Conventionally, the word ‘doctrine’ has two meanings. A doctrine can be “a set of principles or beliefs, especially religious ones”. A doctrine can also be “a statement of official government policy, especially foreign policy”.
Exactly 199 years ago, in his annual speech to the American parliament, US President James Monroe articulated the principles around which the United States would shape and define its sovereignty and relationship with the older, more entrenched world powers that had once colonized the lands that Monroe and his colleagues had been elected to govern. This came to be called the Monroe Doctrine.
There is no rulebook for what can legitimately constitute a doctrine, and what qualifies as lazy, incongruous ideas that someone has picked up from conversations at receptions, in airports and at conferences along the way. As many boomers have learnt (and many still have not) – thanks to the internet and wokeness – the grandness of ideas and personalities are often not what they seem. James Monroe may well have been a man of very limited intellect, low moral standing and he may even have been financially corrupt – but the enduring stature of the Monroe Doctrine has helped associate his name, through two centuries of historians and biographers, with American sovereignty. It turns out that a doctrine is not just the sum of its parts. It is the endurance and power of what it produces.
It would be nice to be able to say that Pakistan is turning the page today as a new chief of army staff (COAS) takes command in Rawalpindi. Such naivete may be forgivable for those with a memory that is shorter than six years. For all other Pakistanis, it is not only not possible to turn the page so easily, but it may also be objectionable to do so. For starters, to turn a page, one must be able to find it. The ‘same page’ that was advertised so breathlessly by both Imran Khan and those in Rawalpindi that helped make him prime minister in 2018 was ripped to shreds as Khan allowed the PMO and an orchestra of fawning sycophants get to his head.
Of all the politicians with whom the Pakistani people and many of the country’s soldiers have fallen in love with over the decades, none did so in the digital age. Tweets are like diamonds: forever. Turn the page? Not so fast. Not with members of the National Assembly (like Mohsin Dawar) being denied boarding on flights to conferences abroad, not with politicians being blackmailed and terrorized with obscenities of a most profound and disgusting nature, not with the proliferation of first investigation reports every time a journalist dares to question the very top of the Brahminical state in this republic. Turning the page should not be so easy.
As one is already willing to take great pains to accept, a doctrine need not be articulated in the Queen’s English, or the King’s, or even Sandhurst’s. Ideally, if you are presenting a set of disparate, multidisciplinary thoughts or aspirations, for us to award such amalgamations the stature of a doctrine should probably require references to a couple of doctoral dissertations, maybe a book, or two or three. I am told, by those that know better than me, that this is a snobbish, imperial notion of what qualifies as doctrinal. Fair enough. Let us accept what began in 2016 and ends today as the end of an era in which a specific “doctrine” was pursued. And let us also not be too stuck up about how doctrines come about. It was said, and thus it was!
The purpose of affording soldiers the self-confidence to articulate their own doctrines, in their own names, is to enjoy unmatched security and safety. Between 2001 and 2015, Pakistan fought and won a war. In 2016, the country was not tasked with winning a war. It was tasked with keeping and winning the peace.
Six years later, the vanquished enemy, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) isn’t so vanquished any more. Clearly, the terrorists believe in reincarnation. Those that would like to be lauded for their doctrines may or may not believe in reincarnation, but they are surely adherents to fantasy fiction. What else would explain an expectation of national gratitude when the nation must now contend, once again, with an enemy that had already been put down. Of course, the TTP we can blame on the Afghan Taliban. The same, ostensibly trustworthy brothers in arms that Pakistan resisted American pressure for two decades for.
To those that went along with the more aesthetically engaging fictions – like the magical powers of Imran Khan to cure Pakistan of all ills – the TTP reversal is not dissimilar to the return to power of a prime minister with the last name Sharif. Imagine that: a public discourse that equates terrorists with allegedly corrupt politicians. Speaking of which, one of the most important products of Pakistan’s nursery of great ideas and doctrines in the last half century? The PML-Q. Birthed from one of the umpteen efforts to break the Sharifs long before many current one-star generals had even begun their service to the nation, the best way for honourable and upstanding officers in the military to see the fruit of their institution’s handiwork in Pakistani politics is to take a long, hard look at the permanent and enduring contribution it has made to Pakistan and Gujarat in particular. Bravissimi!
In Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy, the notion of time travel is clarified as a set of choices. Once you alter the past, the present you occupy and the future you will land in, are all subject to path dependency. In short, there is no unscrewing the screws that have been screwed into place. Time and space are not a video game with unlimited credit. Volition is finite and has consequences.
Of course, consequences are easy for newspaper and television news people to conjure and conceive of. Saleem Shehzad, Mohammad Salahuddin, Wali Khan Babar and Arshad Sharif are no longer here to speak for themselves or anyone else. Others that do have lost their newspaper columns, lost their television shows, lost their jobs. Consequences for those that never face accountability for their decisions must be much harder a notion to come to grips with.
What is the corollary then for a post-doctrine Pakistan? If Back to the Future has taught us anything, it should teach us this: we cannot undo what has been done. There is not enough Samad Bond in all of Pakistan that can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We are here and now, and it is a worse place than the country was in when this journey began in 2016. This is the kindest articulation of the political manipulation, public discourse contamination, electoral compromises and ingress into civilian matters that has manufactured the current polycrisis that Pakistan faces. It is not dissimilar to previous crises, and it is not one that condemns Pakistan permanently, but for all this we have good geopolitical fortune, great geography, massive size, and resplendent Pakistani diversity to thank.
What is the way forward for Rawalpindi? There was never a time or place for doctrines. That is not what we rely on our armed forces for. This is the finest assembly of fighting men and women on the planet. Constantly underfunded, constantly understaffed, constantly under equipped and constantly underappreciated. The last thing Pakistani national security needed was an almighty domestic entanglement. Six long years have left the country weaker and more vulnerable – both to the wickedness of Pakistan’s enemies and the fickleness and whims of its friends.
Politicians here are not dramatically better or worse than elsewhere. But even if they were the worst ones on the planet, their sorting out is for the people – not our soldiers, spies, airmen and seamen. It will take longer than six years to change lanes and get healthier as a nation. That is enough time for at least two chiefs to have come and gone. Each must be welcomed with the great warmth and reverence afforded to the office by a grateful nation, and each must leave, without an extension, without eight, nine-hour sessions with journalists, without dozens of foreign trips, or hundreds of call-ons by diplomats and humanitarians and bankers and technocrats and businessmen, and without the burden of the dirty, filthy, thankless world of Pakistani politics.
Let the armed forces be all that they can be: free of the toxicity of politics, free of people’s criticism, the very best of us all, above and beyond the humdrum of the daily new cycle. It is time to restore honour, dignity and reverence to the armed forces. The first step? Step away from politics and the public discourse.
May Allah bless the Pakistani military as it tries to chart this new path, InshaAllah.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.