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The Army in Politics

While every country has an army, the Pakistani Army has a country. The tortured history of Pakistani democracy is a cycle that has repeated itself with dismaying regularity. Many people in Pakistan believe that the military can better manage state institutions as army officials are not corrupt, unlike elected civilian leaders. At the same time, there are others who say that the military is increasingly taking over all important civilian posts and is practically running the government.

Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. The military and intelligence services nominally reported to civilian authorities but essentially operated without effective civilian oversight. The military is responsible for external security but continues to play a role in domestic security. The federal government continued to use military and paramilitary organizations to augment domestic security.

Pakistan has never been a functioning democracy, nor has it ever been a military dictatorship. Its civilian leaders have never been particularly democratic in orientation and its military leaders have never been particularly dictatorial (though General Zia ul-Haq came close). Rather, following a chaotic period of civilian rule between 1947 and 1958, Pakistan has been an unstable and dysfunctional amalgam, with the military seeking simultaneously to engage and rein in the civilians and the civilians doing the same with the military -- both with varying degrees of success.

Pakistan's army has traditionally shied away from monopolizing power for extended periods, preferring to "manage" civilian politicians and drive through constitutional adjustments to protect its prerogatives and its vision of the national interest. For reasons relating to the military's residual professional culture and its general disdain for politicians, pressure within the ranks to relinquish governance to civilian rule tends to rise over time. The military is keenly attuned to Pakistan's vulnerabilities, whether from external enemies (e.g., India) or internal threats in the provinces (e.g., Baloch nationalism). As India's economy has boomed, senior Pakistani military leaders have realized that the economy is also a national security concern. In the military's eyes, civilians are nave on matters of strategy, threatening the nation's security through corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

Whether in or out of power, the Army has enforced an unwritten rule that effectively bars civilians from interfering in matters of national security (Kashmir, India, Afghan policy), military procurement, defense spending and internal military administration (such as promotions). When in power, the Army has sought to maintain the trappings of democracy, including referenda, elections and national assemblies. President Musharraf took this further than any of Pakistan's previous military leaders, moving to devolve authority to the local level by establishing local bodies with indirectly-elected leaders at the District level (nazims), who have de jure decision-making and financial authority.

The polarization between the civilians and the military has been the fundamental dynamic of Pakistani political life for decades. Both sides are clearly at fault. The dysfunctionality of democratic institutions is largely due to the sustained interference of the military. However, civilian leaders have also done their part to justify the military's apprehensions and grievances. The country manages to muddle along largely because this polarization has been tempered by family, clan and social ties that connect the elites.

Pakistan's civilian leaders, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s have all left much to be desired in the democracy department. Z.A.Bhutto was arguably more dictatorial than any Pakistani leader before or after, civilian or military. Benazir and Nawaz never enjoyed the power wielded by Z.A. Bhutto, but even within their more limited remit, they were far from democratic. Both the Benazir and Nawaz governments were also notoriously corrupt.

In January 2015, in response to the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School, Parliament approved a constitutional amendment allowing military courts to try civilians on terrorism, militancy, sectarian violence, and other charges. The military courts mandate to try civilians was set to expire in January 2017, but Parliament extended it until January 2019. Civil society members expressed concerns about the use of military courts for trying civilian suspects, citing lack of transparency and redundancy with the civilian judicial system.

In July 2018 the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and in August 2018 PTIs Imran Khan became prime minister. Rights activists accuse the military of rigging the 2018 general election in Khan's favor, a charge both the military and the premier deny. Since Khan came to power, both serving and retired military officials have been given a number of government portfolios that have traditionally been civilian roles.

In April 2020, PM Khan ousted Firdous Ashiq Awan as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Information, replacing her with General Asim Saleem Bajwa, a retired general. Bajwa formerly headed Pakistan Army's media wing. "It's the latest indication of the Pakistan military, directly and indirectly, scaling up its role in policy," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center, tweeted on April 27.

A December 2019 report by the European Foundation of South Asian Studies, an Amsterdam-based think tank, said that the military dominance in Pakistan has increased manifold. "It is not just that military interference in matters of governance continues to be a reality, rather the military has gone far beyond the traditional realms of national security and foreign policy and strengthened its hold over other aspects of state rule, including finance, commerce, interior, railways, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and even media management," the think tank wrote.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a London-based Pakistani researcher, told DW that the present political setup in Pakistan is a "hybrid martial law." "I think the military wants to directly get involved in governance because it feels that Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party cant run the country without its support," Siddiqa said. "The generals prefer a government with a civilian faade in reality, they want to control everything."

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Page last modified: 31-05-2020 20:38:59 ZULU