Samuel P. Huntington’s book The Soldier and the State popularly defined military professionalism to include subservience of the armed forces to civilian authorities. Subsequent works on civil-military relations in Latin America, Southasia and Southeast Asia – by Alfred Stepan, Amos Perlmutter, Morris Janowitz, Harold D Lasswell and others – widened the definition of military professionalism. One of the conclusions of these works was that in places where political and civil societies are weak, the militaries’ role could not be confined to defence and fighting wars. Being modern and developed, many militaries in these regions would also be engaged in affairs of the state. Nevertheless, civilian control over militaries continues to be widely considered a marker of ‘good’ civil-military relations and of military professionalism. It is, for example, an important variable for being recognised as professional military by NATO.
The emphasis on viewing civil-military relations purely from an administrative perspective, however, is problematic. Simply asking who is ‘boss’ is not enough. What about countries where militaries engage in oppression at the behest of its political leadership? Even if the military is under civilian control, it can still have great influence in society and close links with a largely militaristic political class. It is therefore important to examine Southasia’s militaries’ internal engagements and how certain groups are marginalised by the state with the support of the army. The increasing militarisation of societies throughout Southasia has turned the civil-military balance into a more complex matter.
When conducting fieldwork across different Southasian states on civil-military relations, people sometimes reacted strongly to my identity as a Pakistani. Experts, policymakers and even ordinary people in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were often quick to remind me that their countries were not like Pakistan. At times, I would get long lectures on where Pakistan went wrong – even in Bangladesh, where the military has inherited Pakistan’s pattern and has not remained subservient to civilian rule. What such comments overlooked is that the civil-military balance is shifting towards the latter across Southasia – not just in Pakistan. During my research, I did not come across a single military that did not think it was superior to the political leadership. This sense of superiority or arrogance of the armed forces, largely stemming from their control over weapons, is another issue that most Southasian states and societies are unaware of. The more professional and technologically evolved a military is, the more difficult it becomes for the political leadership to handle it.
“All Indian army officers are asked [by ordinary people] to take over but do not do so due to their respect for professionalism,” said Indian Army Lieutenant General (retd) B N Sharma. Many would dismiss this as an individual statement but it is reflective of a society where the place of the military is being gently re-arranged. Even though the modern Indian military has remained separate from and outside the structures of politics in India, due to the state’s particular history and set-up, it has changed significantly since Nehru’s time. The military has not remained apolitical and tries, often successfully, to influence national security decision-making and to improve its image and increase its role where possible.
India, like other developing countries, suffers from poor governance leading many people to desire better, stronger governance. Under such circumstances, the ‘disciplined’ and ‘strong’ armed forces stand out, rendering them more popular. This image is enhanced and the military’s various engagements and roles justified through consistent propaganda. The Indian military may be different from Pakistan’s which directly controls several media outlets. But in India too, the military has managed use the media to project a more positive image, mostly in the name of patriotism. This is particularly evident in commercial cinema, which perhaps most effectively captures and shapes the public imagination. Indian commercial movies have begun to increasingly depict positive images of the military while portraying politicians in a rather bad light: most new Hindi commercial films now have a ‘good’ character, a ‘hero’, from the armed forces.
Simply asking who is ‘boss’ is not enough. What about countries where militaries engage in oppression at the behest of its political leadership?
One might argue that a positive image of the military is an important part of strengthening nationalism – the US too consistently uses media including cinema to portray strength and security and to improve the image of the army – but failing to examine the military’s actions critically comes at high costs for society and humanity at large. A more positive view of the military based on emotional imagery leads to a higher threshold for accepting all that the military does – among the political leadership as well as society. For example, the public will abstain from critiquing the military’s internal engagements if the armed forces are portrayed as the protector of the nation state. How can you censure a military official whose main image is that of a strong protector? As the public imagery is shifting, the moral authority increasingly lies with the military institution rather than with political leaders.
The social and psychological legitimisation of the military’s power adds to its strength, particularly in an environment where the political leadership has limited capacity to engage with a technologically advanced war machine. The political leadership in most developing countries, certainly in Southasia, do not have the capacity to question military assessments. For the Indian leadership’s goal to vie for a prominent position in regional and international geopolitics, the military is an essential tool. Furthermore, the lure of kickbacks from arms procurement brings generals close to the political leadership or defence bureaucracy. The Indian military has pushed for a greater role in national security decision-making. And the inclusion of retired military officers in civilian think-tanks, as well as their prominence in national debates on security in the media and academia, further ensures more influence.
When army generals recommended against the withdrawal of troops from Siachin, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to listen, signifying a shift in civil-military balance since Nehru. The first prime minister was still able to put the army in its place and ignore its advice to make room for his own policy perspectives on China. Nehru’s belief in non-alignment and in good relations with Beijing led New Delhi to ignore the army’s intelligence about Chinese incursions in the north. An internal assessment by the Indian Ministry of Defence later revealed that the political leadership had appointed senior command based on personal preference (then-Defence Minister Krishna Menon had appointed several senior commanders including Lieutenant General B M Kaul whose Eastern Command did not perform well) and one of the conclusions of the assessment was that the military should be depoliticised. Yet, as later developments reveal, this did not mean that the military would remain apolitical.
