How Pakistan Army moved into the Political Arena


Pakistan Army, throughout its 54 years of existence, has been involved in the administration of the country – often in augmentation of bureaucracy in purely civil jobs, occasionally in aid of civil power for maintenance of law and order and off and on in governing the country under Martial Law regimes. It has earned kudos and criticism depending on its aims and achievements in the assigned or assumed tasks. Escorting caravans of refugees, fighting floods, checking illegal trade, running steamers and trains, building roads or killing wild boars were all people friendly activities. Number of times troops were called out in aid of civil power for maintenance of public peace and imposition of the will of the government. Lahore (1953), Kalat (1958), Dir-Bajaur (1961), Balochistan (1974) are examples that fall in this category. These operations were constitutional and executed with efficiency and elan.

Three times 1958, 1969 and 1977 the whole country was placed under Martial Law. In 1999 when the mismanagement of a ruthless dictator had reached a new zenith the Army moved in and replaced the civilian government. Martial Law was not declared. The regime received its legitimacy from the Supreme Court. In all these cases, the purists have vehemently argued against assumption of civil power by the army.

According to them, problems of political adjustment and consensus could have been sorted out through the political process had it been allowed the time. Others make vigorous case in favour of the army leaders’ actions and credit them with having saved the country at relevant times.

However, even by the standards of pro-military elements the glaring failure of army leadership to keep the country together in 1971, prevent estrangement of Balochistan in the wake of 1974 Marri-Bugti operations and thwart understated hostility in Sindh during the MRD movement (1983) are exceptions that cannot be glossed over lightly.

It must also be admitted that differences did exist in the perceptions of junior ranks and the leadership component on the role of the army in situations that were purely political. It goes to the credit of the institution and its leadership that the essential unity of the force has remained rock solid. For this compliments are due to the moral and mental prowess of the army commanders who at relevant times were able to convince the rank and file and indeed the whole country that army’s actions were indeed in the defence and extension of supreme national interest. Part of credit must go to army’s recruitment and training policies that emphasise loyalty under stress and willing subordination of the individual to the collective will of the institution.

Now back to history. The departing British rulers had initially not contemplated the division of the Indian Army. The Chiefs of Staff in London had ‘hoped for a political settlement’. When the Quaid made it clear that he meant to see Pakistan a fully independent country with no binds on its sovereignty, the directive for the bifurcation of the Indian Army was issued. Liaquat Ali Khan echoed the Quaid and said that Pakistan without an army would collapse like a ‘house of cards’. Muslim League was resolved to take over only when the incipient government of Pakistan had its army and under its own control.

A degree of emphasis is detectable. Why such a stance? Was it solely due to the external dangers that undoubtedly loomed large? Or did their concerns have an internal dimension also? Wasn’t there an element of doubt in the mind of the two leaders about the capability of political institutions to control and ensure cohesion in the newly acquired state?

‘Moth-eaten,’ lamented the Quaid-e-Azam when he first saw the map of Pakistan. Implied was a cause to worry and a reason for speedy acquisition of strength to offset the diminished capability. Machinations of the Hindu bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence ensured that Pakistan’s Armed Forces are denied their rightful share of defence equipment.

The new state with no government machinery and infrastructure faced danger from two sides. An influx of refugees and a war in Kashmir in the east and claims to the Frontier province by Afghanistan in the west put Pakistan in a bind. However, despite meagreness in men and material, the Army proved to be the most effective, reliable and stable among the instruments of state power.

Colossal problems and chaos on one hand and proven effectiveness of the army on the other persuaded the early rulers to quickly ‘starch the limp security apparatus’ they had inherited. The Army claimed and received special patronage from the government. In view of what it could be asked to do in a situation of extreme uncertainty allocation of resources was perfectly justified.

Says Stephen Cohen in his treatise on Pakistan Army,  ‘There are armies that guard the nation’s borders, there are those that are concerned with protecting their own position in the society, and there are those that defend a cause or an idea. The Pakistan Army does all three.’ This is a tall order. Its successful fulfilment demands equal in size resources implying a position of pre-eminence in the financial and hence political scheme of things.

The task of maintenance of national unity and cohesion also fell to the lot of the army by default. Pakistan’s political leadership was land based and parochial in make-up, approach and outlook. The top rung was always prone to suggestions, allurements and intimidation. In the absence of strong political programmes, parties aspiring for power made no appeal to the people. National politics was confined to the drawing rooms of the elite. Inevitably a permanent climate of instability, like that of monsoon weather alternating regularly between the fair and the cloudy was created.

Pakistan Peoples Party of 1967-71 was an exception but soon after its assumption of power it also became like any other grouping of the established classes. In good time the PPP became to be identified more as a disturber of social harmony and tranquillity than a proponent of a new social order.

Now go back in time again and witness displacements and degradations of governments. At provincial level changes started from the first day of independence. Dismissal of Dr. Khan Sahib ministry in the Frontier on the morrow of independence was followed sometime later by Khurro in Sindh and Mamdot in the Punjab. This points out to early fissures between the centres of power. In East Pakistan Mr. Nur ul Amin was defeated in elections by a student that went to highlight the gulf between the ruling party and popular sentiment.

At the centre a game of musical chairs started after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951. In such a scenario everything had to come to a stand still. After 9 years of impasse, a constitution was finally promulgated only to be abrogated two years later. By then, the politics of Pakistan had entered a dark phase. Sectarianism and parochialism had taken root. Occasionally riots were choreographed for show of force and intimidation.  Leaders of political establishment, instead of focussing on the national level crises concentrated on games of power and pelf. The main political party, the Muslim League split up under such pressures.

