Why Pakistan Army Is Central To Governance Of Pakistan And Why It Will Continue To Be

by Rakesh Krishnan Simha - Oct 15, 2016 05:17 AM +05:30 IST
Why Pakistan Army Is Central To Governance Of Pakistan And Why It Will Continue To BeAn Ayub Khan illustration on a truck (ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Pakistan Army’s Dilemma: To Rule Or To Rule?

In the first decade after independence in 1947 India had seven army chiefs. During the same period, Pakistan had seven prime ministers. While India ran down its defence forces, the Pakistani political leadership messed up their new country. The first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, a Mohajir from India, was assassinated. The next six PMs included Huseyn Suhrawardy, a mass murderer, and Mohammad Ali Bogra, an American appointee. Pakistan remained a political wasteland as its elites could not even draw up a Constitution. The Economist noted that the country’s politics during that first decade ranged between "the grotesque and the macabre".

It was in the backdrop of communal riots, urban decay and food shortages that the Pakistan Army staged its first coup, in 1958. Just as Indians saw trains running on time and government employees punctually reporting for work during the Emergency of 1975-77, the Pakistani public too witnessed dramatic improvement in their everyday life under military rule.

For instance, shortly after the coup, General Ayub Khan casually remarked that the maximum penalty for concealing food stocks was death. Within hours, former Prime Minister Malik Firoz Khan Noon admitted he was holding 3000 tons of wheat in his private warehouse. Two other ex-ministers hurriedly declared they had wheat hoards of 6250 tons and 1500 tons each.

Major-General Iskander Mirza, in his presidential proclamation of martial law, pointed an outraged finger at the “ruthless struggle for power, corruption, the shameful exploitation of our simple, honest, patriotic and industrious masses, the lack of decorum and the prostitution of Islam for political ends”.

Ayub Khan summed up the military’s contempt for those he had deposed: “The biggest weapon of a politician is his tongue, which we've controlled. I think things are going to be quiet for a while.”

The public lapped it up. Most Pakistanis were fond of saying, “Pakistan mein toh mashallah ho gaya,” playing on ‘martial law’. It translated as: “In Pakistan things are great by the grace of Allah.”

Military messes up

Ayub Khan, however, got power drunk and started believing he could wrest Kashmir from India. Egged on by his scheming and feckless Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he sent a top-secret note to his army chief General Mohammed Musa: “As a general rule, Hindu morale would not stand for more than a couple of hard blows delivered at the right time and the right place. Such opportunities should therefore be sought and exploited.”

It was a monumental miscalculation. In September 1965, after several days of tank battles and bitter hand to hand fighting, the Indian Army crashed through Ayub’s defences and landed up at the outskirts of Lahore and Sialkot, with Pakistan’s ammunition reserves running on empty. Only the intervention of the Western powers and Russia saved Pakistan.

However, the disgraced Ayub Khan merely yielded power to another General, Yahya Khan, who went on to conduct the greatest genocide since World War II. In eight short but horrifying months in 1971, the Pakistan Army murdered more than 3,000,000 million Bengalis and raped 200,000 women. As this post on Women Under Siege reports, the Pakistani generals fixed rape quotas for their soldiers and porn movies were shown to stir up these Punjabi and Pathan troops.

Pakistan suffered its ultimate humiliation when India declared war in December 1971 and handed a resounding defeat in which more than 97,000 Pakistani soldiers became prisoners of war. Pakistan lost half of its population and almost a third of its territory when Bangladesh became an independent country. Syed Badrul Ahsan, Associate Editor of Bangladesh’s The Daily Observer writes that an army which had boasted of marching all the way to Delhi had fallen flat on its face in Dhaka.

Ahsan adds that the inebriated Yahya went on air, and in a rambling address vowed to fight on until every aggressor had been routed. “He made references to Islam, to the holy war which Pakistan would soon win in its battle against the enemy. The enemy, meanwhile, had penetrated deep into what remained of Pakistan. Frantic appeals by the Nixon administration in Washington to the Soviet leadership in Moscow to have Indira Gandhi stop her soldiers from making a havoc of West Pakistan helped. A shrunken Pakistan was saved from further degradation. Three days later, on 20 December, Yahya Khan handed over the keys of the country's presidency to Bhutto.”