One of the most serious dimensions of the military’s increased influence in India, however, pertains to the army’s role in internal security. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), passed in 1958 in response to insurgency movements in the Northeast, gives the military excessive powers which it can directly use against militants as well as civilians in parts of the country with insurgencies, such as the Northeast or Kashmir – for example the power to shoot anyone suspected of being involved an insurgency. The political leadership in Delhi has thereby legitimised the denial of basic rights and freedoms by the armed forces.
It is the priorities of the security elite, rather than the people, which determine the relationship between the public and the military. This is further exacerbated by the fact that India’s armed forces are dominated by certain Hindu communities. The communal imbalance contributes to dangerous politics inside the military which can have dubious consequences for the politics of the country overall, as pointed out by experts such as Omar Khalidi, who work on race and communal politics in the Indian military. Hence, for common people in Kashmir or the Northeast of India, the military’s subservience to civilian control is irrelevant as the military and civilian policymakers have joined forces to suppress them in the name of national security and unity. If neither the military nor the central government serve the interests of the people and collaborate to marginalise certain groups, mere structural civilian control over the military is not enough.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka
Many authors, including Huntington, praised Pakistan’s military for being modern, educated and technologically advanced. The army could certainly handle modern weapons technology either provided for free or sold to them by the US and other states. But it is precisely this which allowed the military to feel superior and be more involved in affairs of the state, ultimately rendering it more powerful.
A more positive view of the military based on emotional imagery leads to a higher threshold for accepting all that the military does – among the political leadership as well as society.
In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as in India, civilian players have engaged in active partnerships with the military to oppress people. The condition of people in Balochistan and the tribal areas in the north of the country, where the army began an operation in June 2014, highlights ongoing state oppression through the use of its armed forces. Pakistan’s military justifies its aggressive tactics – such as picking up people and without the right to habeas corpus, torturing and killing them – with rhetoric of threatened national security, labeling certain groups as ‘threats to the state’. The Pakistan Protection Ordinance, 2013 (PPO) passed by the government is meant to reduce the military’s accountability in anti-terror operations. Several prominent human-rights activists in the country have raised their voice against PPO, considering it a bid to cover human-rights atrocities. From the state’s perspective, however, this law is meant to achieve what Sri Lanka claims to have done: eliminate insurgency groups and their ‘terrorist’ activities.
Analysts in Pakistan often refer to Colombo’s military operation against Tamil insurgents that resulted in the killing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009. But two important developments are worth noting with regards to Sri Lanka’s operation against LTTE. Firstly, the military was transformed from its traditional ceremonial role to a more professional force in its war against Tamil insurgents. In several of Colombo’s five-star hotels, symposiums and seminars were held, during which Western defence institutes would advocate capacity building for Sri Lanka’s security forces. Indeed, in the mid-2000s, steps were taken to professionalise the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. A number of young graduates were hired for this purpose during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, including Sanjaya Colonne who advised for a more ‘efficient’ management of national security and is considered to have become close to the ruling Rajapaksa family over the years.
Secondly, the Sinhalese political leadership controls the state. In Sri Lanka, the military’s subservience to civilian rule simply means that the Sinhala political and military elite work closely together and are therefore able to use their joint power against the rest of the population. Sri Lanka is dominated by the Rajapaksa family which ensures their political hegemony through collaboration with the Buddhist rightwing political, religious and military leadership. This civil-military partnership is mutually beneficial. For example, the military draws its current power from the Secretary of Defence and Urban Development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man appointed to the position in 2005 because of his role in quelling the Tamil insurgency and his personal links with the President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The elite alliance has long allowed the government to use force to suppress political opposition. For example, during the early 1970s and late 1980s, the state’s security forces brutally cracked down in response to insurrections by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP); during the civil war, Colombo used massive violence and neglected engaging in any significant form of political appeasement with Tamil insurgents toward the end of the war; and nowadays, politically influential Buddhist priests are using their power against the Muslim minority in the southwest of Sri Lanka. Having won the civil war, this elite is now in no mood to share the fruits of victory with minority groups.
Today, the roads in Colombo are clean and the Sri Lankan Sinhala middle class, both in the country as well as abroad, seems fairly happy about the sanitised capital city and other ‘cleaned-up’ places. Yet, many people risk their lives to tell stories highlighting the military’s expanded role. From settling marriage issues to economic extraction, the Sri Lankan military increasingly acts like an institutionalised warlord. The Defence Ministry does not only get money from the defence budget but also draws from additional resources. It has now become the ‘Ministry of Defense and Urban Development’ and as such, is responsible for major infrastructure development projects, mostly with the involvement of Chinese companies.
It is common for countries that recently emerged from internal conflicts to suffer from an uneven civil-military equation: post-conflict militaries are used by the political leadership for administrative roles, resulting in deepening praetorian tendencies in the state and society. In Sri Lanka, however, the equation has become extremely uneven. It is common to see the military, controlled by the president and his family, exploit state resources together with the political elite. How does one even begin to evaluate civil-military relations in a country where a single family and its close coterie of friends dominate the state and define its interests?