The vacuum had to be filled in consonance with the laws of nature. The Army moved in on a very good logic. Political instability was affecting the integrity of the Army and hence the defence of the nation was jeopardised. The situation had to be put right. General Ayub Khan, first the Chief Martial Law Administrator, a little later the President, eagerly and competently filled the top leadership slot. He was a military man and had a clear mind but an authoritarian style. He had the Constitution of 1962 tailor made to his requirements. However, he ruled well and laid the foundations for the industrialisation of the country. He also laid the foundations of break up of Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan.

He authorised a war over Kashmir soon after his victory against Miss Fatima Jinnah in the presidential election. Pakistan Army failed in its objectives in Kashmir (1965) but did succeed in defending the country against Indian invasion across international borders. The pointless war disillusioned people particularly in East Pakistan where they felt insecure, unprotected and exploited. By 1968 movement against Ayub government gathered tremendous momentum and in March 1969 he stepped aside handing over power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.  Some observers point out that around that time the establishment led by Ayub Khan took the decision to let East Pakistan go its separate way. They point out that it was in conformity with that bias that General Ayub Khan handed over power to the Commander-in-Chief rather than to the Speaker of the National Assembly as was laid down in his own constitution. Theories that General Yahya Khan forced Ayub out are not convincing and are certainly not held out either by the character of Yahya Khan or by the events that followed.

Under General Yahya Khan came the East Pakistan tragedy. Thousands of innocent citizens were killed and the ensuing war resulted in the break of Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan and emergence of Bangladesh. But was the Army as an institution to blame? Had not the political establishment coaxed, cajoled and encouraged the Army in its actions. Read again the first comment on the army action in Dacca on 26th March 1971 ‘Thank God, Pakistan has been saved’. It came from a political leader, Mr. Bhutto.

Mr. Bhutto, became the CMLA and the President before he became the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Such was the influence of the military on a ‘champion of democracy’. To remove a counterpoise, he quickly forced out General Gul Hassan Khan the incumbent C-in-C who according to many was instrumental in Mr. Bhutto’s accession to power.

General Tikka Khan served loyally for four years. Then Mr. Bhutto in preference to a number of other equally competent officers selected General Zia-ul-Haq as the next Chief of Army Staff mainly because he believed the latter to be more reliable.

Events following the 1977 elections, created a crisis of huge proportions. The whole nation was in turmoil and the Army once again took over the administration of the country. True that the Army had intervened only when the country was on the verge of a civil war but equally true is the fact that there was a presence of highly ambitious officers among the top brass. Stephen Cohen mentions that Bhutto had been warned of the dangerous consequences of military crackdown in Balochistan as the middle ranks of Officer Corps were acquiring a taste for political power. Obviously, Mr. Bhutto ignored the warnings.

General Zia proceeded cautiously and read the whole situation carefully. He came up with a perfect solution. He realised that the Pakistani people could be easily rallied under the slogans of Islamisation. He promised Nizam-e-Mustafa leaving its definition in contemporary economic and political terms as vague. Under this scheme Zia acquired the brawn of the street in addition to the power of the state. With this intermixture of formal and informal power came a deeper penetration of the Army into politics. The army also assumed the role of the defender of the ideological borders  of the state to the joy of a certain group.

Then in 1979 Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan. Here the interests of Afghan Mujahideen, Pakistan, United States, China and other Muslim countries came to coincide. Pakistan supported Afghans and the Army trained Mujahideen guerrillas with American weapons. Mujahideen’s success was a great plume in the hat of Pakistan Army but the country was left plagued with the fallout.

Zia’s era ended in 1988. Some people draw a comparison between the regimes of Ayub and Zia. Although the two regimes lasted about the same number of years but Zia would have continued, had he not been killed in the air crash. Ayub Khan was a reformer who treaded on a number of toes in pursuit of a social agenda. Zia didn’t commit that mistake. He brought about no reforms but preserved the status quo in the name of piety. As leader of the army also he was no patch on Ayub. Ayub’s army was spick and span; straight, professional and exclusive. Zia transformed it beyond recognition to some of its old souls. It became ‘awami’ in culture, threw away its exclusivity, acquired hypocrisy, cultivated the art of compromise on standards and learnt the many unsavoury ways that were considered essential to ruling Pakistan.

After General Zia, came General Aslam Beg who now runs an NGO and a political party. He exercised political power through proxy. General Asif Nawaz, who was a little more forthright, created waves when he took on the MQM in Karachi although the party was a partner in the coalition at the centre. General Abdul Wahid was unobtrusive. However, when the occasion called, he exercised the power of his office in a most decisive manner and saw his constitutional bosses President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif out of office. General Karamat was tolerable but towards the fag end of his tenure he was asked to resign over a non-issue. This highhandedness did not go well with the Army.

This was a period when a naval chief also had to go due to a corruption scandal. The overall image of the forces was badly smeared. Their former sheen and prestige had suffered. Their confidence and sharpness was reduced. They came to be treated like any other department of the Government of Pakistan and often assigned duties far removed from the business of warfare. Somewhere along the line they also picked up some of the tasteless peculiarities of their civilian counterparts and became poorer in self-regard.

In such a season of despair, General Pervez Musharraf took over as Chief of Army Staff. His first concern was restoration of the morale of the command. Kargil was an opportunity and he made the best of it. The soldiers found their mettle and were well on their way when the Prime Minister bungled. Victory won in the field was thrown away. Showing complete ignorance of the military system he began to conspire against his own Army Chief. A badly choreographed drama to sack the COAS rebounded with a force that knocked the Prime Minister from his perch.

Having taken over the country as a result of the consensual action by the army, General Pervez Musharraf is now striving for continuity. People have tentatively put their faith in the General and are hoping for results.

Mr. Nawaz Sharif like some of his predecessors had badly underestimated General Pervez Musharraf both as a leader of the army and leader of the country.