Pakistan’s Military

Analysts today are skeptical about the possibility that Pakistani political parties – which have done little to promote a democratic culture internally, have pursued power with little regard for the public good and whose leaders are unable to communicate with each other without an “international broker” – can provide an alternative to the military. And yet, despite such political uncertainty, the restoration of party-based representative government is a positive development as it aids nation-building and helps facilitate agreement on issues of national significance. After the 2008 elections, for example, the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Awami National Party (ANP) have conducted politics by consultation and consensus building, which has created an expectation that they will be able to sustain a coalition government and stable government-opposition relations. Yet this fragile consensus could rupture if the “international brokers” (mainly the United States) withdraw support, change direction or lose interest in “managing” Pakistan’s internal politics.

The PPP-led coalition government is in its third year of rule, but corruption, violence and sectarian strife continue to deepen the crisis of governance. Despite significant political achievements – including the passage of the 18th Amendment, the seventh National Finance Commission Award (which governs the distribution of resources between the four provinces) and a Balochistan package (economic and other measures to address provincial sentiment after former President Pervez Musharraf ‘s use of force there) – the political government’s public stock has been low on account of its weak governance and inability to solve the deepening energy crisis, rising inflation and joblessness. All this has eroded public confidence in party government and democracy. Furthermore, its poor and insensitive handling of the worst floods in Pakistan’s history could turn out to be a watershed for the resurgence of the military and even the demise of party rule.

Two contradictory trends are evident in Pakistan’s post February 2008 election era. The first is political continuity – the third and fourth generations of the traditional feudal, tribal, religious and business families are entering the political arena. Middle class representation in elite structures remains marginal. Political parties remain personality- centric and are in decay: they are organizationally weak, lack vision and a clear program, and have no leadership succession plan. The ruling coalition led by the Peoples Party has banded together not on the basis of any principle but of expediency and a desire for power.

Second, the social class origins of the dominant institutions, namely the military, is undergoing transformation – the recruitment pattern is shifting from the uppermiddle class to the lower-middle class. The emerging military elites are increasingly from an urban background and not rural. This means that the social composition of Pakistani elites is undergoing change. The emerging elite has humbler origins, hold conservative social and political views and reflect authoritarian tendencies rather than democratic values. Some elite circulation appears to be taking place but the implications for strengthening democracy and a party system remain uncertain.

Given these changing dynamics, the critical question is how is the military adopting to a party-led government? There are several indications that, despite serious crises, civil-military relations are undergoing an important transformation. This is borne out by several developments. In July 2010, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani ended rising speculation about Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, by granting him a three-year extension. This suggests an improved level of trust between the civil and military leadership that is helping to define the parameters of their evolving relationship. In theory and constitutionally, this establishes the norm of the supremacy of civilian leadership.

However, once the chief of army staff is selected, he assumes the role of an arbiter, sometimes broker, and of course, a potential intervener in the country’s political process. What role the chief of army staff chooses to play depends on three factors: his personal orientation, political circumstances and the corporate interests of the military.

Seen from this perspective, Kayani has been careful and discrete, revealing little about his political or ideological beliefs except on national security issues. He went public in stating that the Pakistani military is “India centric” in its orientation and approach. Nationally and internationally, he is recognized as a “professional soldier.” In 2009, Time magazine declared Kayani the “most influential general in the world.” Officials who have worked with Kayani convey that he is calm, calculating and prudent, and keeps his cards close to his chest. While Kayani is trying to extricate the military from politics, a small number of vocal retired generals want to see greater involvement of the military in the governing of the country. On the subject of Kayani’s three-year extension, political parties showed considerable restraint and in a muted way welcomed the decision, whereas some retired generals were vociferous in arguing that Kayani should not have accepted the extension. By and large, the decision has been welcomed and seen as the right of an elected government to make.


During the 1970s, particularly since 1979, the social origins of the military elite have undergone significant changes. Gens. Jehangir Karamat and Pervez Musharraf and their cohorts were the last of the pre-Independence generation. The year 2007 marked the ascendancy of an indigenous post-Independence generation at the helm of military decision making. Until 1971, the base of military elites (brigadiers to general) was relatively small, around 120 officers. Today, there has been a five-fold increase to more than 600 officers.

During the 1960s and until the mid-70s, the generals from a rural background and the Potohar – the so called martial races – were dominant. But the new breed is more urban and comes from more modest social backgrounds. There is a noticeable shift from the “Huntingtonian model of military professionalism” to the “Janowitzian model” – moving beyond a soldierly profession and assuming constabulary functions.

The first noticeable trend is that the military’s role in Pakistani society has undergone transformation – it has acquired a new sense of confidence, and is tentative and cautious in showing “deference” to the political leadership. Second, the military elites have been vigorous and aggressive in consolidating control over the security, defense and foreign policy arenas. In relations with the U.S., the global war on terrorism, Afghan policy and relations with India, the military has shown tenacity and craftiness in conveying to the political leadership that in this policy arena, the military will set the direction. The political leadership has shown little resistance and has covered its incompetence by accepting the military’s role as a senior partner in this domain. This could also mean the beginning of a new power-sharing mechanism between civil and military relations.

Is there any noticeable shift in this trend in the post February 2008 period? The indications are that the military has made a tactical withdrawal; under Musharraf (1999-2007), particularly after 2001, its policies had become too closely identified with the U.S.- led global war on terrorism. The operations that the military launched in 2005-06 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, for example, did not secure adequate political or public support, which had a de-moralizing effect on the troops. As political and professional costs mounted, the military leadership sought to regain the trust and confidence of the people.

