Why Do Coups Happen in Pakistan: A Rejoinder


Daim Fazil’s August 25 article in The Diplomat is a brilliant read for anyone to understand the science and fiction behind military coups—soft and hard—in Pakistan. The writer argues that the military coups take place in Pakistan because of three main factors: eternal political strife; lack of consensus among political parties (leaders) on the economic front; and lack of accountability and transparency of civilian leaders. This trifecta, to Fazil, provokes the military to (reluctantly) get out of its barracks and swoop in with a mission to reform — rather than pervert — the political system of the country.

Fazil is not wrong to point out that Pakistan has been in political turmoil since it won independence from the detritus of the British empire in the subcontinent in 1947. After the untimely death of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an “endless power sharing tussle among the politicians” and an inordinate delay in constitution-making followed independence. Fazil argues these are some of the leading factors that deepened Pakistan’s political strife and paved the way for the first coup of October 7, 1958—a precursor to all military coups in Pakistan till today, according to a popular perception.

Indeed, many textbooks in the state-run institutions, from elementary schools to all the way through universities, not only contain these views but also perpetuate them among Pakistani students across the country. The state curricula even go a step ahead to accuse India of withholding strategic and financial assets at partition, which, according to analysts, continues to keep Pakistan a weak state struggling to emerge politically and financially today.

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However, the argument that the lack of a constitution led the military to intervene into politics in 1958 is weakened when the evidence suggests that military staged coups only after constitutions came into force. The 1958 coup was an attack on the 1956 constitution, just as the coups of 1977 and 1999 were against the 1973 constitution.

Similarly, the argument that Jinnah’s untimely demise is responsible for the continuing military intervention in Pakistani politics is undermined when we consider that another founding father, Liaquat Ali Khan, and the breed of popular political leaders that followed him (including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif) could not help keep military at bay during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s despite the fact they all enjoyed a popular mandate.

Contrary to the popular perception, Pakistan’s first coup did not happen in October 1958 but almost a decade earlier in March 1951, against Khan, a popular leader of the Pakistan Movement and the right hand man of Jinnah. Famously known as the “Rawalpindi Conspiracy” the coup was a failed attempt by a coterie of disgruntled military officers who wanted to wrap up the civilian government in favor of martial law, which in their view could best serve Pakistan’s national interest. A timely tip-off and the preemptive arrest of Major General Akbar Khan and his co-conspirators saved the day for the civilian government—at least for the next seven years.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, however, were not as lucky. Bhutto and Sharif only learned of the putschs against them after it was too late. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the coup-maker in 1977, struck the sledgehammer on midnight of July 5, when in fact the risk of coup had actually gone down following the successful talks between Bhutto and a conglomerate of his political opponents, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Bhutto was subsequently arrested and hanged after a sham trial, which his supporters call “judicial murder.”

Sharif too came to learn of the coup only when Chief of Army Staff (CAOS) Pervez Musharraf, while in the air to Islamabad from Sri Lanka, ordered his corps commanders on ground to take over Islamabad. Sharif was arrested and exiled to Saudi Arabia after a relatively brief stint in custody—not as bad a deal as Bhutto received from General Zia. Likewise, Benazir Bhutto survived a direct take-over by the military  in the 1990s but still succumbed to article 58(2)b—a notorious amendment to the constitution by General Zia that allowed the president, military or civilian, to unceremoniously sack the prime minister of the country without furnishing any valid reason or following the due process of law.

Out of the 69 years of Pakistan’s existence as an independent state, the military has directly ruled the country for half of the time (and ruled indirectly for the rest). Despite its constitutional status as being under civilian oversight, the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have managed to stay afloat with little or no accountability to the Parliament or the courts. In its unchecked state, ISI is reported to have funded jihad across Central and South Asia and the Americas in the 1980s and 1990s with impunity and without scrutiny from the military or the civilian leadership.

Shujah Nawaz Janjua, in Crossed Swords, notes on specific example of the complete lack of accountability. When Lt. General Javed Ashraf Qazi replaced Lt. General Javed Nasir as the DG ISI, Janjua writes:

“[Qazi] was shown the ‘strong room’ that once had ‘currency stacked to the ceiling’ but now was empty as adventurist ISI officers had taken ‘suitcases filled with cash’ to the field, including to the newly independent Central Asian States, ostensibly to set up safe houses and operations there in support of Islamic causes. There were no accounts nor any receipts for these money transfers. As a result, the government and the ISI had no claim to any of the properties that were acquired by individuals allegedly on its behalf.”

