed in on the side of the generals, due to personality clashes, lack of trust and a White House that did not get along too well with the State Department — and Washington sent in more troops (not as many as Pentagon wanted) and ignored Clinton and Holbrooke’s suggestion for a negotiated peace and talks with the Taliban. This was back in 2009.
Nearly a decade later, a new White House is now going down the very path discarded by Obama. And the negotiations are being led by the State Department, if news reports are to be believed.
As change comes about — and there may even be debate about decisions being right or wrong — there is no talk of who is on the ‘same page’ as the White House (a rarity in the Trump administration) and why this may be a good thing.
Admittedly, Pakistan is a long way off from this form of a power structure and policymaking but let’s at least acknowledge the necessity of identifying the right goal.
The goal is not to have the military and the civilians on the same page, thinking alike, and with no difference of opinion. It is to have a system of governance in which foreign and defence policy is made after weighing different views and options, which come from the military as well as the civilians, peaceniks and warriors, hawks and doves. And whatever the policy, and its consequences, its analysis is not reduced to questioning the patriotism and intentions of those making the final call.
There is no doubt this will take a while — three elections and a couple of democratic transitions are far from enough. But in the meantime, can we at least discard the notion of the ‘same page’ and accept that in a better and more democratic dispensation, there is no harm in the military and the civilian government (and its various departments) reading different books (if one has to stick to the bad analogy) — as long as everyone gets to have a say, instead of one departmental view dominating and shaping policy. Let’s rip up that ‘one’ page.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2018