AS the country digests the army chief’s latest foray into, strictly speaking, non-military matters, it appears that Gen Kayani’s comments on Monday were directed at his prin-cipal constituency: the armed forces itself. The discomfort within the rank and file and the leadership too in recent weeks is not very difficult to fathom. Mehrangate, the NLC scam, inquiries into a luxury resort in Lahore, and myriad other questions about the army’s political role and management of security affairs have all combined to probably create a sense of siege. For an institution as proud and domestically predominant as the army has been over the decades, it may well be bewildering to be subjected to the kind of scrutiny and commentary that non-uniformed leaders have long been used to. So Gen Kayani’s words — targeted as they appear to have been against the judiciary and sections of the media, and not really the civilian political leadership — were probably intended to allay concerns within the armed forces that somewhat legitimate criticism of narrow problems, from the army’s perspective, were growing into wanton and gratuitous criticism of the entire institution.
Questionable as the army’s concerns may be — those never subjected to intense scrutiny will always resist a changing order — it is perhaps a sign of the times, and a good one at that, that the army chief chose tough words instead of strong action. In eras past, a discreet phone call or a public swipe would have been enough to tamp down criticism and make unwanted investigations disappear. So perhaps in time, even the dubious use of the ISPR to put out such controversial statements will be a practice curbed.
For the long road to civilian control of the state to be travelled, however, one of the key elements is the question of who determines the ‘national interest’. Gen Kayani was correct in saying that “no individual or institution has the monopoly to decide what is right or wrong in defining the national interest” and that it should emerge through a “consensus”. But in truth, it must go much further than that in a truly democratic polity. While other institutions do have some role to play, the central pivot has to be the civilian leadership that represents the will of the people through parliament. It cannot and must not be forgotten that the internal and external instability the country faces today is largely rooted in policies pursued by the army itself in the name of the national interest. But if a few court cases and investigations so unsettle the armed forces, can they really be willing to cede control of the ‘national interest’?