The Sri Lankan case has similarities with Bangladesh. Also the Bangladesh model is equally favoured by the Pakistani military whose General Headquarters at Rawalpindi believes that it should also insert technocrats to improve governance just like Bangladesh’s military has done. In the fight between Bangladesh’s two hot-headed begums – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, and her rival, the former prime minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – the military is used as a ‘neutral’ arbiter. And the educated Bengali middle class seems to have accepted this state of affairs.
Civil-military partnerships in Bangladesh are obvious. Administratively, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) controls defence decision-making, which also means that benefits can be reaped jointly. Hence, the military is used as a money making machine by the government as the Bangladeshi armed forces earn significant sums for the country through UN peacekeeping missions (a good part of the income from such missions goes to the government). The country’s military is also a prominent economic actor: it is engaged in businesses from confectionary manufacturing and running an international hotel chain to shipyard and machine tool factories.
The military has seeped much further into Southasian political affairs and societies than Huntington’s theory allows us to see.
The army has also repeatedly interfered in political activities in Bangladesh – something that is not discussed often in the country. When I conducted my research, I unsuccessfully tried to draw the attention of Bangladeshi civil society and political activists to this fact and the expanding power of the armed forces. The educated middle classes and activists talk about the army’s withdrawal from active politics in 1990, yet few talk about the attempted coup in 1996 when General Nasim and General Hilal Morshid conspired to take over. At the time, it was simply poor communication that saved the day and diverted attention from the coup. People mention how generals in the previous BNP government, led by Begum Khaleda Zia, put emphasis on a greater threat from India. What they fail to see is that this was simply an excuse to increase military potential. In 2007 too, the military intervened during the highly contested and violent run-up to the elections that year, when a state of emergency was declared and the military supported the caretaker government of then-President Iajuddin Ahmed.
In their anxiety to not appear ‘Pakistan-like’, educated Bangladeshis overlook the fact that political activity has been part of the history of their military. Prominent members of Bangladesh’s civil society tend to forget that a major part of the country’s security forces are comprised of repatriated officers who were under the same military influence as their counterparts in Pakistan before Bangladesh’s birth in 1971. Many Bengali officers had rebelled against the West Pakistani army, and there had been great suspicion of the Bengali officer inside the military of United Pakistan. But the Bengali officers were trained in the same military culture, and by 1975, around 28,000 (including around 1000 officers) of the total 55,000 Bangladeshi army personnel were repatriates; they had not been freedom fighters. As a result, Bangladesh inherited West Pakistan’s tradition of a powerful political army – a tradition which started with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s failure to punish his army generals for insubordination. It is therefore hardly surprising that in 1975, Bangladeshi military officers carried out the first coup, in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated.
In Afghanistan, the civilian administration and its numerous institutions are far weaker than the military. International donors have invested much attention and resources in developing Kabul’s security apparatus as it is hoped that the Afghan police and military will protect against the Taliban. Another reason for investing in Afghan security forces is that these would guarantee security, which, in turn, would ensure greater social and economic stability in the future. However, the security and stability of the newly formed defence establishment in Afghanistan is based on a steady flow of resources. It is not clear how far the international community will bankroll the security apparatus in the future. A lack of funds risks resulting in the creation of Afghan mercenaries that can pose a threat to the state, as happened in several fragile African states. The prowess of the security establishment will be put to test after the US and NATO forces leave, but it is not entirely impossible that the disproportionate development of the security sector may come to haunt Afghans and their neighbours in the future.
Increasing military power
The military has seeped much further into Southasian political affairs and societies than Huntington’s theory allows us to see. Southasia as a whole has experienced an increase in militarisation. This trend is problematic as civilian institutions seem weaker in comparison to the militaries’ growing power. What might help keep the militaries in check are stronger and mature civilian institutions and their ability to contest for their share in power. In India, there are multiple players which balance the military’s power to some extent. Yet in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and especially in Afghanistan, the power of the defence forces is often greater than that of civilian institutions.
Sadly, Southasian societies have grown more complacent about the military and state oppression. Civilian voices and institutions do not protest the increasing influence of the military very strongly. This certainly applies to the middle classes and the ruling elites who are unconcerned about internal insurgencies or consider them simply a bane. These insurgencies, created by the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless, are met with disproportionate force by civilian governments with the help of militaries, without much opposition from elites and the middle classes. In Bangladesh, and even more so in Pakistan, the military is engaged in a superordinate-subordinate relationship with civilian authorities. While in Sri Lanka, the civilian leadership seems to have become a wolf in sheep’s clothing; the state is captured by a select elite that is willing to use military force against the disempowered. In India too, the military and civilian leadership have joined hands to suppress internal conflicts.
The closer alliance of militaries and ruling elites may be seen as an improved understanding between policymakers and army generals in Southasian states. But merely using the Huntingtonian lens fails to highlight and fully understand increasing military power in each of these states and the consequences this may have for democracy in Southasia.
~Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and expert on civil-military relations in Southasia. She is currently a Charles Wallace Fellow at Oxford University. Her second book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, was published in 2007. She can be followed on Twitter @iamthedrifter.