civil military relations pakistan

Written by Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed 9:13 pm Opinion, Published Content

The Reasons Behind the Complicated Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan

In most third-world countries, after the colonial period, civil-military relations (CMR) were characterized by military interventions in politics and insubordination to civil control. Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed examines the reasons for the widespread influence of the armed forces in the domestic political scene. He also explores how civilian regimes have attempted to ensure the subordination of the military to their authority.
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About the Author(s)
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Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed (Retd) has extensive experience in areas of national security, intelligence and strategic issues. He has worked as a Senior Research Analyst in a strategic organisation and has a niche for writing research articles and analytical assessments, specializing in counterintelligence, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.


In any sovereign state, the maintenance of internal law and order and the necessary provision for protection against external threats are the prime responsibility of the state which delegates the authority to its defence forces to discharge this responsibility and hence their significance. The paradox to this imperative is Edmund Burke’s warning, “Armed discipline body is in essence, dangerous to the liberty, the potential threat to an incumbent administration and to the society at large”.

Without    an    Army,    there    is    neither    independence    nor  civil  liberty.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Harnessing this armed body to deliver and to remain subservient to civil rule is in essence what the objective of ideal civil-military relations (CMR) ought to be. Civil-military relations can be broadly termed as the relationship and distribution of power between the armed forces and the civilian authority, which ironically, in Pakistan has remained in the state of disequilibrium mutating into an abiding civil-military conflict and an object of scathing diatribe in the public.

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Record & Trends

One place in the world where there had been military rule aplenty is the African continent, where about a quarter of the countries in Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa are governed in one form or another by their armies, either through direct military rule or through naturalization into the power structure and in other cases through indirect influence.

Except for Tanzania and Zambia where there is some semblance of civil-military relations, in other countries, these have been lopsided with a military bias. The rate of coups within the region on average had been three successful coups per annum during the past three-quarter century.

The overall number of coup attempts in Africa remained remarkably consistent at an average of around four a year in the four decades between 1960 and 2000″. For instance, Egypt faced a coup in 1952 and 2013, Sudan in 1958, 1969, 1971, 1985, 1989, 2019, and 2021 (for every successful coup there had been two unsuccessful ones); Uganda in 1971, Nigeria had eight coups between 1966 and 1993.

However, comparatively speaking, coups have been less prevalent in Southern Africa than in Central and East Africa, perhaps because of the way they were decolonised. “Overall, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent. Of the 16 coups recorded globally since 2017, all but one – Myanmar in 2021 – have been in Africa”.

Pakistan has not been an exception to this trend and is almost a mirror image of the African fable, as the military has been virtually in the business of running the country in its various forms of direct, indirect, or hybrid dispensation. Bonapartism has remained a favorite vocation of military generals resulting in decades of military rule (1958-71, 1977-1988, and 1999-2008), often solemnized and greeted by the public.

The practice of changing regimes began with the toppling of the elected government of Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon in 1958 by President General Sikandar Mirza, who in turn was shown the door by General Ayub and it has continued ever since. However, since the abdication of the presidency by General Musharraf, the military was tempted to take over, but abstained, as in each of its four previous military rules, the Pakistan Army was left discredited and unpopular even though some monumental development and nation-building efforts.

More importantly, the military saw the futility of direct military rule when it can have its way through manipulative coercive levers and have de facto control over the government, especially on the nuclear programme, key foreign policy issues, military financing, and national security decision-making.

Causes and Consequence

The question arises that why and under what circumstances the military intervened and whether or not there is a commonality with African countries. In the African case, the factors range from ethnic rivalry, economic crises, governmental repression and corruption, perpetual poverty and public unrest, personal and corporate ambitions etcetera.

Barring the first factor, the remaining, among others have more or less been the cause of military interventions in Pakistan, justified in the name of the country’s survival and sanctified through the implementation of the doctrine of necessity. Such usurpations of power and prolonged military rule contributed to lasting political instability in the majority of the countries as well as Pakistan, as also the transformation of the country into a security and a praetorian state.

