The Pakistan military: searching for state and society


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31 October 2014 was the beginning of a three-day Young Pakistanis Leadership Conference organized by the Pakistan Student Union at Oxford. This is an event hosted annually since 2011 to bring together Pakistani students from Oxford and other prominent universities in the UK to discuss and debate their country. For me, this year’s event showcased the power of the military and its ability to intervene in the process of mental development of the Pakistani youth or anyone else interested in the country.

The Union, which is technically speaking an independent body, was ‘forced’ not to invite Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist who had accused the army of organizing an attack which almost killed him. Instead, it was ‘persuaded’ to invite two journalists better known for their association with Pakistan’s military. In fact, the ticket of at least one journalist was paid by the army attache. The changes were managed through one of the many donor outfits run by Pakistani expatriates with deep links to the Pakistan High Commission in London. Furthermore, some of the sessions were chaired by the army attaché. The event ultimately served as a useful window to understand the current contours of the civil-military balance.

In Pakistan, this is an age of military hegemony where the army is no longer just a political power but also exercises economic clout and intellectual control of the society. The story of civil-military relations, hence, extends beyond the issue of who orders the military or controls it constitutionally. The manner in which the armed forces have expanded their influence (the above incident is indicative of this power) is a truer depiction of the military’s continued power.


To many Pakistanis and foreign observers of its politics, civil-military relations in the country in recent times seem to have taken a turn for the better. 2013 was the first time in its history that a civilian government completed its term and was voted rather then booted out. Some of the retired generals turned political commentators stress the fact that an army chief tolerated an incompetent Pakistan People’s Party government indicates that the junta is in no mood for direct intervention. This, it is naturally assumed, is in the best interest of the state. A similar argument was advanced during the recent crisis between certain segments of the military and the civilian government of the Pakistan Muslim League. According to a popular Reuters story, the new Army Chief, Raheel Sharif did not listen to the advice of some of his generals asking him to intervene and remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.1 The popular myth is that the army chief encouraged the political players to find a solution among themselves.2

Such an attitude, it could be safely claimed, denotes a shift from the past when people had grown used to seeing military intervention in Pakistan every alternative decade – all in the name of protecting and securing the country. As a South Asia expert, Stephen Cohen argues: ‘There are armies that guard their nation’s borders, there are those that are concerned with protecting their own position in society, and there are those that defend a cause or an idea. The Pakistan Army does all three.’3

According to Aqil Shah, an expert on Pakistan’s civil-military relations and author of a recent book on the issue, military officers are trained to suspect civilian leadership and control political affairs of the state. It is not merely an issue of defending the country’s ideology, but using the cover of such a defence to secure institutional interests which includes protecting its position as a key protagonist in power politics. The Pakistan military may not directly be in power but it will never get out of the habit of maintaining its control, though indirectly. Shah lays the responsibility for the military’s bad habit at the door of the founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah for not punishing the insubordination of the army chief during the 1947/48 war.4 Thus, as Peter D. Feaver has argued, it was the early leadership that could not develop a positive patron-client relationship with the military because it failed to punish military officers and discipline them.5


Unfortunately, conditions have only worsened over time. The military formally came into direct power for the first time in 1958 as a result of a civil-military coup. A former civil bureaucrat-turned president, Iskander Mirza used the army to usurp power, only to find within days that the power was totally taken over by the then Army Chief, General Ayub Khan.6 The excuse: to bring stability to the country, something which did come about temporarily on the economic front probably mainly due to financial and military help from the US with whom Pakistan developed military-strategic relations starting from membership in the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Both military alignments were mainly focused on fighting Communism. Pakistan’s military dictators have proved lucky as every stint at dictatorship came accompanied with a crisis and subsequent aid from Washington. The same pattern of US-Pakistan relations repeated itself during the 1980s and the 2000s. On both occasions the two states came together to fight a war in Afghanistan.


Although General Yahya Khan imposed the second martial law in 1969, overthrowing the government of former Army Chief, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, I tend to treat Yahya Khan’s rule as an extension of the first military government. Even though Ayub Khan had introduced the country’s second constitution in 1962, he was still a military man in power whose control of the state only strengthened the military as an institution. The American political scientist, Edward Feit, is of the view that ‘…Soldiers who act in politics through the force of the army will thus continue to be considered as soldiers, even when to outward appearances at least, they have left the ranks, unless there is overwhelming evidence of a change of view. The use of the army as a vehicle to power is thus a major qualification.’7


Ayub Khan’s performance which had begun to falter with his failing health, was seen as giving a bad name to the armed forces. This made it imperative for Yahya Khan to take over the reigns of power. This, fortunately, was the shortest stint of martial law since Yahya Khan held elections in 1970s and transferred power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, though only after the debacle in East Pakistan in 1971. Remember that the army had been considerably weakened after being defeated by India in the 1971 war to resist the transfer of power to Bhutto’s first popularly elected government. But this did not mean that it had surrendered political control to the civilian government.


Patterns of Rule in Pakistan







Direct military rule




17 yrs






Elected government under a military president



15 yrs




Elected government under a civilian president ‘rule of troika’


14+ yrs


2008 to date

Supremacy of the non-parliamentary forces under formal parliamentary rule


11 yrs



Civilian supremacy

6 yrs


Source: Mahammad Waseem, ‘Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan’, in Rajshree Jetly (ed.), Pakistan in Regional and Global Politics. Routledge, New Delhi, 2009, p. 185.

The then Army Chief, Lt. General Gul Hassan Khan, for instance, resisted taking the civilian government into confidence. In any case, being more sympathetic to the military’s strategic agenda, Bhutto was more of a military’s man. Remember that he had coined the famous slogan of ‘a thousand years of war with India.’ However, even he was not tolerated beyond a point. According to Bhutto’s former minister, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the prime minister was removed from power the minute the military regained its confidence and organizational strength.8


Historically, Pakistan’s military has a pattern of intervening after every decade and remaining in power for almost a decade. This formula, however, was altered during the 1990s when a new method for indirect intervention was found via Article 58(2)(b) to the 1973 Constitution (see Table). This amendment was passed by the Parliament elected in 1985 on a non-party basis and headed by the Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, in turn nominated by General Zia-ul-Haq.

Although handpicked by a dictator, Junejo was no pushover for the army. He accepted the Geneva Accords following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan despite Zia’s preference and advice. Later on, he ordered an inquiry into the Ojhri Camp disaster, an ammunition dump in the heart of Rawalpindi that blew up in April 1988, killing hundreds of innocent people. He also threatened to force the generals to only use Pakistani assembled 800 cc cars. After serving for almost three years, Junejo was removed under the President’s special power acquired under the aforesaid constitutional amendment that empowered the head of state to sack a government. This provision was used repeatedly during the 1990s to remove three elected government – twice the PPP and once the PML-N. Since the amendment was revoked during Nawaz Sharif’s second government, Musharraf had to directly intervene to sack the second PML-N government in October 1999.

As in the past, the fourth military dictator, Pervez Musharraf was removed from power in 2007 as a result of internal manoeuvring from within his own institution in collaboration with key civilian players. At the end of the decade, the senior military management saw Musharraf as strategically hazardous, especially with his ‘out of the box’ suggestions for solving Kashmir and giving a free hand to the US in fighting the war on terror (WoT). The legal community came in handy to orchestrate a movement which eventually led to Musharraf’s removal since the dictator could not be ousted without first sufficiently de-legitimizing him.


Overconfident about his own power, Musharraf used force and imposed yet another emergency in November 2007. Other incidents which remain a mystery, such as Benazir Bhutto’s killing in December 2007, too created conditions that made it untenable for him to continue. Musharraf resigned as army chief in November 2007 after which he could not continue for long as president of the country. He had to take off even that hat in early 2008 which, some argue, was more forced off his head by the new Army Chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani.

According to Hans Kiesling, author of the only book length account of the ISI, General Kiyani had the President temporarily placed under house arrest to force certain decisions out of him.9 Subsequently, General Kiyani seemingly stood aside as the political process took its own course which included the election of the president in 2008, a position to which the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari got elected. Soon thereafter the PPP also formed the government at the Centre headed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani. Later on, the elections in 2013 saw the re-election of the PML-N and Mian Nawaz Sharif formed the government, both at the Centre and in the Punjab.


The above shifts in politics may appear as a smooth transition, reflective of a change in how the military now conducts its politics. As mentioned earlier, the current Army Chief General Raheel Shareef has not troubled the government despite the resentment of many of his senior generals against Nawaz Sharif. It is also believed that there is resentment amongst the officer cadre regarding the prime minister’s treatment of the former Army Chief Pervez Musharraf, who is currently in Pakistan facing trial in many cases, including the imposition of an emergency in November 2007. Other issues on which the armed forces do not see eye-to-eye with the government pertain to the policy on India and Afghanistan. Apparently, the army did not approve of Sharif sending his own emissary, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, to meet Hamid Karzai and resolve certain bilateral issues.10

However, the ostensibly smooth transition may be nothing but a change in tactics of a politically astute and vibrant armed force. Unlike many of the Latin American militaries of the 1970s and the 1980s, the Pakistan Army is a politically potent force that learns from experience and adapts to circumstances. It is very conscious of maintaining its legitimacy, which also means that it will not intervene at every given opportunity. A glimpse at the six years of General Kiyani’s stewardship indicates that while not taking over power, he kept the governments on edge. The Memogate scandal, a plan which was probably hatched to force President Asif Zardari to resign (it did force Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, out of the position), was planned by Kiyani’s chief spy, Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Both Haqqani and Zardari were accused of encouraging Washington to put pressure on Pakistan’s military and possibly even use force to get its way.


The ISI chief who succeeded Pasha, Lt. General Zaheer-ul-Islam, also came into conflict with the Sharif government and the media group, Geo. The capital city Islamabad and many other urban centres saw banners and posters supporting the ISI chief during his stand-off with the media group. All of this contestation, when seen in the backdrop of the fact that the military did not eventually take over control, does create an impression that the army has changed its mind about taking over the reigns. Such analysis, however, does not tend to talk about the weakening of civilian governments. For instance, such an observation does not take into account the fact that the Sharif government, just like the Zardari government, ceded control over many policies to the army and its institutions, especially those pertaining to national security.11

Why would the military take over direct power when it exercises indirect control? For example, Raheel Sharif extended the tenure of a retired general as Director General Military Land and Cantonment Department, which is a civilian body and part of the civil services of the country.12 The government did not challenge the illegal order. On more strategic concerns too, such as Sharif’s India policy, the prime minister and his team have shown little capacity to chart an independent position.


Over the years, Pakistan’s military has turned into a parent-guardian type that may not necessarily seek direct intervention but will exercise indirect control through partnering with critical civilian actors and tailoring a legal/constitutional framework that safeguards its role in policymaking.13 The idea of the National Security Council (NSC), first initiated by Pervez Musharraf, has now turned into a reality. The NSC guarantees the service chiefs requisite space in a strategic decision making body along with key civilian actors. Such manoeuvring took place through a manipulation of the national mind-set and developing a propaganda machine that guarantees the military a better image than competing civilian institutions.

One common message underlying many national surveys is that ordinary people prefer the military over civilian institutions. These results, however, do not explain the source of such thinking. The opening up of the media under Pervez Musharraf also meant systematically manufacturing opinion that would benefit the military as an institution. All major media groups and television anchors reputedly have links with the military and its several components (the accompanying Figure gives an idea of such control).

General Kiyani, for instance, was in the habit of inviting select journalists and writers for regular sessions. The ISPR, which is the army’s key PR agency, has become state of the art in the past few years and has even started investing in the film industry.14 The objective is to create a good image of itself. The past decade has also seen a proliferation of think tanks that foreground the military’s perspective. In fact, there is not a single think tank in Islamabad which might articulate a different approach to issues of significance on national security or those considered as such by the armed forces.


But going back to the Oxford University conference story, it was amazing to see the level of penetration in what might appear to be an independent body. The Pakistan military may not be different from others, but it has certainly realized the significance of controlling sources of information and knowledge formation. The military and intelligence component in foreign missions, especially in the West, have increasingly begun to play a critical role in recruiting students and manipulating their ability to think independently. The Pakistani expatriate community plays an important role as the military’s partners in financing seminars/conferences and debates on Pakistan. Such financial aid and control ensures that the process of image building remains on track. The military has also been proactive in recruiting people in foreign media and academia. Such partnerships were critical especially in the decade of WoT.


This also means that civil-military relations continue to be tilted in the military’s favour. So, should we continue to look at the civil-military balance simply from the traditional lens of command and control? The fact that the current army chief has not opted for direct intervention in governance does not mean that his successors will do the same should the need arise to take over power. After all, four generals after Zia-ul-Haq did not take control until Musharraf stepped in. Meanwhile, the Army GHQ and its other critical components like the ISI, ISPR and the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is also involved in recruiting and building the intelligentsia, ensure that the military’s image remains at the top in people’s minds. This strategy of intellectual control does not demand or support a major shift in civil-military relations. In any case, civilian governments continue to suffer from weak capacity; the only institution they can count on to contest the military’s power, the Ministry of Defence, has also become more militarized over the years. No government in Pakistan can afford to join the battle without building strong institutional mechanisms, like the MoD, to address the problem of changing mindsets.



1. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, ‘Army Chief Holds Off Generals Seeking Pakistan PM’s Ouster.’

2. Kamran Yousaf, ‘On Army Chief’s Advice, Government to Pursue Talks With PTI, PAT Again’, The Express Tribune, 28 August 2014.

3. Stephen P. Cohen, The Pakistan Army. Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1984, p. 105.

4. Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2014.

5. Peter D. Feaver, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight and Civil-Military Relations. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

6. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Military, State and Society in Pakistan. Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, 2003, p. 80.

7. Edward Feit, The Armed Bureaucrats. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1973. p. 6.

8. See, Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. Pluto Press, London, 2007, p. 42.

9. Discussion with Hand J. Kiesling, Islamabad, 10 February 2013.


11. Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘The Musharraf Drama’, The Express Tribune, 9 April 2014.

12. Malik Asad, ‘Armyman to Retain Control Over 42 Cantonments’, Dawn, 6 September 2014.

13. Ayesha Siddiqa, op. cit., 2007, pp. 152-57.

14. Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘Psy-Ops, Coming to a Screen Near You’, Tehelka 51(9), 13 December 2013.