Islamabad’s military-democracy complex

Faisel Pervaiz examines the shifting power dynamic between civilian and military leaders in Pakistan, considering its implications for the country’s national security and foreign policy, and for stability in South Asia as a whole.


The Pakistani military has always played an important role in Pakistani politics. For nearly 70 years, the army has defined the country’s national security priorities, sometimes from the seat of government itself, and many commanders have been placed in prominent economic and political positions. In keeping with that tradition, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Gen. Raheel Sharif as the chief of army staff, the most visible and powerful position in the country, in November 2013. The general wasted no time gaining influence in Pakistan’s foreign and defence affairs.

This is certainly not the first time a general has attained such power in Pakistan, and it is unlikely to be the last. However,

civilian leaders such as the prime minister are gaining political power of their own lately, using the military to reinforce their burgeoning democratic ideals.

This satisfies the military’s desire for influence while also lowering the likelihood of a coup, but the military will nonetheless try to maintain its relevance in the economy and the government, all while continuing its historical role as protector of the country.

A history of military rule

Islamabad is no stranger to military rule; the army has actually been in charge for a combined 33 years of Pakistan’s 68-year history. In 1977, for example, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Zia-ul-Haq capitalised on domestic political unrest and began an 11-year tenure as president by overthrowing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was tried on charges of politically motivated murder and was hanged in April 1979. In October 1999, when Sharif, the prime minister at the time, fired then-Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf for his role in the Kargil War against India, Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup. He arrested Sharif, tried him in court and banished him from politics until 2007, when he returned from exile in Saudi Arabia.

Several factors contributed to the military’s dominance in Pakistan. After achieving independence, Pakistan inherited only 17 per cent of colonial India’s revenue streams but 33 per cent of the military, giving the armed forces—already the most organised entity in the new country—considerable advantage in the new government. Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state left in India after Partition, was another contributing factor. Its Hindu maharajathe state ruler, delayed deciding which state to join, but when Pakistani tribal militias aided by Pakistani soldiers invaded Kashmir, the maharaja agreed to join India in exchange for protection against Pakistani forces. Last, from Pakistan’s perspective, India’s refusal to allow a plebiscite in Kashmir only reinforced the need for South Asia’s Muslims to have an independent homeland.

These factors informed two beliefs that have profoundly shaped Pakistan’s political development—namely, that India is an existential threat and that the military must be Pakistan’s guardian against that threat. It is little wonder, then, that Pakistan became a national security state during its early years, subordinating economic and democratic development to military improvement and tilting the balance of power away from civilian rule.

Military rule also constructed a coherent national identity for Pakistan. Composed of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, including the Pashtun, Punjabis, Sindhis, Balochis, and Bengalis, Pakistan was inherently diverse. The military feared that representative democracy would empower these groups, weakening the centralised authority necessary to build the fledgling nation. The military therefore opted to unite Pakistan under the religion of Islam. The further partition of Pakistan’s eastern territory in 1971 into the independent nation of Bangladesh reaffirmed the perception that India, which assisted the Bengali independence movement, and ethnic regionalism were threats to national sovereignty.

By adopting Islam, the military could use jihadist proxies as a tactic of asymmetric warfare to match India’s greater military capabilities as well. And it did, first by dispatching Islamists to undermine the secular Bengali independence movement. Later, with the aid of $3.2 billion in US funds, President Zia-al-Haq trained, armed and dispatched mujahideen from Pakistan to Afghanistan to fight in the Soviet-Afghan War. After the Soviets retreated in 1989, Islamabad continued to employ its jihadist strategy, using the Taliban in Afghanistan to gain strategic depth and to have an ally in case it went to war with India. Ultimately, the military employed some jihadists to gain influence in Afghanistan and others to fight Indian forces in Kashmir.

Empowering Islam over secular ideals stunted democratic development and safeguarded the military’s political power, but it also contributed to the rise of Pakistan’s domestic militancy.

Currently, the military—and the country—is reaping what it sowed, as the very militants they trained have since turned on the state.

The most recent example of this was the incident at Bacha Khan University, in which extremists from the Pakistani Taliban killed 21 people on January 20 this year.

Democracy resurgent

In light of such history, Gen. Sharif’s sudden rise to political prominence could be disconcerting for the government. Many of the conditions under which previous coups occurred—economic stagnation, weak civilian institutions, complications with India—are relevant today, while escalating Taliban attacks continue to threaten Pakistan’s national security.

