A year ago no one could have imagined that Pakistan would change its course from a rickety democracy to a hybrid-military rule within less then two years after general elections in May 2013. A lot of us had clapped then and congratulated each other for the first ever peaceful transition to democracy—a new government by the Pakistan Muslim League—Nawaz Sharif group (PML-N) replaced the Pakistan People’s Party through a process of elections, rather being booted out by the military. Little did we know that it would all get overturned. Moreover, that the civilians themselves will volunteer to surrender power. On January 6, 2015 Pakistan’s Parliament passed the 21st amendment to the 1973 Constitution. Although most Right Wing parties abstained from voting, the Bill was passed unopposed. The law allows for setting up of military courts in the country for a period of two years. In any case, the picture gets clear by the day. It is the Army Chief who appears to be more of the real ruler than the elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. It is an open secret that the Pakistan military runs most important policies: foreign policy, internal security and a few others.
While many would argue that this indicates a collapse of civilian leadership for writer Aqil Shah this is military’s habit to distrust civilians, considering themselves superior and wanting to grab power that has come to life all over again. In his book The Army and Democracy, Shah argues that Pakistan’s politically powerful army is programmed to intervene directly and indirectly. Its habit to rule must have made the institution very uncomfortable to see itself being unable to dispose off the PPP Government and face a new PML-N Government that seemed poised to challenge its authority. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed determined to at least achieve two things during his third tenure as the country’s premier—improve relations with India and conduct trial of his arch rival and former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. Sharif looked pretty comfortable after elections because at the end of 2013 he oversaw the departure of an ambitious Army Chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani who had served two tenures as Army Chief and before that practically ran the military as chief of the military intelligence agency, the ISI, while Musharraf ran the country. Between Kiyani and the former ISI chief, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha they had made life quite miserable for the previous Government. They came close to sacking the PPP Government through, what is popularly remembered as the Memogate conspiracy in which Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani was accused of encouraging the US to intervene against the military on behalf of the civilian government. Nawaz Shairf was not only happy to see the back of both the trouble-making generals but also had the opportunity to appoint the new Army Chief. His choice was General Raheel Shareef who also had some links with the PML-N and was not considered as an ambitious general. The Prime Minister forgot that the general was the brother of Major Shabbir Sharif, who was killed during the 1971 India-Pakistan war and was friends with Pervez Musharraf.
But this is not simply about older connections. It is the nature of Pakistan’s military. As Aqil Shah explains in his book, the military plays with the minds of its men. It strips ‘recruits [its men] of their individual identity and gives them a new institutional identity’. The new identity posits the institution as the saviour of the state and its ideology. More than any other institution in Pakistan the armed forces do the job of actively manipulating the socialization process of its men. The Army is an ‘…agent of assimilation and socialization. They can develop norms, they can align individual preferences with institutional priorities and minimize scope for internal division.’
The military’s power serves as one of the key attractions for its personnel who have the confidence that the generals will never let ‘incompetent civilians’ rule the country for long or intervene in military affairs. Thus we see that the Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar during the PPP Government had no role to play during the Abbotabad operation in which the American forces sneaked into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
In this book, which is the latest addition to existing literature on Pakistan’s military, the author narrates the historical evolution of the power of the armed forces. Like American-Pakistani historian, Ayesha Jalal, he considers American aid to the military during the early periods of the country’s history as playing a critical role in creating the institutional imbalance. However, unlike Jalal, Shah also holds the founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah responsible for these conditions. The fact that Jinnah could not hold his generals accountable for insubordination during the 1947/48 war set an example that was followed by others. Successive generals made it their forte to elevate themselves above political governments. The Army Chief, General Gull Hassan Khan refused to brief civilian power in the early 1970s, or General Asif Nawaz Junjua who decided upon sacking Benazir Bhutto’s first government in a corps commander’s conference. The behaviour and power imbalance is firmly institutionalized and gets echoed in papers written by officers during their stay at the military’s National Defense University.
Aqil Shah has also asked the critical question about how the Pakistan military became different from the Indian military, both inheritors of the British colonial institutional tradition. However, this is a question that Shah does not seem to answer with confidence as he totally ignores times in Indian political history when the army was polticized. Perhaps, an answer to how the Army pulled back from the political abyss might explain the difference between the two forces better.
The book makes a clear case for how political power is an institutional habit for Pakistan’s military. It considers itself as guardian of the state and responsible for both its physical and ideological security. The habit is so ingrained that the military would do it not as a rational choice, which means due to its political and economic interests, but because it is trained to do so. The issue with such an argument, however, is that it then leaves little room for further introspection or a way out of this morass. Since power is a norm and an ingrained habit, there is nothing that can convince the military to change its perspective. This argument certainly satisfies the Pakistan observers in the South Asian region, who believe that animus with India is as much part of the military’s habit as power. Also, this means that there is no way to attract the military towards considering a new paradigm such as trade for peace. The other gap in the book pertains to assessment of other comparable institutions such as civil bureaucracy and its inability to challenge its brethren in the military bureaucracy.
Although a definitive explanation of Pakistan’s military is yet to be written. Aqil Shah’s book brings us closer to finding some answers.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.