Understanding Pakistan’s Civil-Military Divide
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding Pakistan’s Civil-Military Divide


On December 10, 2014, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif huddled with top civilian and military advisors to discuss Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an escalated push to rid Waziristan of Taliban enclaves that had kicked off in the summer. Leaving the meeting, Sharif was triumphant. “Peace has been restored as a result of [Zarb-e-Azb] and it’ll contribute towards ensuring peace in the entire region,” he declared.

In reality, Zarb-e-Azb has changed little on the security front. Despite extensive military operations and counter terrorism measures, the number of deadly attacks in city centers and urban settings continues to rise. But Zarb-e-Azb has been a landmark campaign for fixing the frayed relationship between Islamabad’s military and the government. Pakistan’s history shows that crises, like the insurgency that plagues Waziristan, always impact the balance of power between state institutions. Indeed, looking at Pakistan’s history as a contest between state institutions, not just a procession of tumult, goes a long way in explaining the persistence of conflict in the troubled country.

Pakistan’s 1947 independence, achieved by way of a British partition from India, was the first inflection point for the country’s nascent institutions. Pakistan had inherited a budding democratic government but a relatively mature military, bureaucracy, and judiciary. These mature institutions had huge advantages over the legislature; they could establish the legislative agenda without debate. That had a big impact on how Islamabad worked: the first president of Pakistan was a retired army officer who oversaw the removal of four prime ministers over two years. Incumbent institutions weakened the young legislature, which eventually yielded to outright military rule. General Ayub Khan’s military-backed coup d’etat in 1958 signaled the end of 11 years of parliamentary government and was the second critical juncture in the battle between the army and the government. The supposedly apolitical military was drawn into the political field due to a democratic crisis outside of the legislature’s purview.

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However, the military did not rule alone; it forged alliances with different political and economic elites and engaged in calculated power sharing. Since the civil service was the only developed institution at the time of partition, it became the frontrunner for managing the affairs of the country. In the first decade after partition, the bureaucracy led the state, assisted industrialization, and became the leading force in Pakistan’s dormant politics. The military emerged as the stabilizing agent, able to apportion power among industrialists. It imposed land reforms in 1959 which resulted in a contraction in agrarian business, giving elite agriculturalists an incentive to switch to industry. The military and the bureaucracy cooperated to forge a friendly political class.

A third critical point was the election of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, which the military-bureaucracy nexus could not forestall. The PPP adopted a socialist agenda, pursued nationalization policies, sidelined the military, and disempowered pro-military industrialists. Land reforms were implemented for the second time, but failed to bring any real change in wealth distribution. Bhutto’s era can be seen as a switch from an era of military-bureaucratic ascendancy to one of legislative-bureaucratic ascendancy. Nationalization managed to strengthen the bureaucracy, giving it an incentive to align with the legislature, but the civilian government’s broad political mandate weakened the military relative to other institutions. The military, unaccustomed to being marginalized, reasserted itself through another coup d’etat, this time at the hands of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who executed Bhutto and declared martial law.

The fourth critical juncture turned out to be a confluence of the global and the local: the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviets and the political feud between the civilian government and opposition parties. In the context of the Cold War, the government’s Socialist leanings became an international security concern, and laid the groundwork for the 1977 coup d’etat. The legislature was ousted and the military-bureaucratic nexus was revived. The new military regime did not reverse all of Bhutto’s nationalization policies; in fact the bureaucracy continued to perform key roles in the economy. However, the military became a prominent player in the economy for the first time and the bureaucracy adopted a subservient status. Eventually, the military government of the 1970s and 80s curtailed bureaucratic power through deregulation: it adopted the IMF and World Bank sponsored Structural Adjustment Program as part of its five-year plans.

The judiciary mostly took a back seat in the tussle for state power. It had neither the money nor the weapons to compete, so it was rarely a key institution. Occasionally, it stepped in to validate a coup or dissolution of parliament, but it remained a minor player in politics and the economy. During each of the martial law regimes, there was effectively no security of tenure for the judges. They could easily be disposed and forced into retirement at the whim of the Martial Law administrators. The one glaring exception to the problem of public apathy for the judiciary’s cause was the Lawyers’ Movement for the restoration of the judiciary in 2008. This was a critical turning point in the history of the judiciary and there was a subsequent rise of judicial activism, which saw the judiciary engage in stand-offs with both the civilian government and the military on important political issues. In a first show of strength, even traditionally non-justiciable questions were taken up by the judiciary of the early 2010s.

Institutional contests have had a significant role to play in the persistence of conflict. The stand-offs between the judiciary, bureaucracy, legislature, and army need to be examined in further detail, because such a study could better inform our future conflict management policies in Pakistan. The state of Pakistan does not operate in a vacuum. Internal interactions among institutions and economic actors both affect and are affected by global forces. These forces include public and private international law, wars, international security, multinational corporations, and non-governmental organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The interaction between state institutions, the influence of external actors, and the specific historical contingencies of domestic politics all need to be taken into account when attempting to theorize conflicts in Pakistan. Zarb-e-Azb is usefully understood not as a harbinger of peace, but as a critical juncture in institutional relationships: a shift in the status quo of relative institutional powers.

Prof. Uzair Kayani works at LUMS University and Prof. Sikander Shah is author of International Law and Drone Strikes in Pakistan.

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