The next coup came 20 years later when General Zia ul Haq took over, citing alleged rigging by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the 1977 elections. More than any other dictator, it was General Zia who damaged Pakistan – and the army – by introducing Sharia laws into daily life. The largely apolitical – and whiskey swigging – army officers now started seeing themselves as the sword arm of Islam. Where earlier their just hated the old enemy, India, now their enemy was anyone and everyone not Islamic enough.

Zia Ul Haq (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Zia Ul Haq (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

The last coup, in 1999, by General Pervez Musharraf was presented to the public as necessary to end the corruption of the Nawaz Sharif government.

It is interesting that both India and Pakistan started off with the same set of issues, but where Indians at the very least attempted to overcome them through democratic methods, Pakistanis allowed the army to squirm its way into civilian life – with disastrous consequences for the country. Here are the main reasons why the Pakistan Army continues to be the dominant player in the country.

Complicit political leadership

The road to military rule in Pakistan was paved by the political class itself. Unlike in India where Gandhians such as J.B. Kripalani were calling for cutting down military expenditure (“The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure”), the first speech of Liaquat Ali Khan highlighted the importance of a strong army. “The defence of the state is our foremost consideration, it dominates all other governmental activities,” he declared.

These sentiments were widely shared by the Muslim migrants from India who had settled in major cities afterward, and become a strong political voice. Others who supported the strong army were Kashmiris and religious groups.

Thus, during the first 11 years of its independence, and until the first coup, Pakistan spent an average of 60.69 per cent of its national budget on defence. The army had tasted blood and so this state of affairs continued for decades. Ayesha Jalal writes in The Struggle for Pakistan that in 1973 almost 90 per cent of the federal budget went to military ends. By the late 1980s, around 80 per cent of spending either paid off debt or funded the army.

Good soldier perception

In the early 1950s when the civilian leadership was unable to end the anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Lahore, it called in the army, which quickly put down the disturbances. However, after restoring normalcy the army requested the government to let the deployment continue for a few more days. Perhaps it was part of the Pakistan Army’s long-term agenda to win the people’s heart and mind. Maybe it was a genuine gesture. At any rate, in that short period the soldiers gave Lahore a facelift, repairing city roads, sprucing up government buildings and removing garbage from the streets.

The upshot: the Pakistani public wondered why this state of civic order couldn’t become permanent. So when the 1958 coup happened, most Pakistanis welcomed it.

Lahore-based analyst Syed Rashid Munir explains this recurring Pakistani symptom in Dawn: “More often than not, the shoddy performance of our politicians and political parties paves way for the security establishment to quietly slip a few measures here and there to suggest what could be done to take care of the situation. Since mending the situation would mean taking tough decisions (which Pakistani politicians loathe with a vengeance), the public automatically assumes that only the military could really clean the country up. In turbulent times, the politicians and the administrators stutter and stumble, and the dominoes fall where they shall.”

Mohajirs: Not Pakistani enough

It should not be forgotten that it was the Muslims of UP, Bihar, MP and south India (rather than the Punjabi, Sindhi or Pathan Muslims of present day Pakistan) who demanded Pakistan. Since they had betrayed their own country, they naturally became suspect in the land they migrated to.

Shuja Nawaz writes in Crossed Swords: "Pakistan was also handicapped after independence, as the politicians and most of the senior Muslim League leaders holding ministerial positions in the cabinet had no roots among the majority of people, as they were migrants from the Muslim minority provinces of Northern India."

Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister, was the first of the many Mohajirs murdered in Pakistan. Suhrawardy, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of fellow Bengalis during the Direct Action in Kolkata, was banished to Lebanon. Iskander Mirza, a migrant from UP, and his family were given a few hours by Ayub Khan to leave the country.

The vacuum left by the weak political leadership was soon filled by the army, which was the only institution that was intact, cohesive and powerful. Plus, Punjabi and Pathan soldiers did not want to be ordered round by Muslim refugees from India.

