The pre-eminence of the military in Pakistan is unlikely to wane soon, even though the country’s emphasis on security issues has stalled its economic development and made it a target for militant groups

Protecting Pakistan’s security has proved a daunting task for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif since he took office in mid-2013, but the number of challenges on his plate seems to have grown over the past few months. Tensions are again rising between Pakistan and its nuclear-armed neighbour, India. At the same time, Sharif’s administration is continuing to feel the fallout from a widely read October 7 exposé accusing the military of undermining Islamabad’s efforts to combat the country’s militancies. As if this were not enough, the government is also working furiously to piece together the events leading to the October 24 attack on a police academy in Quetta that killed at least 60 people.

On the surface, this may appear to be a chain of disparate events. Yet they are, in fact, linked by a common thread: the military’s outsize influence in Pakistani policymaking.

The Pakistani military has held a prominent political role since the country’s independence in 1947. As the smaller of the two sovereign states that emerged from British India’s partition, Pakistan inherited only 18 per cent of the former territory’s revenue. It laid claim, however, to 33 per cent of the British Indian military, giving its armed forces – which were already well-organised – a distinct advantage over Pakistan’s nascent civilian administration.

Military leaders exploited their position to great effect, aided in part by their civilian counterparts and in part by the structure of the Pakistani government itself. The country’s founder and first governor-general, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, favoured the viceregal system of the British Raj, which concentrated power in institutions filled by unelected leaders. Although Jinnah initially preferred a more democratic arrangement, the Indian threat looming on Pakistan’s eastern border persuaded him to forego popular rule in favour of a more centralised state that could better protect the country’s national security interests. (Jinnah, like many of Pakistan’s early leaders, feared that a representative government would undermine national unity by empowering regional movements for greater autonomy, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.) Unsurprisingly, the military did everything it could to encourage its civilian partners’ focus on national security, at times to the detriment of political and economic progress.

Of course, the military had help in solidifying its pre-eminence during the Pakistani state’s formative years. The United States, in pursuit of its own foreign policy objectives in South Asia, was eager to partner with Pakistan on matters of regional security. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration formed an alliance with Pakistan as it sought to block the spread of communism throughout Asia. (India, meanwhile, avoided entering into such alliances, though its political ideology aligned more closely with that of the Soviet Union.) Because of its ties to the United States, Pakistan joined the Western-leaning Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation. Islamabad also allowed Washington to station its U-2 spy planes at Pakistani air bases as it conducted surveillance on its Soviet enemies.

When the United States entered a proxy war in Afghanistan with the Soviets two decades later, Pakistan again became an important partner. Washington quieted its criticisms of Pakistani human rights abuses and channelled more than $3 billion to Islamabad over the following decade. In exchange, the mujahideen, backed by Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan under the CIA-sponsored Operation Cyclone.

The United States revived its relationship with Pakistan for a third time as it invaded Afghanistan in 2001, looking to uproot the Taliban forces harbouring Osama bin Laden. To secure Pakistan’s support in the offensive, Washington doled out an average of $2 billion each year in defence and economic spending to Islamabad. (The Pakistani government had nurtured the Taliban to increase its own strategic depth in Afghanistan, and many of the organisation’s members took refuge in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas lining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.)

For most of its history, Pakistan’s place in Washington’s foreign policy has guaranteed it a steady stream of aid that has reinforced Islamabad’s emphasis on national security issues. For instance, from 2002 to 2010, Pakistan received an average of $2 billion a year in foreign investment, a full three-quarters of which was funnelled to the military. Meanwhile, development initiatives in areas such as education, health care and literacy have fallen by the wayside. It is no coincidence that Pakistan, despite having fairly advanced defence and security capabilities, consistently ranks in the bottom tier of the UN Human Development Index. (Last year, it was 147th out of 188 countries.)

But Pakistan’s status quo is unlikely to change as long as the army retains its pull in Pakistani politics. After all, the military stands to lose the most should the United States lose interest in its partnership with Pakistan. In an effort to protect its position, the military will continue to place the nation’s security needs ahead of its economic growth and development.

As a result, Pakistan will have little choice but to keep relying on bailouts from its external patrons. In 2008, Islamabad’s mounting foreign debt forced it to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $7.5 billion loan. Five years later, Pakistan sought a second loan to address a worsening balance of payments crisis. The international community, aware of the dangers of allowing a nuclear state such as Pakistan to collapse, will almost certainly continue to provide a financial safety net for Islamabad. The United States will likely do the same, especially with no real end in sight to the war in Afghanistan.

While the military adheres to its dual strategy, attacks like the one against the Quetta police academy will likely persist
While the military adheres to its dual strategy, attacks like the one against the Quetta police academy will likely persist

Though the United States has begun to gradually reduce the amount of money it sends to Pakistan, Islamabad could try to use its clout in the Afghan peace process to exact more. Moreover, US aid has proved extraordinarily resilient in the past, in spite of sporadic disruptions in Washington’s relationship with Islamabad. These reliable sources of financial aid will discourage much-needed reforms in Pakistan, hampering the country’s economic progress in the long run.

In the meantime, Pakistan’s security-centred policies will continue to make the country a target for the region’s militant groups. The Pakistani military has long pursued a two-pronged strategy against such groups, hammering militant outposts in western Pakistan while backing jihadists in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir. In some ways, this approach has worked: fatalities stemming from terrorist attacks in Pakistan have dropped by 40 per cent since 2014. Nevertheless, several prominent militant leaders continue to operate freely in Pakistan, pointing to Islamabad’s reluctance to vigorously hunt down and prosecute certain groups. This strategy has created a significant amount of blowback among the region’s militant organisations, contributing to the 40,000 deaths linked to terrorism that Pakistan has seen since 2001. As long as the military adheres to its dual strategy, attacks like the one against the Quetta police academy will undoubtedly persist.

Opportunism is a common theme in geopolitics, and one that Pakistan’s military understands well. Within the upper echelons of the Pakistani government, the army has profited from regional instability, and the lucrative partnership with Washington that such instability lays the groundwork for. Though the war in Afghanistan will someday end, Pakistan will do all it can to ensure an outcome that works in its favour, rather than India’s. For now, that means following the military’s lead as the country has for most of its existence, even if doing so perpetuates the problems that have plagued Sharif for the majority of his term.

HOW NATIONAL SECURITY WILL DICTATE PAKISTAN’S FUTURE is republished with permission from, a geopolitical intelligence platform

 Related Post

Leave a Reply