November Issue 2014

By | Viewpoint | Published 9 years ago

There is plenty of work available on civil-military relations in Pakistan. The bulk of literature takes a sociological view of the latter. In this respect, Huntington, Finer, Janowitz and lately, Rebecca Schiff, have produced comparative studies of militaries in Asia and Latin America. Nevertheless, there is no end to knowledge production. Little wonder then, that Huntington’s student, Peter Feaver, questioned the existing accounts on empirical and importantly theoretical grounds. He posited that concepts such as cultural norms of a society and professionalism, on their own, cannot explain the occurrence of coup d’états since there are cases whereby professional and culturally homogenous militaries have staged coups against the same society (culture).

To explain this perplexing puzzle, Feaver came up with an agency theory of civil-military relations which takes actors, their choice and strategies into account. Also, the agency theory is ensconced with the rational choice theory that helps it assume stakeholders to be both agentive and rational (cost-benefit analysis). In my view, Feaver explained the US case of civil-military relations quite amicably.

I decided to go a step further. In my doctoral research conducted at Heidelberg University, I modified Feaver’s theory to make it applicable to the context-specific case of Pakistan. Based on a proposed agency model, four actors — namely, politicians, the civil bureaucracy, the judiciary and the military — were indentified. These stakeholders interact with themselves strategically and rationally. In a given context, each actor attempts to maximise its political and economic interests. Importantly, probably owing to inherent human instincts of power (maximisation), each actor endeavours, legally or otherwise, to assume the principal position.

Historically, the politicians led by Muhamamad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan were able to assume the principalship of Pakistan’s state constitutionally, legally and morally. The civil bureaucracy, judiciary and military were accorded agent roles. They were supposed to do the principal’s bidding. However, after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in October 1953, the civil bureaucracy began to prevail. Owing to its agency, the civil bureaucracy ruled the roost in Pakistan till October 1958. During this period, the military allied with the bureaucracy to reap strategic and economic benefits, i.e. US aid. Had there been a ‘structural continuation’ of military rule in Pakistan as is generally portrayed by a large body of existing literature, there would have been no rationale for General Ayub Khan to stage a coup in 1958.

Paradoxically, the 1958 martial law was declared by Iskander Mirza, who was President of Pakistan under the terms of the 1956 Constitution. Mirza might have wished to strengthen his hold over the agents; however, he was sent into forced exile by the new principal: the military.  Interestingly, a section of bureaucrats, politicians and the judiciary sided with the latter for rational reasons. Though Ayub Khan chose to quit politics in the wake of agitational politics, General Yahya Khan wasted no time in staging another coup in March 1969.

Unfortunately, owing to the lack of convergence of interests and strategies on the part of the politicians and the military, Pakistan was partitioned in December 1971. In the post-breakup period, the military could not continue as the principal actor on account of institutional demoralisation. In the ‘new’ Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — who represented the political forces of the time — led Pakistan’s state and politics as the principal, with the civil bureaucracy, judiciary and the military acting as agents. This reflected the non-structural and non-conspiratorial nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan. Had the military been sociologically/structurally embedded in Pakistan’s state and society, it would have continued as a dominant actor.  Moreover, Bhutto modified the organisational structure of the civil bureaucracy, judiciary and the military to their dislike.

Nevertheless, before Bhutto could materialise his vision, his elected government was dismissed as a result of the military agency in July 1977.  It is to be noted that whenever the civil government has adopted anti-military measures, there is a high probability of a coup. However, the coup timing is decided by the military itself, keeping situational and other variables into account. Meanwhile, in 1977, a section of politicians, the judiciary and the bureaucracy saw to their own, rather than a larger interest, and hence allied with the Zia-led military.


Since 1977 until today, the military has acted as the principal actor due to its agency. It is able to maintain its control over the country’s domestic and foreign defence policy. And when civilians, such as Nawaz Sharif, have tried to assert their will, they have been disposed of either through a soft (i.e. 58(2) b) or a hard coup (1999, 2007).

Nawaz Sharif is, again, in power for the third time.  But when the Prime Minister attempted to assert himself on areas ranging from foreign policy to media management,  he, in my view, offended the military. To add fuel to the fire, the Model Town tragedy further limited the government’s choices to effectively deal with these actors. In such a scenario, both the government and its rivals, especially Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, looked to the military for arbitration. Hence, a soft coup, with the principal  (the military) comfortably taking it upon itself to determine the future dimension of Pakistan’s domestic, economic and foreign policies. Since the Sharif government is already ‘tamed,’ there is no need to stage a hard coup from the military’s perspective. However, if and when the agent actors, that include all types of politicians — including Mr Khan — attempt to disobey the principal’s orders, they are likely to face the music in terms of either another soft or a hard coup. This military agency is still intact since our parliamentarians have failed to think of building any oversight mechanism.

Last but not least, the semblance of democratisation that Pakistan has struggled to hold on to for the last six years, has been rolled back due to poor utilisation of its agency by the politicians, and over-utilisation of its agency by the military. Civilian and military agencies need to work in tandem in order to provide space for the growth of constitutional, democratic and civil values. Till this happens, the institutional, if not structural, imbalance in civil-military relations will persist.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.

Dr Ejaz Hussain is a political scientist and an assistant professor at Iqra University. He has authored Military Agency, Politics and the State in Pakistan.