But even though the military is the most powerful institution in the country, the potential for another military takeover of the government is low. First, the military’s image was tarnished by Musharraf’s controversial nine-year tenure. His decision to liberalise the media early in his term helped to undermine his efforts to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March 2007. Media coverage shifted public opinion against Musharraf, and the Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry four months later. Musharraf’s decision to suspend the constitution on November 3, 2007 further galvanised public opinion against him, and, by extension, against military rule.

In 2008, the coalition government led by Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party moved to impeach Musharraf. He could have dismissed the government, but instead he listened to his chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the army corps commanders, who advised against taking such a drastic measure. The episode suggests that the military had grown more sensitive to public opinion and more accepting of the democratic forces that constrain civilian political parties. Accordingly, Musharraf resigned to avoid impeachment, and the military safeguarded his passage into self-imposed exile in London. (When Musharraf returned in 2013, an election tribunal banned him from running for office, ending his political ambitions. The military did not intervene to challenge the court’s decision.)

Second, Prime Minister Sharif is a pragmatist—something that lowers the chances of a coup. Mindful of the events of 1999, he will accommodate the army’s desire for influence. For example, after winning his third term in 2013, he tried expanding civilian control over defence. But the protests of August 2014—in which Tehreek-e-Insaaf party leader Imran Khan demanded that the military dismiss Sharif’s government on charges of election fraud—forced the prime minister to give back some influence over foreign policy and national security to the military.

Moreover, Kayani, Gen. Sharif’s predecessor as chief of army staff, set a precedent for a reduced, albeit still prominent, role for the army, closing the Inter-Services Intelligence’s political cell, removing officers from government posts, and generally withdrawing from daily public administration. Kayani wanted to improve the army’s reputation in the aftermath of Musharraf’s resignation and recognised the wisdom in letting the civilian government handle the country’s economic and energy challenges. He also served under former president Asif Ali Zardari, whose administration completed its five-year term in 2013 before peacefully ceding power to Sharif’s administration, a first in Pakistani history.

Emerging pragmatism

Though the likelihood of a coup is low, there are other factors that suggest the military will remain politically powerful, beginning with the army’s vested economic interests. The army controls one-third of all heavy manufacturing and owns more than $20.7 billion in assets, including more than 12 million acres of public land, according to some estimates. The army is also a conduit for current and retired officers to serve in a range of industries, such as banking, manufacturing, farming and insurance. So-called welfare foundations, however, are the main instruments through which the military manages its business interests. For example, the Fauji Foundation serves more than nine million beneficiaries and operates Fauji Cereals, Foundation Gas, and the FF Seed Multiplication Farm, which harvests sugarcane.

The military uses the same rationale to justify its economic role that it has used for its political intervention—namely, that politicians are corrupt while the military is not. Furthermore, the fact that terrorism is one of Pakistan’s biggest problems creates a natural opening for a military presence. Gen. Sharif’s perceived success in tackling endemic crime in Karachi, in prosecuting the anti-militant Operation Zarb-e-Azb that has brought militant attacks to a six-year low, and in handling the December 2014 school shootings in Peshawar have made him tremendously popular.

Because the perceived threat from India has historically justified the military’s dominance in Pakistan, Prime Minister Sharif’s attempts to strengthen diplomatic, energy, security and trade ties with New Delhi—and ultimately re-orienting India’s image domestically to that of a rival instead of an existential threat—is aimed at improving civilian institutions relative to the military, at least incrementally. In the meantime, as the United States seeks to manage an escalating insurgency in Afghanistan, the warm reception Gen. Sharif received during his unofficial visit indicates that Washington sees the Pakistani army as a crucial partner in its Afghan strategy. Still, the relationship and support between Pakistan and the United States will likely vary in the coming years as the United States tries to focus on other pressing foreign policy matters in 2016, such as developments in the Middle East and its relations with Russia.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Sharif’s gamble paid off. Despite being the most popular public official in the country, Gen. Sharif recently announced that he will step down as chief of army staff at the end of his term in November 2016, setting another democratic precedent for his successor and a small victory for civilian rule. Of course, it is too early to say whether the civilian-military dynamic marks a fundamental shift in the politics of Pakistan. But how the balance between the generals and the prime minister plays out is critical for Pakistan’s relations with India, for managing militant Islam and for overall stability in South Asia.



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