Fazil and other in Pakistan seem to mistake causes for effects. Political strife, discordant economic policies of politicians, and lack of accountability are the “causes” of coups in Fazil’s account, but they are in fact the “effects” of another cause variously pointed out by civil-military relations experts. According to T.V. Paul’s  The Warrior State, it is country’s geostrategic location (bordering China, India, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Indian Ocean) — which Paul curiously terms as the “geostrategic curse”— that has kept Pakistan “quintessentially [a] warrior state[:] unable to transform itself into a proper democracy or a developmental state.” In the blurb of his seminal work, Paul summarizes:

“No matter how ineffective the regime is, massive foreign aid keeps pouring in from major powers, their allies, and international financial institutions with a stake in the region. The reliability of such aid defuses any pressure on political elites to launch the far-reaching domestic reforms necessary to promote sustained growth, higher standards of living, and more stable democratic institutions.”

Aqil Shah is more detailed and persuasive. He identifies eight factors—largely drawn from experiences in the “third wave democracies” from Latin America to Asia—which he believes if carefully and persistently addressed would ultimately help Pakistan emerge as a democratic state, although not as rapidly as the states in the so-called “third wave democracies” did. These include the meddlesome democratic process; lack of ministerial regulation of the army, militarization of the civilian administration and security forces, lack of Parliamentary scrutiny over the armed forces and the intelligence sector, widespread military appointments in the civilian institutes, the undemocratic outlook of the army, and weak alternative poles of power such as media and the judiciary. However, what Paul and Shah among others seem to miss is the point: what brought Pakistan to this point in the first place?

Ayesha Siddiqa, in The Generals Labyrinth, opines that the creation and sustenance of an India-centric security narrative has led the military to claim and perpetuate its formal role in strategic policymaking. “Its [the military’s] influence is historical” adds Siddiqa, “and directly linked to the significance of the state’s national security narrative.”

Elaborating this (negative) security narrative, Saba Gul Khattak explains, “A large majority of Pakistanis live with the fear that Pakistan will disintegrate in the near future. This fear is the subject of many discussions centered around the question of the country’s existence.”

Creating such a “rally around the flag” effect, however, is not easy. It involves working closely and carefully with the domestic and foreign media and projecting an image that favors the military’s own standpoint on national security. According to Siddiqa:

“The army [is]…known to actively engage with prominent media figures and present them with select information that supports the army’s perspective. The co-option is done both nationally and internationally…. Through such direct and indirect means, the army intervenes forcefully in the national narrative and promotes itself as the defender of the country’s ideology. That ideology, of course, is of its own making.”

Still however, not all depends on the military’s predominant influence in national politics when it comes to military coups. It, to a great extent, too depends on the personal character of the chief of army staff (COAS). Being the most powerful individual over the rank and file, the only constraint the COAS has to observe while deciding whether to lead a coup or not is his morality, family values, and of course his lust or disdain for power. The proponents of this theory hold that Pakistan witnessed four periods of martial law (1958-69; 1969-71; 1977-88; 1999-2008) only because the respective generals (Ayub, Yahya, Zia, and Musharraf) were power hungry while others those who preceded and followed them were not (because Pakistan did not witness coups in their respective tenures: “inductive” rather than “deductive” reasoning).

Proponents of the theory maintain that, had Bhutto not picked Zia as COAS over other generals, the 1977 coup could have been avoided. However, a thorough study of the civil-military relations reveals that the proponents of personal characteristics theory suffer from what Nassim Taleb refers to as the “Black Swan” syndrome, where an unexpected event is oversimplified after the fact.

Zia was not the only general who wanted to topple Bhutto’s government — he wasn’t even the only one to try. According to Aqil Shah, less than two months after the Bangladesh war, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) tipped-off Bhutto’s government of coup discussions between the commander-in-chief, Gul Hassan, and Air Chief Marshal Rahim Khan. Bhutto and his close aides, including Mustafa Khar, in a countercoup invited both generals to the “president house under false pretenses and obtaine[d] their resignations,” as Shah explained. Nearly a year later, in what came to be known as an “Attock Conspiracy,” mid-ranking army and air force officers planned to topple Bhutto’s government along with the senior army leadership for their role in the 1971 war. However, this time General Tikka Khan stood with Bhutto and foiled the coup before it matured.

Besides what are known as domestic dynamics of military coups in Pakistan, there are external factors too that Pakistanis fondly claim are responsible for fomenting coups. Chief among them is the U.S. influence. According to this theory, military coups happen in Pakistan because the United States wants them to happen, or at least benefits more when the military is in power. This theory is not without merit but ultimately it’s the not U.S. generals who impose martial law in Pakistan; Pakistan’s own generals do.

No theory is perfect. And predicting when and who will impose martial law in the country is like predicting when the Bermuda Triangle will get nasty: No one knows. Yet one thing is certain: coups in Pakistan are cyclical. And much like the orbits of planets, the cycles need not necessarily be perfectly round. They could be elliptical too and still survive the gravity of political transition from one democratic rule to another.

Ahsan Yousaf Chaudhary is a writer focusing on Pakistan’s civil-military relations vis-à-vis India, the U.S., and Pakistan’s nuclear development and policy. He studied International relations at University of Bristol, U.K. where he was a commonwealth scholar for the year 2014-15. He can be reached on Twitter at @ahsanych

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