It also induced a fear psychosis among the political leadership that while wary of the military junta also beseech the praetorian oligarchs to climb back to the corridors of power on the purported pretext of invariable corruption, nepotism, cronyism, bad governance, and security risk, among others.

Civil Quest for Dominance

While the dictum of civilian control has a universal appeal, given our sham democratic system, low moral political moorings, and inept governance, such norms are illusory and farfetched. Nonetheless and possibly in retaliation, asserting civilian control over the military has remained the latent desire of the political leadership, letting no event pass to take a swipe at the establishment through innocuous yet devious means and measures.

Nawaz Sharif’s perpetual attempts to rein in the military chiefs, ending in his abortive attempt to replace General Musharraf; PML (N)’s later vindictive swipe on the military exposed in the Dawn Leaks; Nawaz Sharif and Maryam’s harangue on the former general chief and General Faiz for overthrowing their government; Zardari’s memo gate and open virulent threat to the generals; Imran Khan’s tiff with the military over the replacement of then DG ISI Faiz Hameed and asset leaks of the former chief’s family from FBR. All these have been rooted in their deep-seated grudge against the military.

The on–off slurring diatribe by the civilian leadership on the military and the latter’s attempt to have a subservient political dispensation is a sordid tale of getting even, with near complete indifference towards the burgeoning foreign, domestic, and economic challenges. The deteriorating civil-military relations have taken Pakistan to the brink of economic disaster having serious implications for national security.

The African recipe of asserting civilian authority is reflected in the Tanzanian case, where the ruling party, after the mutiny of 1964, cemented civilian control by integrating the military into the country’s elite bargain. As the armed forces became ideologically and materially intertwined with the regime, they developed a stake in the latter’s survival.

Much of the same has been in vogue in our case, however with a difference, as this time round, the composition in the playbook of yesteryears is being orchestrated with a vengeance and vendetta. The hobnobbing of the political cronies (PDM) and the deep state is directed against a common political nemesis (PTI and its leadership), perceived as a system outcast and a threat to the status quo, who thus needs to be banished from the political chessboard – no matter what the cost.

The indifference or the lack thereof on the economic meltdown is perplexing nonetheless economic stability will remain an important variable that may quickly change the prevailing courtship. Pakistan is facing an existential crisis with the debt surmounting over $274 billion amidst unrelenting plunder of state institutions/infrastructure and mortgaging these for seeking more loans, reducing fiscal independence and drastically impacting sovereign decision-making.

David O Smith’s assumption, “The military may have finally realized that the true centre of gravity of Pakistan National Security lies in its economy and not in the military capacity alone”, hopefully must have been reckoned with in its entirety. Or we will mercilessly and in bewilderment see the ship sinking and do nothing in the name of neutrality.

Intriguing though it may appear, the neutrality notion contextualization by Amir Zia says it all, “Many view the fall of the Imran Khan’s government amid this buzz of ‘neutrality’ as a switching of sides by the army, or worse, abject surrender to the much-tried, tested and failed corrupt political dynasties in this country”.

Intended Purpose and Objectives

Resultantly, the unfortunate conflagration of hatred and rift between the society and the state (sic the military) – a fervent desire of the inimical forces, which ironically have been callously choreographed by none other than the political cartel in its internecine struggle and lust for power with such purported objectives, as:

  • Propping up the dwarfing image of the political elite, marred by corruption scandals (Panama leaks, money laundering, etc.).
  • Drawing the military down from the high moral pedestal and deriding its iconic image of being a guardian of national interest.
  • Yield space to the US and bring the military establishment under control.
  • A more confident and emboldened political establishment, having regained space, endeavor a more intrusive and searching role in affairs of the military, curtailing its freedom of action on particularly strategic and nuclear issues.
  • Make the military accomplice in state dispensation and when needed apportion blame, making the military a scapegoat for its inept handling of important foreign and domestic issues.
  • Silence the political dissent and disarray the political opposition by insinuating a military hand in the ongoing political unrest.
  • If all else fails, eventually, provoke the military in taking any unconstitutional step to remove the government and become a political martyr yet again to improve political stature.
  • Let the military/caretaker government deal with the difficult multifarious socio-economic challenges and clean the Augean stables.

