October Issue 2014

By | Books | Published 10 years ago

Can anyone claim to fully know the Pakistan military? The answer, perhaps, is a negative.

Over the 68 years of the country’s existence, the military has indeed become larger than life. It is not just a political and economic player, but has also entered the veins of society; you can feel its presence everywhere. Over the years, scholars, writers and journalists have pored over the issue of assessing the military’s power and its mindset. How does it think? How does it control people and other institutions? Is it willing to share power with civilians? And now, the question that people ask frequently: does the military remain as powerful as it was with the first martial law in 1958?

As the dharna drama unfolds in Islamabad, many people talk about the military using its power to manipulate the government. Others are doubtful and argue that the military is being needlessly blamed. But the question is, why would a powerful military voluntarily surrender power? On the other hand, why should the military come into direct power when it can gain more through behind-the-scene manipulation?

This question and others related to the military mindset have been probed by two authors: Aqil Shah in his book The Army and Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2014), and Christine Fair in Fighting to the End: Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford University Press, 2014). There is also a third book by Dr Ejaz Hussain, Military Agency, Politics and the State in Pakistan (New Delhi, 2013), but this is limited to constructing a theoretical framework.

For Aqil Shah, the military is programmed to intervene both directly and indirectly. The Pakistan Army is not a national liberation institution, but an ex-colonial army that has developed a myth about being the saviour of the nation. It does not allow politicians or civilians to intervene and control things beyond a certain point. Thus, it was not surprising to see the country’s defence minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, playing almost no role in the wake of the Abbotabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden. While some of us are made to believe that it is all about civilian incompetence, based on numerous interviews with military personnel and other concerned people and a review of military literature, Shah concludes that it is not just all up to the civilian leadership. Here is a military that has “stripped recruits [its men] of their individual identity and given them a new institutional identity.” The new identity posits the institution as the saviour of the state and its ideology. The author’s fundamental thesis revolves around the notion of looking at institutions as “…agents of assimilation and socialisation. They can develop norms, they can align individual preferences with institutional priorities and minimise scope for internal division.”

In making a case for the military’s benign attitude towards politics, the author argues, like historian Ayesha Jalal, that being an ex-colonial institution, the Pakistan military inherited the British military’s apolitical professionalism. However, he later argues, it was the first war with India from which the Pakistani military learnt the lesson of insubordination and dominated the imagination of the people and the resources of the state. Jinnah’s inability to punish officers for not obeying orders set a trend. The first war in itself was what led to politicisation of the military. Thus, the army’s British commander-in-chief Frank Masservey lamented “politicians using soldiers and soldiers allowing themselves to be used without prior approval of their superiors are setting a bad example for the future.” Resultantly, the norm, which was established from that day on, gets echoed in the behaviour of service chiefs like General Gul Hassan Khan, who refused to brief civilian power, or General Asif Nawaz Janjua, who decided upon sacking Benazir Bhutto’s first government in a corps commander’s conference, or in papers written at the military’s National Defence University.

ejazbookWhile making a strong case for civilian insubordination being the primary norm in the military and its training institutions, Aqil Shah leaves several gaps in his analysis. Firstly, his thesis regarding the military developing as a result of external help — such as aid from the US — explains the dynamics of institutional growth without explaining why other stakeholders did not sufficiently challenge the armed forces in politics. Probably inspired by American scholars such as Stephen Cohen and Ayesha Jalal, this methodology does not explain how the acceptance of the military’s power became a norm with the political class and civil society. Second, the author compares Pakistan and India’s case but does not sufficiently explore how India could manage to strike the balance between the civil and military better than its neighbour. It is not as if India did not go through a phase of politicisation of military. There is evidence of how the then defence minister had politicised some officers that had a negative impact on the outcome of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. However, the political leadership and civil bureaucracy in India changed the scene through incorporating certain institutional mechanisms.

Third, the book does not explore why the civil bureaucracy accepted the military’s insubordination. While Iskander Mirza, being a former bureaucrat, shared the military’s suspicion of politicians, Shah does not investigate why the civil bureaucracy did not challenge the military’s power, serving as the engine of military regimes.

