A visit to the US is always a reminder of the strength of its democratic institutions, the system of checks and balances enshrined in its constitution, and the commitment of the country internally to the rule of law. It is this systemic strength which explains America’s political stability and its phenomenal economic progress over the past two centuries making it the most powerful economic and military power in the world. Having absorbed the huge economic costs of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US economy is on the path to recovery. Its GDP in nominal terms was estimated to be US$ 16.80 trillion in 2013, the highest in the world. There is no country in the world which can match the US achievements in science and technology. America also remains the most powerful military power in the world. Under President Obama, it is gradually correcting the mistake of strategic over-stretch committed by President Bush.

The main credit for America’s ability to correct past mistakes goes to the working of its democratic set-up, particularly its system of checks and balances, and the fact that different organs of state including its military function under the effective control of its representative institutions. While the executive authority rests fully with a directly elected president, the executive itself functions under the close scrutiny of the elected representatives in the US Congress. A free media keeps the people informed about the workings of the government machinery thus enabling them to judge its performance.

The civilian control of the military is a sacrosanct principle of the American and other well established democracies. There are several solid arguments in support of this position. Military constitutes raw power and it is essential, especially in a modern democracy, that this power is used in accordance with the wishes of the people. This can be ensured only if the elected government exercises its control over the decisions of war and peace, and over the broad directions of the application of military power. Secondly, in modern times, war requires the mobilization and use of a nation’s total resources—-economic, financial, military, political, diplomatic, cultural and moral—-for its prosecution. This function can be performed only by the government of the day which alone has the capability of total mobilization of a country’s resources.

Thirdly, the military objective is only the means to a political end. As propounded by Carl von Clausewitz, the famous military thinker, war is merely the continuation of policy by other means. To quote him from his book “On War”, “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” An American scholar, Eliot Cohen, notes in his book under the title “Supreme Command” that for Clausewitz there is no field of military action that might not be touched by political considerations. It was for these reasons that Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister during World War I, commented, “War is too important to be left to the generals.”

Finally, military strategy must be governed by grand strategy which is practically synonymous with policy guiding the conduct of war. As pointed out by Liddell Hart in his famous book, “Strategy”, military strategy is “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.” Grand strategy, whose role is at a higher plane, deals with the development, coordination and direction of all the resources of a nation towards the attainment of the political object of the war. In addition, while strategy is limited to the prosecution of war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to subsequent peace. Thus, grand strategy deals with issues which are beyond and above the role of military commanders. It should be obvious that only the government of the day can deal with the formulation and implementation of grand strategy, of course, with inputs from military and civilian organs of state. Military commanders must operate within the guidelines laid down by grand strategy. Therefore, the subordination of the military to the civilian elected government is an indispensable condition for the successful prosecution of war, especially in modern times.

The summary dismissal of Khalid bin Walid, perhaps the greatest Muslim military general, from the command of the Muslim army by Caliph Omar was meant to establish this principle of the supremacy of the civilian authority over the military commanders. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s experience has been precisely the opposite of what is generally considered desirable in terms of the civil-military relationship. The rot started with Ayub’s military takeover and continued with the military dictatorships of Yahya, Zia-ul-Haq, and Musharraf with predictable disastrous results. Consequently, political evolution and the democratic system in Pakistan were derailed. The country was dismembered in 1971 following an ignominious military defeat. Kargil was another example of our military commanders assuming an authority which did not belong to them.

The sanctity of the constitution, which lays down the framework for an orderly system of governance, was repeatedly violated through successive military takeovers. The rule of law without which good governance and sustained economic progress cannot be visualized, was sacrificed by the military top brass for petty gains. While delivering these blows to the body politic of this hapless nation from which it has not yet fully recovered, our military rulers had the audacity to tell the people that they had violated their oath of honour and the constitution for the good of the country!

Hopefully, all that is behind us. General Kayani’s tenure as the Chief of the Army Staff reflected a turning point in the thinking of the top military command. Henceforth, our military establishment must operate within the bounds of the constitution and the law. Similarly, the politicians must draw their own lessons from their past bitter experience. The signing of the Charter of Democracy by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif was a major milestone in the political evolution of the country. We should not allow efforts by some interested quarters to derail the democratic system while continuing our efforts through dialogue and debate to improve it.

Of course, the federal and provincial governments need to improve their performance in providing good governance to the people. The opposition parties and the media must take them to task for their misdeeds. But these governments must be judged by the people of Pakistan through the medium of regular periodic elections rather than through street agitation. Pakistan’s long-term political stability and economic progress lies in upholding the constitution and the democratic system. The government of technocrats or military rule cannot solve our multifarious problems contrary to what some quarters are trying to propagate. We must learn from history. Nations that do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.