In the post-Musharraf era, the military elites reassessed and re-strategized their role and relationship with the civilian leadership. They have shown “deference” to the political leadership, which in return has galvanized public support for military operations against the Taliban in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. This political support has helped the military refurbish its professional image. Occasionally the military high command has also shown measured resistance to American policy. Examples include the opposition to the Kerry-Lugar Bill (which sets out conditions for U.S. assistance) and pursuing nuclear cooperation with China. There is considerable debate about the ideological orientation of military elites. On that count, three types of groups are discernible: the Ideologicals, Professionals and Democracy Busters. Yet an outstanding feature of Pakistan’s military is that having a large army, it has been able to maintain unity of command and considerable degree of coherence in its top echelons. That lends credibility to military professionalism at the global level. There have been coup attempts (1973, 1995, 2003) but none succeeded – the army top commanders gave total support to the army chief.


Has the army been able to restore its public image and rebuild trust? Under Musharraf, the military’s professional reputation was damaged on three counts. First was the case of “missing persons” – allegations of abductions of suspected militants by intelligence agencies (ISI, MI) and illegally handing them over to the U.S. Second, during operations in FATA and NWFP (2004-07), allegations that the army violated the ethical principles and practice of warfare tarnished its image and reputation among citizens. Third, the allegations that the military cultivates, protects and supports the “Jihadi networks” implied that a military that relies on a dubious civilian force to pursue its professional objectives is tolerating mercenaries in the battlefield – the very antithesis of professionalism.

Indications are that the return to normalcy in Swat, where the military operation in 2009 drove out the Pakistani Taliban, has helped restore public trust. The July-August 2010 floods – which claimed 1,600 lives, displaced 10 million people in the country and caused extensive infrastructure and crop damage – saw the military take a lead role in relief, rescue operations and reconstruction. This contrasted with the weak response from political leaders and parties in managing the catastrophe. This means that it is too soon to tell whether the “deference” the military has shown for the political leadership is a tactical shift or more deeply rooted. It is visible that both are showing forbearance and caution not to violate the trust. At the highest level, the military leadership appears to be giving advice to civilian leaders privately and firmly. Yet another less recognized trait of Pakistani military elites is that, for almost two decades, they have been deeply involved in insurgency, counterterrorism and clandestine warfare along with the U.S. Therefore there is a segment of Pakistani military officers who are seasoned, proficient and have acquired skills to confidently communicate with domestic and international political leaders. The war in Afghanistan, tensions with India, deepening involvement in the strategic dialogue with the U.S. and military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, have given a new professional set skills of combat and negotiations to the top echelons of Pakistan’s military.

Thus the current generation of military leaders seems to be showing greater forbearance toward political leadership as compared with their predecessors, yet it is still too soon to tell what the future holds. However, if Kayani stays on the course he has shown in his first tenure (November 2007-10) as chief of army staff into his second term (until November 2013), the direction of civil-military relations in Pakistan may see a new turn and sustainable democracy may become an achievable goal. By December 2010, six lieutenant generals were due to retire and allow Kayani to choose his new team for the next three years. In all probability, none will be given an extension, paving the way for next in succession. Khalid Shamim Wayne, the senior-most among the existing lot, was promoted in September as General and Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee. Three already on extension will retire in March 2011 and eight others will retire by the end of 2011; therefore, Kayani will really be designing the higher command of Pakistan for the coming decade. Will he strengthen and consolidate the Professionals and contain the Ideological and Democracy Busters?

The placing and position of a new set of commanders in the next six months will shape the orientation and outlook of the Pakistani army in the coming decade, and the Professionals are likely to retain their dominance. It is pertinent to recognize that the army is the largest among three services and army chief does have an impact in facilitating the selection of air force and naval chiefs. Kayani’s second term implies not only continuity and stability among the armed forces but also that he will see the end of Prime Minister Gilani’s five-year term in March 2013 and President Zardari’s in September 2013.


Suffice it to say that the contestation among these groups of officers continues and the command structure allows debate, but at the highest level, shared decision making and collective responsibility prevails and preserves the unity of command. That conveys the strength and resilience of the military as an institution in Pakistan’s political setting. There are two overarching factors on which there is broad consensus among all three groups. The first is that India is a serious and potent threat and that Pakistan’s military must be ready to counter this threat on any and all forums. The second is that Pakistan’s nuclear assets and nuclear power status must be preserved and protected. On both these points, there is a broad national consensus and popular support. What worries international observers and domestic policy analysts is whether the Ideological and the Democracy Busters can band together. Are these two groups a potent force to capture the military? They could become a serious threat if the disconnect between the state and civil society continues to widen. Already the devastating floods have bolstered the credibility of the military as a resilient and professionally competent institution. This could help the military to continue supporting the democratic process in the country or it could also encourage the military to rollback democratic transition. Which path the military chooses will reflect its professionalism or lack thereof. §

Saeed Shafqat is an Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University in the City of New York. He is also the Director and Professor at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at FC College, Lahore.

The current generation of military leaders seems to be showing greater forbearance toward political leadership as compared with their predecessors, yet it is still too soon to tell what the future holds… the direction of civil-military relations in Pakistan may see a new turn and sustainable democracy may become an achievable goal.

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