Making sense of Pakistan’s civilian-military matrix

The military is unlikely to let the country slide into chaos or let nuclear weapons fall into the hands of Islamists.

Aqil Shah April 21, 2011

The international community, including the United States, has a major stake in Pakistan’s stability, given the country’s central role in the US-led effort to, in US President Barack Obama’s words, “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda; its war-prone rivalry with India over Kashmir; and its nuclear arsenal. As a result, US policy toward Pakistan has been dominated by concerns for its stability — providing the reasoning for backing Pakistan’s frequent military interventions — at the expense of its democratic institutions. But, as the recent eruption of protests in the Middle East and North Africa against US-backed tyrants has shown, authoritarian stability is not always a winning bet.

Despite US geopolitical support to the military, stability is not Pakistan’s most distinguishing feature. Many observers fear that Pakistan could become the world’s first nuclear-armed failed state. Their worry is not without reason. More than 63 years after independence, Pakistan is faced with a declining economy and pernicious insurgencies, mostly nested in, and radiating out from, its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is still struggling to meet its population’s basic needs. More than half of its people face severe and multidimensional poverty, which fuels resentment against the government and feeds political instability. In 2010, Foreign Policy even ranked Pakistan as number 10 on its Failed States Index, placing it in the ‘critical’ category with such other failed or failing states as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. The consequences of its failure would no doubt be catastrophic, if for no other reason than the possibility of al Qaeda and its affiliates getting hold of the country’s atomic weapons. The Pakistani Taliban’s dramatic incursions into Pakistan’s northwestern Buner District (just 100 kilometres from the capital) in 2009, raised the spectre of such a takeover.

Pakistan is, of course, a weak state with serious political, economic and security challenges. But it is not on the fast track to failure, ready to be overturned by warlords, militants or militias. Even though an emboldened and violent Islamist fringe is trying to monopolise the public sphere, Pakistani civil society has proved itself capable of resisting both state and non-state repression. Its numerous universities, assertive professional associations, vocal human rights groups and free (if often irresponsible and hyper-nationalist) media sharply distinguish Pakistan from the likes of Afghanistan or Somalia. The country’s political parties are generally popular and parliamentary democracy is the default system of government. And its bureaucratic and judicial branches still have plenty of fight left in them.

The military, moreover, is a disciplined and cohesive force which is unlikely to let the country slide into chaos or let its prized nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the Islamists (even though the power and growth of Islamists in Pakistani society is a consequence of the generals’ sponsorship of militancy in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan).

But while the army is professional, it has no respect for the political system. It has not mattered whether the army is under the command of a reckless figure, such as General Pervez Musharraf, or an apparently more prudent one, such as the current chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. As an institution, it deeply distrusts politicians and sees itself as the only force standing between stability and anarchy, intervening in politics whenever it decides that the politicians are not governing effectively, which is all too often a pretext used for the advancement or preservation of the military’s parochial organisational interests. These repeated interventions have weakened the country’s civilian institutional capacity, undermined the growth of representative institutions and fomented deep internal divisions in the country. In 2008, the military ostensibly staged its most recent retreat from government and politics. But the generals are reportedly back to their old tricks, propping up new political coalitions to ‘divide and rule’ from behind the scenes.

Pakistan is unlikely to collapse, but the imbalance of power between its civilian and military branches needs to be addressed if it is to become a normal modern state that is capable of effectively governing its territory. The best way to further boost Pakistan’s democracy will be by habituating the military to democratic norms and raising the costs of undermining democratic governance. That is easier said than done. But there are reasons to be optimistic. For instance, by amending Article 6 of the Constitution that deals with ‘high treason’, the current parliament has removed constitutional loopholes that military leaders used in the past to avoid prosecution for coups, and proscribed the judiciary’s frequent practice of legalising military rule.

While more direct attempts at exerting civilian control have backfired (for example, the government’s short-lived July 2008 decision to bring the ISI under the control of the interior ministry), these setbacks should not prevent civilian politicians from continuing to take measured steps to establish civilian supremacy. For instance, instead of staying out of defence policy completely, the civilian government should call regular meetings of the cabinet’s defence committee to discuss and make key national security decisions. Civilians should also try to ‘demilitarise’ the ministry of defence, subject military expenditures and defence policy to debate, and enact legislation to bring the ISI under democratic-civilian control. No less important, the government should appoint a special committee of the cabinet or parliament to scrutinise and approve top-level military appointments. All of this will not happen overnight, but the time for initiating the democratisation of civil-military relations was yesterday.

For its part, the international community, especially the US, must resist using the generals as shortcuts to stability, demonstrate patience with Pakistan’s civilian authorities and help them consolidate their hold on power. Some progress toward a resolution of the Kashmir conflict could help scale the military back and even reduce the attractiveness of using militancy as an instrument of foreign policy. External actors should help Pakistan and India in resolving their enduring rivalry, which not only threatens international security but has spilled into Afghanistan. In the meanwhile, they should clearly convey to the generals that any interference in the political or electoral process would seriously jeopardise external military assistance.

Pakistan is too important to be left to the devices of its generals. If their rhetoric is to be believed, Pakistan’s main parties, the PPP and the PML-N, are committed to the goal of keeping the military out of politics. Will they walk their democratic talk when the chips are down? Only time will tell. External actors have fared no better, sacrificing democracy for order. The results have been less than ideal, especially for the people of Pakistan. Pakistan urgently needs support from the international community to help stabilise its civilian institutions and to bolster its economy, which will cement public confidence in democracy. Only such support will ensure its reliability and stability as a partner in fighting militancy and terror.

This article is derived from the essay “Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics” which appears in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2011.


humayun habib | 11 years ago | Reply good analysis but author needs to hit the dirt for better insight and inside scoop. For me, good read as to how is Pakistan perceived out side its borders. Regards
Ron(Indian) | 11 years ago | Reply @True Pakistani Patriot: Oh ! please talk something sensible. Serving UN as peace keeping force is their job that's their duy and not in the kitchen. Are you getting? It is our job to tackle the corrupt government and not the army's job. In India we started tackling corruption through democratic way. Why don't you learn something from us? That will help your society too. Make strong institutions and this is very long and continuous process. We started working in that direction. After 10 years situation will be much more better. Thanks.
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