Monday, July 30, 2007

Institutionalising Military into Politics

Ominous sign for democracy and political institution

It is ironical that, when one of the most institutionalised military establishments in the world, the Turkish army, under pressure from the European Union, is relinquishing its authority to elected representatives, the issue of institutionalising the military in the political process is surfacing in Bangladesh.


ON the first day of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Israeli air attack completely destroyed Egyptian air defence system. A large part of the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground and the rest incapacitated. It was no surprise attack. A few days back, the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had warned the high command of Egyptian military officials of the imminent Israeli air strike. The high command simply failed to act upon the warning. Among two most important reasons often cited in the literature of the Arab-Israeli conflict about the fiasco of the Egyptian military are the transfer of 300 senior military officials to civilian positions and institutionalisation of the Egyptian army in the political process. The transfer, in some cases to get rid of unreliable officials and in other cases to reward the protégés of Nasser with more comfortable jobs of senior officials, dealt a severe blow to the efficiency of the Egyptian armed forces, whereas institutionalisation of the Egyptian military into politics left a force beset with constant bickering for the power pie, with highly corrupt officials and demoralised soldiers. The final outcome of the war was the defeat of the Arab allies to a smaller but more efficient Israeli defence force under the command of an elected government.

The debacle of the Arab coalition in the 1973 war clearly indicates how politicisation of military and relocation of military officials to civilian positions may lead to serious problems during a national crisis like war. It further indicates that despite having a greater military power, a politically ambitious military with lack of professionalism may itself pose a serious threat to the national security of a country.

A previous article of this author (‘The emergence of the tyranny of a non-political status quo’, New Age, July 21) indicated that the current political crisis in Bangladesh is the upshot of a conflict between the syndicates of political parties and non-political establishments. But, the current reform process seems to be completely oblivious to this important aspect of the crisis. Instead, it appears to be selectively downgrading the political parties to a lower hierarchy in the political power game while systematically creating power bases for the syndicates of the military establishment and other non-political interest groups.

There is no denying that the political leadership was utterly insincere in their efforts, unless forced by popular movements, to create a viable and sustainable political institution. But, the failure of the political leadership shall not justify creating, through selective reforms, a status quo of the military syndicate, which, in the past, through indiscriminate appointments of military officials in the civil administration, also contributed significantly to the current crisis in the governance structure. For example, during the military rule of 1975-1990, two generals, Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad, systematically positioned military officials in the civilian administration, violating the warrant of precedence of service rules. Under Zia, army officials occupied the positions of 6 of 20 secretaries, 14 of 20 police superintendents, 10 of 20 corporate directorships and 32 diplomats. Under Ershad, 20 senior administration positions, 14 corporate directorships and two-thirds of the diplomatic positions were occupied by senior army officials (see Stanley Kotchaneck, Patron-Client Politics and Business in Bangladesh, 1993, p.58-63).

All these relocation not only served the interest of the military establishment but also benefited incompetent bureaucrats and sycophants of the military establishment. Subsequently, it turned away talented graduates from civil service jobs, which used to be considered as highly respected positions to hold. Indeed, the nation’s bureaucracy, main organ of the governing process, paralysed through such a systematic violation of service rules that started in 1975, is yet to regain its past stature. Today, the same history seems to be repeating. Military officials are again being posted in important civil administration positions, disregarding future and further debilitating consequences on the governing structure.

The issue of the formation of the National Security Council is yet another attempt to manipulate the political process and institution to the benefits of the military syndicate. On July 10, the chief of army staff, General Moeen U Ahmed, at a seminar organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies and the American Centre, referred to corruption as a national security issue. Corruption is undoubtedly a national issue of utmost importance. But, it is not quite clear from the army chief’s speech how corruption threatens national security. Then again, one can easily find a good analogy of tying national security with political ambition in the Bush administration’s use of the national security issue to enter a pre-emptive war against Iraq, which the majority of American people now oppose, and Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf’s abuse of the national security issue to justify his military rule. Similarly, the army chief’s statement is an attempt to convince the people of the importance of the military’s role in the political process through the formation of the National Security Council, which, by the way, is supposed to deal with threats against the sovereignty of the country.

Recent statements of the law and communication advisers to the interim government in the media only reinforce the conviction of this author about the ongoing behind-the-door efforts to institutionalise the military’s role in the political process through the formation of the National Security Council.

It is ironical that, when one of the most institutionalised military establishments in the world, the Turkish army, under pressure from the European Union, is relinquishing its authority to elected representatives, the issue of institutionalising the military in the political process is surfacing in Bangladesh.

No functional democracy authorises military interference in the national political process. For example, the United States National Security Council is dominated by civil administration officials with virtually no decision-making authority of the defence officials. India, which has to live under constant threats of China and Pakistan, two dominant military forces with nuclear capabilities, allows defence officials to serve in the National Security Council only as advisers. Even Israel, the most militaristic democracy in the world, grants the ultimate decision-making authority of the National Security Council to the elected prime minister.

Pakistan, a failed state, perhaps is the only exception to the rule. Pakistani army is virtually the omnipotent guidance for the democratic process in that country. There is speculation that the composition and functions of the National Security Council of Bangladesh are being planned to be modelled on those of Pakistan’s. This possibility raises a set of questions. First, is the proposal, by certain people, of power sharing between the president and the elected prime minister somewhat related to the proposal to have the president lead the National Security Council? Second, will the military have significant decision-making authority in the National Security Council? Third, will the unelected president have the authority to overthrow an elected parliament? (One must remember that two elected Pakistani prime ministers were dismissed by unelected presidents allegedly acting at the behest of the military.) If all the answers are in the affirmative, then it appears that the nation is heading toward a Pakistani style democracy, where power of the elected representatives is subject to the caprice of the military-technocrat oligarchy. And, it would be really unfortunate to see such retrograding of the political institution of Bangladesh in the name of political reforms.

The government must understand that selective reforms would end up making no significant progress in the political institution and competition. Naxalites failed because they waged a wrong war on wrong targets. In the name of wiping out the class system, they tried to eliminate landlords and the outcome was a mutually destructive bloody campaign with many lives lost without any avail to anyone. #

ABM Nasir teaches economics at North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, US and can be reached at