Pakistan’s generals should be happy men. They are the self-appointed guardians of the state with an iron grip on the country. Instead of a social welfare democracy seen by the founding fathers, Pakistan has become a national security state. Sixty years after the coup d’état that brought General Ayub Khan to power in 1958, the civilian leadership is also entirely servile to the military now. Ayub’s, first of many missteps, was his short-lived 1962 constitution, imposing a presidential dictatorship, which caused irreparable harm to the country.
In a review of the role of the military in Pakistan, few facts stand out. Much like the Roman legions, the first loyalty of a soldier is to his commander, then to the institution but never to the elected parliament. Importantly, the military has forced a buy-in from civilians that its institutional interests are synonymous with national interests. And ‘venal’ politicians, not generals take the fall for military defeats. Z. A. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, for example, both incidentally brought up under military tutelage, were blamed for East Pakistan and Kargil. The current military-backed, Prime Minister Imran Khan should take note, as war with India is on the cards once again.
A question often asked is whether the Pakistani military is genuinely interested in peace? My view is that ideally, the generals have a vested interest in the status quo (no peace no war). The continuance of conflict offers benefits that they wouldn’t want to forsake such as a huge military budget and access to lands and business. The ‘existential’ threat posed by India and the lingering Kashmir issue ensures the military’s centrality in the country. Another factor that helps the military to maintain its dominance is that it has convinced Western partners that it is the only bulwark against chaos. A crucial element of this strategy is the military’s ability to control or unleash religious extremists and non-state groups, as and when needed.
While the military has come out on top both politically and economically in the domestic power struggle, this has come at a high cost. National priorities point to an anti-people agenda. There is a misplaced and regressive concentration on national security. The state has failed to offer its citizens the promise of economic development or security. The country can’t just take pride in a few rich generals lording over a poverty-stricken and ill-governed people.
The cost of maintaining the bloated national security state with nuclear weapons is a significant obstacle to progress. A country with a perpetual begging bowl in hand can’t take of its people. Pakistan’s military expenditures represent 25–29 percent of government expenditures, 6–7 percent of gross national income, and 42-43% of tax revenues. And over 20 million children are out of school, less than 30% of women are employed, and the country suffers from low export growth and a persistent balance of payment crisis.
Despite the narrow focus on the military, Pakistan has failed to find much-desired cohesion. Instead, authoritarianism has exacerbated the existing fault lines in society. But the generals can’t understand that a state can’t force unity at gunpoint. East Pakistan is a case in point. It also applies in insurgency-affected Baluchistan and to the simmering ethnic grievances in Waziristan. Military solutions can’t resolve political problems. High-handed methods have arguably harmed the country more than any external enemy.
We know that the military won’t easily give up its stranglehold on the state. Pakistan’s generals are well accustomed to power. They have the means of intervention and influence that doesn’t require resorting to a coup or direct rule anymore. An important issue is that the officers and ranks of the military are trained to feel that they are better than the society they serve. This attitude is not healthy for an armed force serving a so-called democracy.
The military elite has convinced the populace that only it can protect the national interest above the bickering and narrow self-interest of corrupt politicians. The civilian leadership has grown used to living under the military’s jackboots. Politicians assist the military’s unwarranted influence in matters of the state. They readily give in to its every wish and command. But they only harm themselves and democracy by pursuing this self-defeating strategy.
Despite profound challenges, democratic reformers in Pakistan must remain united. But popular support for civilian leaders and the democratic system will depend on the ability to deliver on its promises. We need a qualitative change to make a difference in the lives of the people. It requires the right to justice and avenues for social and economic development.
The country needs to overcome the pernicious military influence over the political system to ensure a better future. Getting rid of the national security state and discarding praetorian tendencies must remain a key goal. It can lead to the growth of a stable political system and a country at peace with itself. It is worth the travail and struggle.
The writer is an independent columnist who has written on peace and security issues for many years