Defence as a public good

By Ayesha Siddiqa

THE Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Training just held an international conference on civil-military relations in Lahore.

The institute put in a lot of effort bringing people from Turkey and Indonesia to talk about their experiences. One wishes they had also invited people from Bangladesh and Latin America to deepen the international flavour of the conference. Also, while there were quite a few PML-N parliamentarians present, the PPP was conspicuous by its absence. Even if provincial assembly members had attended the conference it might have given them a few ideas about the future of civil-military relations in the world, especially in Pakistan.

But perhaps the ruling regime thinks that it knows all or the issue is not a priority for the government. After all, some of the foreign-based Pakistani advisers of the present government tag civil-military relations as one of the lowest-priority issues.

The conference was refreshing in terms of the atmosphere and location. The audience in Lahore was involved in the discussion, improving the quality of debate. It was certainly exciting to see real people amongst the audience rather than the usual retired diplomats, bureaucrats and military officers who are abundant in seminars held in Islamabad. For their part, the Lahoris seem to have enjoyed the discussion including a debate on the army’s role, which has remained taboo for so many years. Thanks to the revolution in information technology and advancements in the media, military or civilian dictators now find it difficult to gag information and debate beyond a certain point.

It is hoped that things will improve further despite the one rather tense moment during the two-day conference. A bunch of retired army officers including one retired lieutenant general created a ruckus in protest against what they considered to be criticism of the armed forces. Like uncontrolled and ill-mannered children these grown-up men shouted for an opportunity to speak despite having had the chance to do so from the rostrum for a day and a half. In fact, the above-mentioned lieutenant general was one of the keynote speakers in the earlier session in which he had castigated political and military governments for their treatment of Balochistan. However, when it came to a rather academic discussion of the military he stood up and behaved in a manner contrary to what the organisation points to with such pride — discipline.

After seeing the attack launched by a few retired officers, one wondered what the retired brigadier meant when he proposed that military dictators or usurpers of power should be tried under Article 6 of the 1973 Constitution. Will they actually allow this to happen if they can’t stand a discussion?

One of the latest arguments in defence of the army is, why blame the entire institution for the fault of a few at the top? Such an argument is flawed on two counts. First, it ignores the fact that the military is a disciplined force and orders flow from the top and everyone in the hierarchy is meant to carry out every decision taken at the top. This could be an order to overthrow a civilian regime, usurp power or attack an enemy. Second, all personnel own the decision of the superior management. Those who differ with the policy to usurp power either speak out, for which they are phased out of the armed forces, or resign. Those who remain behind are partners in the decision as they share the benefits of being in the organisation.

The principle of individual morality and capacity to take independent decisions was upheld during the Nuremberg trials. During the trials of numerous general officers in Hitler’s army, the court disregarded their argument that they were merely carrying out orders and only the highest command was responsible for the decision to kill millions of innocent people. What about human conscience and the ability to differentiate between what is wrong and immoral and what is right and good for the community of human beings?

The above discussion dovetails into the larger question of defence as a public good. The state and society are bound in a social contract to provide for the military by accepting that defence is a public good and so part of the necessary expenditure of the state. That expenditure is financed by compulsory taxation, which is meant to pay for services provided to all. According to this definition, the people or the state cannot dismiss the military. Instead they have ownership of the institution.

This leads to another vital issue: when is defence a public good and when does it cease to be one? Defence is a public good so long as it is beneficial to the general public. When its benefits are restricted to a few hundred or thousand people, then it ceases to be a public good, which must be provided for all. Military officers are bound by their conscience and links with society and the state to judge what decisions are harmful to the state and society and what are not. In the case of the Second World War, the German officers and officials that killed innocent civilians were not providing public good but indulging in their own craving for power.

Establishing the principle of defence as a public good is also tied to the unwritten social contract between the state and society on the one hand and the state and the military on the other. The problem with mercenary militaries was that their personnel were tied to a social contract with those providing resources for the upkeep of the forces. In Europe this changed with the post-French revolution military which became a national armed force.

The people of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army were French citizens responsible for providing security as a public good for which they were remunerated and equipped as well. Whether the state wanted to expand its sphere of control to other territories, and thus create space for French commerce, or merely defend against a foreign army were objectives left to the political leadership that was responsible for organising resources for the armed forces.

The problem with some modern-day militaries, including Pakistan’s, is that the social contract which defines defence as a public good has been weakened because of the autonomy of the military and its independence in raising resources. Since the 1950s, the military has sought and received money from the US. So while the Suhrawardy and Bogra governments were keen to reduce defence spending, there was very little they could do in terms of reining in the autonomy of the army, which by then had established its independent channel of communication with Washington. The refurbishment of equipment, especially quality weapons, depended upon America which made military generals more independent in defining their priorities. Since then, no one has been able to put the genie back in the bottle.

At this juncture, it is vital for the nation to engage in debate on defence and to ensure that it serves the public good, if it doesn’t do so already.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Source: Daily Dawn, 24/10/2008

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