Dawn Editorial 13 January 2021

Military’s role

ISPR SPOKESMAN Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar has said what any individual in his position would have been expected to say. After all, the Constitution clearly defines the functions of the army, namely to “defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and, subject to law, act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so”.
The fundamental law of this country also holds that “The federal government shall have control and command of the armed forces”. It was thus scarcely surprising when, at a presser on Monday, the senior military official robustly countered the contention of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance that it is meddling in politics. “The army does not need to enter the political fray, nor should it be dragged into it,” he asserted.
Both the weight of history and prevailing currents alike belie these words. Even a cursory acquaintance with Pakistan’s history is enough to convey the extent of the military’s role in running the country, sometimes directly through coups that swept aside elected governments. At other times, it was enough to call the shots from behind weak civilian dispensations — the ‘civ-mil imbalance’ is a truism, not a figment of the imagination.
As the first ever transfer of power took place from one elected government to the next in 2013, it seemed that democracy was at last being consolidated. However, the ground was not going to be ceded easily, and institutional boundaries continued to be breached. The most visible example of this was presented by the denouement of the Faizabad dharna, staged in November 2017 during the PML-N’s last tenure by a violent mob of religious activists near Islamabad.
After causing mayhem that gave the impression of a government no longer in control, the rioters dispersed only after an army-brokered agreement. A video clip caught the DG Punjab Rangers distributing cash among them for ‘travel expenses’.
On Monday, Maj Gen Iftikhar, in a repudiation of the PDM’s allegation that the establishment had engineered the 2018 election, also mentioned the army’s support in the nationwide exercise. Again unsurprisingly, he depicted its role as having been in the nature of necessary security assistance.
However, international election observers reported significant problems with the entire process that queered the pitch to the disadvantage of the incumbent PML-N government in particular. The chorus alleging military meddling in politics, even daily governance, has risen to a crescendo since then. The fact that several major civilian institutions and bodies are headed by uniformed personnel has further sharpened the perception of a ‘hybrid government’.
It is no longer enough to repeat stock phrases. If it wishes to rise above the fray and remain untainted by the hurly-burly of politics, the security establishment must take tangible measures to disengage itself from it. Remain on the same page as the government, but in a separate column.



Debate, not ordinances

LAW Minister Farogh Naseem has defended the frequent use of presidential ordinances in parliament, saying it is something that is not illegal. Speaking in the Senate, the law minister lamented the opposition’s non-cooperation over legislation, and said that even legislation dealing with issues of national interest had to be taken to a joint session of parliament. His line of argument is unfortunate. Justifying the excessive use of ordinances for legislation does not reflect well on the government. It points to a certain parliamentary insecurity that suggests that the government does not want to put in the effort to muster support for its legislation by engaging the opposition and trying to persuade it on the merits of the bill, or to garner sufficient traction on the floor of the house through an informed debate. Issuing an ordinance bypasses these processes and also dilutes the efficacy of parliament. As it is, the performance of this parliament has left a lot to be desired. Since its first day it has been plagued with conflict. On the floor of both the National Assembly and the Senate, legislation has been subsumed under a deluge of political noise. Prime Minister Imran Khan — despite having committed himself to regular attendance and participation in question hour — has opted to remain absent, thereby signalling a de-prioritisation of parliament as a whole. This has taken a toll on the performance of parliament. Political discourse has now shifted away from this central platform to more visible avenues such as rallies, press conferences and television talk shows. The parliamentary committees may have fared slightly better, but not by much. Here too the serious work of discussing, debating and drafting bills has often fallen victim to partisan politicking. The result has been a dilution of legislation.
After the Senate elections in March, it is expected the government will have a majority in both houses, which means it will be in a comfortable position to get its laws passed and would have no need to resort to ordinances, which must in any case be strongly discouraged. But even if its numbers increase in parliament, the government would be well advised to review the principles of democracy which rest not only on majority consensus but also on genuine debate and engagement with those who have a different viewpoint. It is only by reaching out across the aisle that the government can gain deeper knowledge of how a particular law would benefit the electorate.



Houthis’ designation

YEMEN’S Houthi movement, also known as Ansarullah, is one of the primary political players in that country, also boasting a powerful armed wing. Principally representing the country’s northern Zaidi Shia tribes, it has been in the thick of Yemen’s civil war, as well as the confrontation with the Saudi-led coalition that began in 2015. Widely seen as an Iranian ally in the Arabian Peninsula, the movement captured the capital Sana’a in 2014 and soon thereafter sent Yemen’s government packing, causing the Saudis to intervene. While the Houthis have been front and centre in the numerous conflicts facing Yemen, it is difficult to agree with the Trump administration’s recent move to declare the movement a foreign terrorist organisation. This is exactly what the White House intends to do next week, on Donald Trump’s last day in office. It is unclear what the logic behind the move is, other than to present a parting gift to the House of Saud.
The move has attracted criticism from within the US as well as internationally. The UN says the designation is “likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions” while some American lawmakers have also opposed the move. The fact is that branding the Houthis as terrorists will have very little, if any, impact on ending the Yemeni conflict. While it is difficult to agree with many of their tactics, the group’s political wing has strong roots in northern Yemen — the Zaidi Imam at one time ruled the country —and disenfranchising a whole community is likely to further complicate an already tangled situation. Therefore, it is hoped the Biden administration takes practical steps to end the war in this impoverished country. This can primarily be achieved by letting the Saudis know that America favours a negotiated settlement rather than an endless cycle of violence. Millions of Yemenis are suffering from chronic hunger and disease; what they need is an immediate end to this destructive war and the rebuilding of their lives and country.

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