There is a probability that in writing a very engaging account of how the Pakistan military has done its business over the years, Shah has over-emphasised what has increasingly become the norm. It is a path-dependent framework that is also followed by Christine Fair in her above-mentioned book. One almost gets the impression that Shah and Fair’s books ought to be read side by side as they make a similar argument. While Fair’s book is less about the Pakistan military’s attitude towards democracy, she uses the normative paradigm to understand the organisation’s strategic norms and ideals. The book even has a chapter that addresses the notorious formula of ‘strategic depth.’ Using military writings such as the army’s Green Books, magazines like Hilal and other publications, she explores strategic depth as a means to “cultivate physical space….[where the army could]… place its assets in the event of an Indian attack.” The book highlights the military’s obsession with India because the army believes “Pakistan to be born of an unfair partition process in 1947.” The fear of India and what it could do to Pakistan is ingrained in the minds of officers and soldiers. Afghanistan, is, in fact, also viewed from India’s lens (it’s important to note that the army constantly quoted Christine Fair’s statement on India’s involvement in Afghanistan to prove that there was a real threat in the North). Although we get glimpses of the military’s internal conversation on strategic depth, especially in reference to Afghanistan, there is still a need to have a better understanding of the concept and how it evolved. I would certainly argue that the concept underwent change from a defensive to an offensive formula.

This perception developed with the first war with India in 1947/48. The gradual weakening of the political class and growing power of the military gave the institution an understanding that it alone was the saviour of the state and its ideology. An important point that Fair makes in her book through a brief examination is the national ideology and its linkage with the military. She argues that the use of Islam as an ideology is not in conflict with the British model of an armed force. The British, the author points out, did recruit different religious communities and kept the distinction. This tradition was continued after Partition. While General Ayub tried to co-opt Sufi shrines and their keepers, Zia brought in the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI into the fold. There is endless literature that emphases the impact of Islam on the ‘national character’ and voices concern about the erosion of the religious and national spirit that created Pakistan. However, Fair does not think that there is any real threat to the military from its adoption of religious ideology and norms. This appears as a gap in her analysis. The various attacks on military facilities like the GHQ, PNS Mehran, PNS Zulfiqar and PAC, Kamra are indicators of what happens with mixing religion with institutional norms. However, the author’s main objective seems not to examine how the institution has evolved, but to present the mindset which runs the institution. Anyone conducting further work on military and Islam must read her book to see how officers have discussed historic Muslim battles like Badr to draw certain conclusions and develop a bias for the ‘Hindu enemy.’

AA FairOne of the critical arguments in the book is that fighting India for Kashmir is not the entire issue with the Pakistan military’s attitude towards India. The animosity is deeper and more ideological. The army just does not imagine India progressing socially or economically. Hence, the military tends to look at even internal players from the lens of its strategic vision. For instance, as Fair points out, Sheikh Mujib could never be trusted because he was seen as someone who would cooperate with India. This was also one of the reason why Bengalis were not sufficiently trusted and they were just one per cent of the army’s total strength. Other reasons included demand-side dynamics, such as the military opting for Punjabi and Pashtun men that easily met physical standards that had been relaxed by General Ayub Khan for Bengalis.

Reading the book, one realises how the strategic fears of the army have dominated its thinking so greatly, the writings of its officers do not even bother to discuss battles, operations and related issues. In fact, any account of battles is mainly restricted to biographical notes.

Shah and Fair’s books add tremendously to our knowledge of the Pakistan military. Nevertheless, over-emphasising normative behaviour as a primary driver tends to give an impression of the military as a less rational actor. Although not as rich in anecdotal evidence, Ejaz Hussain’s book, which has received little publicity, tends to draw us back to question the assumption that military generals and officers tend to do things because that is the way they are trained. Of course, norms and values are critical. But there is also some rationale in developing these norms, such as the political interests of the echelons that are tied with the economic interests of armed forces personnel. The economic interests, which Shah dismisses as a minor issue, is a critical factor for Hussain who believes that economic power adds to the military’s overall political power. The army cultivates scholars, analysts, television anchors and others, as pointed out by Fair, to develop and sell its narrative which it needs to dominate both the state and society. This is perfectly rational behaviour meant for power maximisation. Even political and civil society players tend to join hands with the military, not because of any predetermined norms, but due to their urge for power.

Nevertheless, what is for sure is that we now have more to chew on to understand how Pakistan’s biggest political party — i.e. the Pakistan Army — works.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter