ACADEMICS who work on the political economy of Pakistan have no doubt in their minds that Pakistan’s military, primarily its army, remains the dominant power in any equation regarding the distribution and use of power and force in Pakistan.
Despite the recent, softer transitions in the balance and distribution of power which have created far more space for democratic government, civil society, the judiciary as well as for the media, this dominance in Pakistan’s political settlement persists. While it is very possible that there may have been some small, and probably temporary, erosion in the dominance of the military, the military nevertheless remains the hegemon.
The hegemony of the military over the state and its institutions in Pakistan is articulated in numerous ways. The most obvious, of course, is outright military dictatorship, in different guises and forms but always clearly with the military leadership ruling.
Three coups and four general-presidents have between them ruled Pakistan for almost 35 years. At these long junctures, the military both ruled and governed. In circumstances when there has been a civilian dispensation, particularly during 1988-99, the military might not have overtly governed. Clearly, though, this was the institution which held unchallengeable power over the state, including the various governments, and enforced its military rule.
In addition, numerous wings and organisations of the military, such as Military Intelligence and the ISI in particular, have dominated the political and public sphere in Pakistan. The latter has perhaps gone rogue, with a sense of independence of which even the establishment in the military might not be fully cognisant. Even in times of civilian or democratic dispensations, the ISI has played a fundamental role, both domestically and in the region.
There is consensus amongst academics and political analysts, as well as amongst the increasingly aware and astute lay public, that it is the military which continues to determine Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy, the military and political anti-Taliban policy especially regarding drone attacks, all nuclear-related issues and perhaps even foreign policy more generally. The military also plays a crucial, perhaps even exclusive, role in determining Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and India, positions which might even receive some public support. Any peace process with India must factor in these points.
Pakistan’s Kashmir and India policy has been held hostage by the military since 1948. Just as the military has directly meddled in domestic affairs undertaking coups, it has also provoked and instigated wars with India in 1965 and 1999. At other times, just as Pakistan’s military has covertly managed Pakistan’s domestic affairs, academic scholarship shows that it has also meddled in Kashmir and elsewhere in India creating, arming, training and supporting so-called jihadi organisations.
Extensive academic research on the military, as well as conventional wisdom, support the claim that one reason why the military has dominated Pakistan’s own state and its governments has been because the military continues to use the ‘India card’. The fear of India physically taking over Pakistan — perhaps a valid concern at one point but no longer so — has been exploited to its own advantage by the military for decades on end. Pakistan’s military depends on India to claim legitimacy in order to establish its own hegemony over the political economy of Pakistan. Any civilian peace process, such as the one just restarted, is hampered by this heavy burden from the past.
Some political analysts might even advocate that any India policy or peace process must factor in the military’s concerns and opinions. This is playing to the devil. This is also exactly why civilian governments have still been unable to make use of their political and democratic agency and independence, and break away from the shadows and fear of a dominating military.
If anything, and not just India-specific policies, all policies, whether foreign or domestic, must be made by civilians alone.
Military and so-called security factors need to be considered, but governments which claim legitimacy from the people are answerable to the people, not to the MI, ISI or GHQ. What is best for Pakistan and for its people must be determined by democratic and civilian governments, not by the military.
If Pakistan is to become a democracy, the ubiquitous role and position of the military in all walks of life must be put aside, once and for all. However, realignment of power between institutions takes decades, unless there is a revolution which sweeps aside old power blocs and vested interests. In the absence of any foreseeable revolution in Pakistan, these changes are going to take time but they will not happen unless civilian institutions — government, civil society, the judiciary — enforce their writ on the military and take away from the military what it perceives to be its terrain and its prerogatives: India, Kashmir, nuclear policy, Afghanistan and so on.
In an environment where power continues to lie with the military, any peace process with India, as well as attempts at democratisation in Pakistan, will fail. For those who want peace in South Asia and better relations among all countries, the hegemony of the military within Pakistan will have to be challenged. Not only will this be good for the region but, and most importantly, it will be good for the people of Pakistan. It will also certainly strengthen democracy in the process.
The writer is a political economist.