12/31/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

The Revival of Military Supremacy

In the wake of the Peshawar massacre, legislators in Pakistan are contemplating a constitutional amendment to authorize army officers to administer courts. Military courts are contrary to the fundamental idea and the core principles of democracy. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took this desperate decision soon after the Dec. 16 massacre in which the Pakistani Taliban killed more than 130 schoolchildren in a dreadful shootout.

What was described by some analysts as "Pakistan's 9/11," the Peshawar carnage triggered a nationwide demand for decisive action against the Taliban. Sharif capitulated to the post-Peshawar pressure and agreed to invite the army to establish military courts. Surprisingly, no political party objected to Sharif's decision. Despite most political parties' endorsement, the military courts do not bode well for the future of democracy in Pakistan. This move will significantly undermine the relatively free judiciary that gained its independence in 2009 after a fierce, two-year-long nonviolent movement against then-dictator General Pervez Musharraf.

The powerful former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, who stood against Musharraf's onslaught on the judiciary, is among the few leading figures in Pakistan to oppose the military courts, calling them "unconstitutional."

It was only a year and a half ago, in May 2013, when a democratic government transferred power to another elected government through general elections. The polls raised expectations that Pakistan was on an irreversible path to democracy and the military's role in the country's politics would become history.

There are at least fives scenarios that pave the way for the army to step into the civilian realm and then either justify its actions or create space for military dominance over democratic institutions in the future.

First, the army complains that the civilians are incompetent and cannot smoothly run the country. They insist that politicians do not have the capacity and credentials to ensure good governance. But that could be true about politicians anywhere in the world. There can be prescribed recruitment processes for soldiers, but it is impossible to enforce similar requirements for becoming a politician. For an elected politician, people's trust and votes should be regarded as equivalent to the high credentials generals earn in the army.

Second, three long stints of military rule have given Pakistan's political parties such an inferiority complex and so much self-doubt that they do not fully realize what they are capable of accomplishing. Because of this psychological challenge, some parties immediately call the army to take charge as soon as they smell chaos and turmoil in the country. The post-Peshawar episode precisely reflects the same quandary wherein the politicians seem to be convinced that only the army can pull Pakistan out of a major crisis.

Third, the army, before influencing any government policies or taking control of political power, initially experiments to see how the government and the media react to its maneuvering. This is done through floating certain ideas in the media. If there are signs of public support for the army's plans, then the ruling party responds cautiously. The government soon fears ouster from power in case of refusal to concede to the army's demands. Hence, democratic governments, such as that of Sharif, prefer to accommodate the army instead of confronting it under the pretext of saving democracy.

In 2008 the prime minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, decided to send the head of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to India to cooperate with his Indian counterparts in investigations of the Mumbai terrorist attack. A Pakistan-based terrorist organization was blamed for masterminding the attack. The prime minister also attempted to bring the ISI under civilian control. The army fought so vehemently that the PM had to withdraw both of his decisions. When you ask Pakistani politicians why the government backtracked from those earlier decisions, they will simply say the PM wanted to save democracy.

Fourth, the army increases tensions with the civilian government as a tactic to divert attention from critical issues, particularly ones for which the army is likely to face embarrassment or encounter hard questions. While democratic leaders can be accused of mismanagement and corruption, they, unlike the army, have never been blamed for supporting Islamic extremist groups. The performance of the courts in convicting terrorists is secondary given the longstanding allegations that the army actually uses Islamic terrorists as proxies in Afghanistan and India. So by throwing the blame on the judiciary, the army is purposefully skirting the big questions the generals in Rawalpindi should be answering.

Fifth, it has never been possible for the army to stage a coup without the support of the judiciary and the media. In the past, judges validated and legalized the military's onslaught on democracy and ouster of elected leaders while some sections of the media instead berated the "anti-people" politicians for their failures to protect democracy. For the first time, however, the media and the judiciary have slightly (of course not entirely) drifted away from the full influence of the army. They have reached a great level of independence where they can defy the military orders. Tensions between the army and the free media reached their apex in 2011 when the ISI was blamed for the killing of investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad and the 2014 assassination attempt on television journalist Hamid Mir.

Thus, the proposed military courts will weaken the judiciary and establish a parallel judicial system to enervate the existing courts. Once the army penetrates into the judicial system, it will reverse all the freedoms the judges and lawyers had won against General Musharraf. This will further exempt the army from accountability vis-à-vis the ubiquitous charges of a nexus between the Pakistani army and the jihadists, and, finally, these courts will prepare the ground for military supremacy over democratic rule in a country that receives substantial American financial assistance.