Why is the army so popular in Pakistan?

Why do Pakistanis hold politicians responsible for nation’s problems when budget, foreign policy, are run by army?

Aakar Patel December 24, 2011

Earlier this month, journalist Najam Sethi sketched his thesis on why the army dominated Pakistan. He explained it in historical and cultural terms. He cited Jinnah’s aggregation of power, the Muslim League’s unconstitutional approach (referring to the violence of Direct Action Day) in getting what it wanted, the army’s cultural connections with rural society and so on. He showed also how, correspondingly, in India the situation was different, because its leaders had always been constitutionally minded. The Congress Party had a democratic history going back to 1885 and Nehru represented its third generation of leaders.

Sethi convincingly showed why the army was dominant in Pakistan. However, his thesis does not account for its popularity.

A Pew poll reported by Reuters a few months ago said the army was ‘overwhelmingly popular’ in Pakistan. It said 79 per cent of Pakistanis thought their army ‘had a good influence on the country’. The poll was taken after Bin Laden’s killing to see if the army had suffered in popularity. It hadn’t. This devotion to their army is obvious to those who follow Pakistan’s media. The Urdu media especially, but also much of the English media. The army is more popular in Pakistan than the country’s political parties and its elected leaders.

The question is why. Why is an army that imposed dictatorship on Pakistanis four times (1958, 1969, 1978 and 1999), displaced governments Pakistanis elected another three times (1990, 1993, 1996) and hanged a prime minister still popular? Why do Pakistanis love the ISI, an institution whose former chief Lt-General Asad Durrani (a fellow columnist for this newspaper) says on oath that it meddles in elections and spent $ 1.6 million to see the PPP defeated?

Why do Pakistanis hold their politicians responsible for the nation’s problems when Pakistan’s budget, its foreign policy, its security policy and its Balochistan policy are run by the army? Why do Pakistanis like an army whose chiefs arbitrarily grant themselves extensions (since 1947, India has had 26 army chiefs, while Pakistan has had only 14) because they can?

Is the army popular because it is excellent at its function — that of defending Pakistan? But the record there is rather thin. So is it popular because of a threat? Whose aggression is the army defending Pakistan against? The Pew poll said only 19 per cent of Pakistanis thought the enemy was internal — the Pakistani Taliban. India is the enemy according 57 per cent of those polled. The poll found that 74 per cent of Pakistanis think India is a serious threat.

What could the nature of threat from India be? The last war was fought in 1999 and would not have been fought had it not been begun by an unthinking general. Do Pakistanis actually believe Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi represent a military threat? This seems difficult to wrap one’s head around.

Do Pakistanis they hate India so much that they want the army to defy it? Only 14 per cent of Pakistanis have a positive view of India, which is half from the third that had a positive view in 2006.

The poll said 92 per cent of Pakistanis thought their nation was in the wrong direction. But how could it be otherwise? The army has power but pretends to be subordinate to the PPP. The PPP pretends to be in charge, but actually has no real control over the budget, no say in foreign policy, no freedom to trade with India, no power to improve relations with America. Pakistan has lost its finest diplomat in the process.

The last time a majority of Pakistanis felt their country was headed in the right direction was under Musharraf in 2005.

The fault does not lie with the stars and it does not lie with the army which is only doing what is asked of it by its citizenry. The fault that Pakistan is a nation ruled by its army is that of the Pakistanis.

The army’s real power comes not from its guns, but its popularity. Next week we shall look at an unexplored explanation for this.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2011.


Deb | 9 years ago | Reply


Well said. But the likes of @Diogenes have made up their mind, no amount of proof is going to help open their eyes.Reality check is a luxury they can't afford.

Khurrum | 9 years ago | Reply

The reason why the army is more popular is simple. They are less corrupt, and less obviously retarded than the PPP and the current President.

It isn't that the army is popular, its that the Pakistani politicians are unpopular. And democracy is less meaningful precisely because people never have a chance to choose someone they have any real respect for, or faith in.

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