Modus Operandi

  • While appearing to play a second fiddle to the military, let the military have a say on issues of national import, with their own perfidious characteristic indifference to national affairs.
  • Keep the military leadership in good humour through obliging and appeasing actions of routine nature, while continuing to guard and advance their political and commercial interests.
  • Through astute political brinkmanship consolidate their rabid dispensation by appeasing the political allies, shrinking the space for the political opponents, and precluding the possibility of any Bonapartist corrective course by the military.
  • Create organized chaos, turbulence, and disorder and induce a managed economic collapse to an extent that holding of elections appears of secondary importance and redundant – thereby seeking more time for consolidating political rule on the pretext of propping up the faltering economy.

Diminishing Military Support

A stock check of the entire situation and the current state of the civil-military relations in Pakistan reveal one straight fact i.e. the military seems to be the principal loser in this ongoing fratricide. Over the years, the fraternal bond of love, affection, and reverence that the military so painstakingly built with the populace with its blood and sweat, emerging as a saviour in almost every national crisis, has come crashing down.

The ensuing animus between the Pakistan Army and the people has affected national unity drastically. All this is perhaps due to the inadvertent misstep of becoming indifferent and aloof (apolitical) – as a consequence, ushering in a corrupt political cartel and then turning a blind eye to the flagrant incompetence, misgovernance, mishandling, and rampant loot and plunder.

The romance with the military has been a dream gone sour, which could only be re-lived, if the miltablishment lives up to its image, understand people’s aspiration, and dole out an even hand, ensuring transparency, fair play, and nudges the stakeholders to sort out the political impasse – rather than leaving an impression of political vicitimisation or a witch-hunt against its erstwhile political master.

The panacea of prevailing crises is hence none other than adherence to the constitution and the rule of law by all state organs without prejudice and distinction and an earnest recourse to the free-fair polls.

Considering Possibilities

While the time of much talked about and expected possibility of sending the political order packing and replacing it with a technocratic government (otherwise a non-starter) to institute a reformative political and economic agenda is gone, there is no other alternative at hand than the resort to bring in a legitimate political dispensation.

The present turn of events suggests the following immediate remedial and imperatives:

  • First and foremost is a perception reset – the battered and sullied image of the military in public eyes needs to be restored.
  • Undertake a Public Relations (PR) initiative to win the hearts and minds of the people.
  • Notwithstanding the government tactics of distancing itself from the episode, ensure that the inquiry into Arshad Sharif’s murder and Imran Khan’s killing attempt is conducted justly and in earnest – and in that, if there is a need for internal institutional reshuffles – it ought to be done!
  • With malice towards none, the military needs to live up to its resolve of remaining apolitical and stop, shun, and refrain from political engineering, eschewing playing the favorites. The image, however, of the COAS and the would-be caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab together at the Kaaba’s doorsteps didn’t serve well, sullying the impression of impartiality further.
  • Being the only institution that has a lien over other state organs (Judiciary, FIA, NAB, IB, Election Commission, et al), yields its influence to enable, empower and engender a righteous course for instituting a just and fair system.
  • Inducement of political pressure on the government to bring in some semblance of political order.
  • Let the situation be taken over by events, while the military continues lending a helping hand on important foreign, domestic, and nation-building issues.
  • Nudging the government for sustainable foreign, defence, and economic policies, as these are potential instability triggers, which indirectly affect the deterrence capability.

Last Word

The founding father was categorical in defining the military’s role – stating, “Don’t forget that the armed forces are the servants of the people. You don’t make national policy; it is the civilians, who decide these issues and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted” – ironically, however, the dictum has been trampled time and again in the name of national interest and progress.

The genius of military leadership demands that it lives up to the abiding aphorism and for a change finally go back to the barracks, but not before cleaning the Augean stables. If you have started it, you ought to finish it also!

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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