Civil-Military relations: Under scan
July 14, 2010
Using the firing of McChrystal as his entry point, the Director General of IDSA, N. S. Sisodia, initiates a debate on a significant issue in civil-military relations. He makes two points: the first is that the top brass should not pre-empt politicians; and the second that the media needs handling with care. While the second is self-explanatory, the former deserves attention. Mr. Sisodia makes the case that, “the principle of civilian supremacy means not only carrying out the policy directives of civilian authorities, but also refraining from pre-empting them. By discussing in public questions of force or when and how to deploy it, generals can pre-empt their leaders or vitiate policy choices.” This Comment looks at both sides of the argument to enable a debate. That the author intended to initiate a debate can be seen in his concluding statement that, “This is just one side of the story about the maturing principle of civilian supremacy.”
Mr. Sisodia alludes to an episode last year in which McChrystal overplayed his hand in using a speaking engagement at the IISS in London to press for the policy option for AfPak that he favoured over the one represented by Vice President Joe Biden. The bureaucratic politics indulged in then also included leaking of McChrystal’s operational assessment of the AfPak predicament. Both strategems resulted in McChrystal and the military receiving an admonition from Secretary Gates. In the event, Obama had decided to back McChrystal with the surge he desired and the counter insurgency strategy he favoured. It is apparent that the General, otherwise well regarded as a thorough professional, did not learn his lesson in civil-military relations and therefore virtually invited his marching orders on publication of his profile and that of his ‘Team America’ in the Rolling Stone magazine.
This example is used for lessons closer home, possibly prompted by the sometimes controversial and possibly motivated media attention received by remarks of the top brass in the recent past. Such instances include: the earlier Army Chief’s remarks on integration of Maoists into the Nepal Army, on the military’s ‘two front’ strategic problem, on deployment against Maoists; and of the present Army Chief’s take on the petty political motivations of those against AFSPA, and on lost opportunities for political engagement in Kashmir. Likewise, the Air Chief’s remarks on the use of air power in Central India and that of his Vice Chief on the politics behind arms deals are other examples. The issue in debate is not that the military cannot have a position on a question with military implications, but the extent to which it can go in furthering its case or expressing its concerns.
Samuel Huntington provides the best entry point into civil-military relations theory through his landmark study dating to 1957: The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Practice of Civil-Military Relations. He has it that the responsibilities of the military to the state are threefold: representative, advisory and executive. The representative function is to represent the claims of military security within the state machinery. Huntington requires of the soldier that “he must keep the state informed as to what he considers necessary for the minimum military security of the state in the light of the capabilities of other powers.” Huntington admits that it is difficult to define the extent to which the soldier may carry his view, but the military must be cognisant that limits exist. The military has both ‘the right and duty’ to present its views to public bodies involved in apportionment of the state’s resources. The advisory function is to advise on alternative courses from a military perspective. The military cannot sit in judgment on which alternative is most desirable, but report on military implications. Lastly, the executive function enjoins the military to implement decisions even if these run ‘violently counter’ to the military’s judgment or interest. It is the statesman’s job to set aims, allocate resources and set priorities and parameters. The military is to do the best it can in the conditions determined by the political leadership and circumstance. [Dehra Dun: Natraj, Indian edition 2005, p. 72.]
The military, being a profession that provides military security, is responsible, on account of its expertise, to project its point of view. It is to do so within the prescribed channels of authority and communication. In case it does so outside these limits, then it becomes a political player. As such, it is liable to be taken as yet another lobby protecting and furthering its interests. That the military is also a corporate entity lends its actions to be mistaken as motivated by institutional interest. This is reinforced by organisational theory and the experience in civil-military relations globally. That militaries further their corporate interests under the guise of national interest is not unknown. That such a phenomenon can be expected to exist in India is a given, since the military is a bureaucratic actor and would participate in decision making through bureaucratic politics quite like any organisation. The question is to what extent can the military press its case.
One view has it that while the military input is essential for and invaluable in considerations on security, the concept of security today is wider. Military strategy in any case flows from national security strategy, itself an outflow of grand strategy. Grand strategy today, as Kissinger wrote, is “a combination of political, economic and military factors replacing the incongruity of the present system which seeks to compromise two incommensurables, ‘purely’ military and ‘purely’ political considerations.” Additionally, demands of the nuclear age exist, articulated by Liddell Hart thus, “Old concepts and definitions of strategy have become not only obsolete but nonsensical with the development of nuclear weapons.” Movement in concepts of security and strategy has diluted the earlier place of the military factor and input.
In India’s case the national aim is for socio-economic uplift. This necessitates continuing on the current economic trajectory. Grand strategy, currently conceptualized in the neoliberal framework, is to preserve and further the gains made. Down flow activities comprise security strategy formulation and the military’s place in it. The cabinet has the requisite committees – CCS and NSC – in which the military factor is represented and articulated by the Defence Minister. The defence ministry has a bureaucratic component to render impartial advice to the minister. The Service Chiefs have access to the minister to fulfil their right and duty of presenting their position and arguments. Parliamentary standing committees also interface with the military. Some of their reports have been considerably critical of the government. Thus, the Indian system, comprising as it does checks and balances, not only takes the military position on board but has the advantage of merging it within governmental priorities. Extra-procedural exertion by the military in favour of its case places it outside the constitutionally and traditionally delimited bounds. In a rambunctious democracy with a super-ordinate media, this can be mistaken as questioning of policy, thereby embarrassing the government and reducing its credibility and authority.
On the other hand is the vociferous critique of this view. This perspective has it that there is an imbalance in India’s civil-military relations brought about by an intervening bureaucratic layer in the Ministry of Defence between the military and the political head. The military position therefore is rendered askew. Since the military owes a service to state and society, in the straitened circumstance of national security it requires to be more assertive than would have otherwise been the case. In case the military and the government were enmeshed at the apex level through for instance the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff, merging of the Integrated HQs of the Services with the ministry and greater representation of the military across the national security system such as in the NSCS and the MEA, the military would not require to use the media route to influence government policy. Denied scope due to the bureaucracy - seen to be operating as a bureaucratic player - the military is compelled to join in bureaucratic politics intrinsic to democratic political structures. The suggestion that the military is over stepping limits is itself seen as a ploy in a turf war. The argument made for going the extra mile is that success of the economic miracle requires that the military makes itself heard, lest – and this is the trump – hard learned lessons of 1962 stand neglected.
It is apparent that the contours of the two positions outlined here reflect dissonance in the national security system. The possible directions of mitigation have been noted in the final paragraph by Mr. Sisodia: “This will involve providing greater space to the Armed Forces in relevant decision-making structures, seeking their partnership in national security and defence policy-making and addressing issues of modernisation and ‘jointness’ on priority.” And he aptly bridges the two positions in his concluding sentence: “A democratic polity is not just about civilian control but also about a military strong enough to protect it.” Let the debate begin, even as his recommendation is implemented.