American factor

The US is often blamed for meddling in Pakistan’s affairs. It is said that no coup can take place and no Prime Minister can take oath in the country without prior clearance from the State Department. What is undoubtedly true is that since the 1950s the Americans have had a keen interest in Pakistani politics.

In 1958 when Pakistan declared it would finally hold its first general elections the following year, the US feared the new administration would shift towards non-alignment. Since India had earlier refused to play ball, the Americans were not prepared to lose another South Asian country. In this backdrop, it encouraged the army to intervene and take indirect control of the civilian administration.

Arvind Goswami writes in "Deceit, Duplicity & Dissimulation of US Foreign Policy Towards India" that US thinking was represented in a New York Times editorial which "deplored the army takeover but at the same time hoped that if the army in due course established a final, honest and democratic government, there was no reason to doubt their sincerity".

After Ayub Khan took over, the US further warmed up to the military. US ambassador to India, Loy Henderson, told the State Department that since India could not be counted as a dependable ally, the US must supply heavy armour and other weapons to Pakistan. He sent a cable: "The value of Pakistan's armed forces was not only as a force to protect Pakistan but also as a force to go elsewhere if needed. It would be much less expensive and more useful for the USA to use the Pakistani army in that part of the world."

Hollow army

The Pakistani military is a hollow organisation. While the average soldier or junior officer is undoubtedly brave, it is nullified by the extreme corruption of the middle and senior ranks. By the time a Pakistani officer attains the rank of colonel, he's already a very wealthy person because of military perks, free land allotment, and that’s not counting the cash from corruption. Christine Fair writes in “Fighting to the End” that the $30 billion of direct and indirect aid which America has given Pakistan in the past 11 years has done little but enrich the military officers.

Pervez Musharraf (Visual News/Getty Images) 
Pervez Musharraf (Visual News/Getty Images) 

The charge that every country has an army but the Pakistan Army has a country is based on facts. The military runs a multi-billion commercial empire that includes interests such as milk processing plants, bakeries, banks, cinemas, heavy industry and insurance. This corrupt empire is walled off from civilians. Defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, says there is little accountability and widespread siphoning of funds. The Pakistani military operates a virtual apartheid where an increasingly poor civilian population faces discrimination at virtually every level of national life – from jobs to pensions.

The top brass therefore is totally unequipped or unwilling to fight. Unlike the lowly soldiers who are prepared to die for their country, the army brass has a lot to live for. (In contrast, during every war, Indian officers up to the rank of brigadier are known to lead from the front. This is unheard of in the Pakistan Army.)

Six decades of being in control of their country has created a sense of entitlement in the military ranks. In The Idea of Pakistan, Stephen Cohen quotes an unnamed Pakistan Army officer: “We intervene because the politicians and civilian bureaucrats are corrupt and inefficient. We are incorrupt and selected on the basis of merit and the best of us reach higher ranks, whereas the civilians need no formal education to attain higher bureaucratic appointments and their selection is based on political reasons, rather than merit.”

Outlook bleak

A survey of 21 countries released on June 27, 2012 by the US-based Pew Research Center suggests Pakistanis are either very forgiving of their military’s failures or highly brainwashed. Their military has lost four wars against India. After each of these wars Pakistan lost territory and the generals their credibility. But bizarre as it sounds, Pew says this military is the most respected institution in the country. As many as 77 percent say the military has a good influence on the country.

Considering that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis adore their military and are convinced it alone can stand up to “Hindu India”, it seems the army has been given the first right of refusal on running Pakistan. Since the glue of Islam isn’t strong enough to hold the country together, the military will not hesitate to step in when the next crisis erupts. And you can take that to the bank.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and writes on defence and foreign affairs for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a global media project of Moscow-based Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He is on the advisory board of Europe-based Modern Diplomacy.

Rakesh’s articles on defence and foreign have been quoted extensively by a number of leading think tanks, universities and publications worldwide. He has been cited in books on counter terrorism and society in the global south.

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