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The impact of civil-military relations on Pakistan’s foreign policy

By Filippo Boni

Assessing the role played by core decision-making bodies in Pakistan is interesting as the National Security Council (NSC) and the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) reflect the civil-military problematique that affects the country. The failure to establish a shared and effective decision-making mechanism is one of the factors, besides Indian military superiority, that led to the Pakistani defeat in the 1971 conflict with India, which culminated with the independence of Bangladesh, and the Kargil war in 1999.

The idea of creating a National Security Council has always been advocated by the Pakistani military in order to create a legal framework for their role in security and foreign policy. In this context, the NSC was established in 1969 under the military government of Yahya Khan but remained merely a paper organization rather than an effective decision-making body. As a result, the lack of civil-military co-ordination in assessing the risks and implications of Pakistan’s policy towards its eastern wing, which eventually became Bangladesh, was one of the reasons for the Pakistani defeat in the 1971 war with India.

The NSC was abandoned by the civilian government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who established, in 1976, the DCC at the heart of the decision-making mechanism in order to reaffirm the supremacy of democratically elected politicians over the military. However, when, in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq took power through a military coup, the General tried to restore the NSC. Nevertheless, the idea was strongly opposed by the political parties and had to be dropped. The NSC was finally dissolved in 1993 under Benazir Bhutto’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the military’s preference for the NSC emerged again in 1998 under Nawaz Sharif’s government. The Chief of Army Staff Jehangir Karamat argued during a speech at the Navy War College in Lahore that there was a need to create a NSC, in order to institutionalize the military’s role in the decision-making process. Sharif did not like this statement and Karamat was forced to resign. It was eventually under Pervez Musharraf, who took power with a military coup in 1999, that the NSC was approved by the parliament in 2004 and thereby became part of Pakistan’s Constitution. With the end of the Musharraf era and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) victory in the 2008 elections, the DCC again replaced the NSC at the centre of the security and foreign policy decision-making mechanism.

As far as the DCC is concerned, it was created under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with the White Paper on Defence Organisation. However, it never actually functioned as part of the decision-making process. The rationale behind the DCC is to establish civilian guidance in security and defence policy, thereby signifying the supremacy of civil power over the military in domestic politics. However, due to the preeminent role played by Pakistan’s Army when it comes to security and foreign policy matters, the DCC failed to fulfill its remit.

As the above background highlights, the lack of institutionalization of the defence decision-making process had immediate consequences in the policy outcomes during the crises and therefore in the military defeats that Pakistan witnessed both in 1971 and in 1999. The unending tensions between the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) prevented cohesion and coherence in Pakistan’s foreign policy-making. Also, what emerges from the analysis of how these key decision-making structures performed in both the 1971 and the 1999 crises is that the civil-military clashes are reflected in the decision-making bodies, in the sense that lack of agreement around which decision-making structure, the National Security Council or the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, was to be in charge of the security policy of Pakistan deeply affected the final outcome of Pakistan’s strategic posture.

In fact, the DCC and the NSC are institutional bodies formally established but actually never operational in defining foreign policy and defence goals. In particular during the Kargil war, the Corp Commanders Conference (CCC) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) were considered to be the decisive bodies in the decision-making process. What is thus striking is that although a democratically elected government was in charge, the foreign policy was de facto planned and conducted by the army. On one hand, Sharif was committing the country to the “composite dialogue” peace process with India, while on the other hand the military’s top brass were planning the Kargil operation.

As for the 1971 war, the NSC, although created in 1969, was not operational under General Yahya Khan, who instead centralized the decision-making process in his person and in a few military leaders, relegating the civilian cabinet and the NSC to the role of empty bodies without any power in defining foreign policy goals. The struggle between civilian and military leaders showed itself in the inability to set a clear, coherent and shared vision of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The apparent democratic renaissance that the country witnessed in 2008 and in the wake of the May 2013 elections provides a few tokens that the decision-making mechanism, including the DCC and Parliamentary committees, is starting to work properly under civilian control. Particularly in the last few years, the DCC met several times to discuss the security issues that Pakistan was facing, such as the crises related to the supply routes for NATO’s coalition in Afghanistan in 2011-2012. Nevertheless, civilian involvement in an effective foreign and security policy decision-making process is still limited. The meetings the DCC held in the last six years were in response to contingent crises and the decisions taken have never actually been implemented. What is thus required, not only to reaffirm the principle of civilian supremacy but also to truly channel the decision-making process through institutional structures, is for these meetings to be held on a monthly basis to create a framework for defining the country’s goals. In light of these considerations, it will be of particular interest both for the decision-making process and, by and large, for the evolution of the civil-military interplay in Pakistan, to see the role, within Pakistan’s defence institutional architecture and decision-making bodies, that will be assigned to the COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has announced his retirement on November 29th. Rumours in Pakistan suggest that he will be appointed as chair of a “revived” Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee, which is thus going to become a key pillar among Pakistan’s defence institutions.

Filippo Boni is a first year Ph.D. student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on bilateral ties between Pakistan and China, particularly looking at how the civil-military interplay in Pakistan is influencing the relationship between the two countries. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inConflict & Security

One Comment

  1. Tom C Tom C

    Interesting article to say the least. I now know why Consolezza Rice said the military does not work for the government in Pakistan. Lots of turmoil and corruption are very possible. One would also think that India and Pakistan would get along better having a border so close to China.

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