Who’s afraid of Pakistan’s military?

Its hegemony has been questioned and at times even challenged since 2007 by institutions which have not been able to do so until now

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - May 31, 2014 01:33 am IST

The general impression people outside Pakistan have of its military is that it is the most powerful institution there which determines every move by civilian representatives, particularly those who have supposedly been given the permission to be elected to higher office and govern the country. This perception may be more pronounced in India, where >Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit for the swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen as a very “bold move,” perhaps going against the military’s wishes, yet showing the mettle of the twice-dismissed elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Little do people outside Pakistan know that in the last month, the social media in Pakistan — which is far from being a mere plaything in the hands of radicals and anti-military types — has been scoffing at Pakistan’s military for the situation it finds itself in today. From being an institution which governed and managed the entire country (for a decade, its two wings, the east and the west), it has now been reduced to one involved in issues as varied as imposing a ban on a television channel to preventing newspapers from a media house being distributed in cantonment areas. As a well-respected newspaper editor tweeted recently, “good to know the gens now have cable management as part of their job description. One would have thought DHAs [Defence Housing Authorities] & bakeries were enuff.” Another popular participant added, “used to be time when Pakistan army used to overthrow governments. Now they are overthrowing news channels. Sigh. How the mighty have fallen!”

Changing political equation However, lest one is misled, this active and aggressive campaign against Geo by the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has some public support. Moreover, the first and immediate response to >Mr. Sharif’s New Delhi visit was from a large number of Pakistani pro-military television anchors and so-called “security experts” appearing on talk shows, who gave the talks between the two leaders, and the subsequent statements a twist which only military minds could have constructed. They have already termed the visit to be a failure and have cast Mr. Sharif as a wimp.

Some things have changed. Until around sometime in 2007, the question of what was the strongest institution in Pakistan was always met with the reply “the military”; it was unambiguous and did not call for any elaboration. For six decades after Independence, Pakistan’s military, specifically its Army, has reigned supreme over the political economy of Pakistan. However, since 2007, there has been not just far greater ambiguity regarding the question; for once, there are a number of possible answers as well. While the military is still powerful, it has now been forced to share the stage with at least two, possibly three, institutions which can make some valid and genuine claims to being powerful; perhaps not dominant, but at least vying for power, with varying degree, among a handful of contenders.

The military’s hegemony has been questioned and at times even challenged since 2007 by institutions which have not been able to do so until now. The Judiciary, Parliament and to some degree, until recently, the media, have tried to assert their independence and sovereignty in the public and political domain, in effect pushing the military aside. The Supreme Judiciary, and the (now retired) Chief Justice of Pakistan, since 2008, have passed >numerous judgments which have found the military as an institution — as well as serving and retired senior officers — guilty of treasonable offences. Many decisions and judgments are still pending and under review. Some of those which have already been made have not resulted in the officers concerned being imprisoned. But the fact that the Judiciary — which until recently has been a partner of the military in its anti-democratic political stance and decisions — is now in a position to be able to challenge the military and assert its own democratic and independent stance, is in itself significant in a country which has not seen such belligerent action.

Parliament has also flexed its independent muscle after 2008, though, sadly, not enough to be able to demonstrate its right to govern while challenging the dominance of the military. The media, which has for the most part been a participant in this transition has been a tool for democratic forces to push out the military for its past anti-democratic behaviour and positions on many an occasion. The undisputed dominance of the military in the Pakistani political settlement has been successfully challenged; from being a hegemon, the military may at the moment be just a veto player, a huge transformation in Pakistan’s political economy. There is no clear dominant institution at this moment. For a country which has known military dominance for over six decades, these are extraordinary developments. The military is not what it once was in the eyes of the public nor in the equation which explains Pakistan’s political economy.

Civil-military tensions There have been enough signs that the military’s hegemony has been broken, one being the largely symbolic >indictment of General Pervez Musharraf himself. Yet, one needs to be reminded that such transitions, where civilian institutions begin to dominate and when the military recedes, can take years. In countries where the military has ruled for as long as two or three decades at a stretch, research has shown that it can be between eight to ten years before the military begins to reluctantly accept civilian supremacy and when it loses its supreme power. In the case of Indonesia, for example, it took almost a decade before the military lost even its power to veto key civilian decisions. We have not even completed six years of civilian transition, and war on our borders and within Pakistan gives greater legitimacy to military interference than in “normal” countries.

Last month, Pakistani newspapers reported that General Headquarters had “convened” a meeting of the main economic ministers, including those handling finance, cmmerce, water and power, where they had to “satisfy the military leadership” over whether Pakistan should increase trade with India. This instance of interference by the military in sabotaging Pakistan’s trade policy is a sign that while the military is down and out, civilian supremacy and dominance over the military is still incomplete. What right does the military have to decide which country Pakistan should trade with? Under civilian control, Pakistan’s military needs to deal only with issues which affect security and Pakistan’s borders, and not about what consumers can buy and sell, or which country they can buy from and sell to. While civilian control over many institutions has been gradual, it continues to confront the military’s lingering supremacy in some areas.

In the last two months, Pakistan has been engulfed by a major crisis between Pakistan’s largest media house, and the ISI and the military. The former has levelled allegations while the military and its clandestine institutions have hit back. As Hasan Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist wrote in The New York Times , “cable operators were informally pressured to take Geo off the air. Demonstrations, often by militant religious parties, suddenly began springing up all over Pakistan in support of the I.S.I. and against Geo — probably the first time anyone in the world has rallied to defend an intelligence agency.”

This “tension” between one prominent pillar of civil society and >Pakistan’s military has also rubbed off on relations between the military and the government for the government has been perceived to be taking sides against Pakistan’s valiant military in this latest stand-off, probably a correct assessment. The fact that a sitting elected government of Pakistan can be seen to take sides against the military is courageous enough and signifies a sense (perhaps a false one) of its presumed relative power over an institution which has dominated Pakistan unambiguously for so long.

The military in Pakistan is also responsible for its fall from grace, after having had to explain the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, America’s night raid to kill him and numerous insider attempts to attack Pakistan’s military personnel. Also, Gen. Musharraf, by the time he was forced out in 2008, must share much of the blame for dragging the military through the mud. There is also a sense that the narrative in Pakistan may have shifted towards democracy, away from military rule — at least for the moment.

Though Pakistan’s democratic dispensation is weak, it is still evolving and probably gaining strength. It needs to overcome the barriers put up by Pakistan’s armed forces who are waiting for civilians to trip over. It has avoided this for the moment, but the path is scattered with numerous challenges, especially by those related to civilian performance. Despite Pakistan military’s denuded power, it still remains an influence in public policy and has the ability to conduct another coup. While military-led governments in Pakistan have, ironically, benefitted India-Pakistan relations, they have been disastrous for Pakistan.

Unlike India, where a military does not intervene in the workings of an elected government, in Pakistan it is a tradition that continues to persist. Pakistan’s political dispensation is in a process of transition, yet transitions are never automatic nor natural processes and require actors to show their agency as well. While the civil and democratic dispensation needs to speed up this transition and turn the corner once and for all, it will have to be far more assertive, efficient in delivering services and justice, and be a little less afraid.

(S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi.)

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