Civil-military Relations

Written by Lyba Mobeen 11:47 am Book Reviews, Published Content

Pakistan’s Perpetual Crisis and Civil-military Relations (2008-2012)

Dr. Nasreen Akhtar, the author of “Pakistan’s Perpetual Crisis and Civil-military Relations (2008-2012),” critically analyzes the relationship between the civilian governments and the military in Pakistan. She examines the history of Pakistan’s civil-military relations and explains how and why the state’s military became involved in the political sphere.
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Lyba Mobeen is currently pursuing her degree of BS-International Relations from Islamic University Islamabad.


The book “Pakistan’s Perpetual Crisis and Civil-military Relations (2008-2012): Internal and International Factors” is written by Dr. Nasreen Akhtar. It was published in 2020 in Karachi by the Royal Book Company. Dr. Nasreen Akhtar, based in Pakistan, is a Ph.D. scholar and expert in the discipline of international relations.

She has teaching and research experience of over 18 years at various universities, think tanks, and research centers. She is currently serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the International Islamic University Islamabad.

The prime theme of the book revolves around the civil-military relations in Pakistan, a heated, sensitive, and much-debated topic every now and then. Pakistan is always regarded as a praetorian and security state ever since its inception, and this claim has been cemented through the four military regimes it witnessed in 78 years.

The book provides a historic insight into the civil and military interaction, and cooperation and differences in policies and opinions over a range of internal and external issues of national security importance, specifically during the Zardari government 2008-2012.

Understanding Pakistan’s Civil-military Relations

For better understanding, the reviewer has dissected the book into three sections, the theoretical perspective which explains the rationale for the intervention of the military into politics, the overview of civil-military relations from 1947 to 2007, and the detailed description of the dynamic and constantly evolving civil-military relations in the Pakistan People’s Party’s fourth tenure i.e., 2008-2012.

Perspectives on the Military’s Involvement in Politics

In the first section, Dr. Nasreen Akhtar has provided four different perspectives for the logical and theoretical explanation of why the military exceeds barracks and intervenes in politics.

  • Structural Perspective

The structural perspective is of the view that a state’s weak institutional foundations and loopholes in the political structure, including a feeble political system (sham democracy in the case of Pakistan), incompetency of elected governments, and overlapping and corrupt institutions set the perfect stage for the military to exploit the political system—which it does when given the opportunity.

  • Societal Perspective

The societal perspective suggests that when the civilian government loses legitimacy and public support, the army’s image and perception improve simultaneously, and they gain societal legitimacy. In the case of Pakistan, the army has already projected itself as the guardian, savior, and protector of the state by efficiently rescuing the government and people whenever summoned, either in the case of man-made or natural disasters.

Hence, when people lose faith in the civil government, they start looking up to the military to come and rescue them from the prevalent crises, as it had done previously.

  • International Factor Perspective
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The international factor perspective asserts that not only the internal but also the regional and international factors also pave the path for the military to come to political power. As far as Pakistan is concerned, whenever the civilian government failed to address and cater to the American concerns, it has faced adjudication and the military has come to power, frequently pushing Pakistan under the US’s capitalist umbrella.

  • Soldier Perspective

These theoretical explanations provide the analysis of how the military’s intervention in politics is made possible. These factors do create a favorable milieu for the military but they do not provoke a military takeover. The provocation comes from a “triggering factor” which is always circumstantial and leads to a coup. In this respect, the soldier perspective proclaims that the military exceeds its limitations whenever its corporate interests are at stake and endangered.

The corporate interests of the military include unhindered access to budget, autonomy over its own affairs, personal ambitions and interests of military generals, and no politicization of the army institutes. Whenever any of these interests are jeopardized by the civil governments, the army takes over.

This is true for Pakistan since, in 1958, the army perceived that the 1959 general elections would bring forth a government that could hinder the unquestioned military access to the budget, triggering the first martial law in the country. Similarly, in 1977, the anti-Bhutto and election rigging movements along with Bhutto’s ambitious efforts to bring the armed forces under his control and the dismissal of General Musharraf in 1999, set off the third and fourth martial laws.

Structural/Societal/International factors + Triggering Factor = Military Coup

  • Rational Choice Theory’s Perspective

However, during Asif Ali Zardari’s tenure (2008-2012), despite having instances where the army’s corporate interests were put in peril and the national security and sovereignty were questioned, the army preferred to keep a low profile by choice, which accounts for the rational choice theory’s perspective.

As per this theory, any party chooses to act in a certain manner after an extensive cost-benefit analysis. In the army’s context, the institute interferes in political matters when the benefits outplay the costs. Since after the Musharraf era, the army’s image had taken quite a blow, therefore, it decided to improve public opinion regarding the armed forces, deal with internal and external security threats, and pull the strings from behind the stage rather than performing in front.

A Historical Analysis of Pakistan’s Civil-military Relations

In the second section, Dr. Nasreen Akhtar provided a brief historic analysis of the civil-military relationship since the independence of Pakistan. If there is to pinpoint a defining moment that caused military supremacy over civilian superiority, it was the untimely death of Quaid-e-Azam and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan. Ever since then, the army has been an important stakeholder in political affairs.

Whether it was the appointment of Ghulam Muhammad as the governor-general (1951), dismissal of Khwaja Nazimuddin (1953), dissolution of assemblies (1954), designation of Choudhary Muhammad Ali as prime minister (1955), forceful resignation of Ghulam Mohammad and the appointment of Iskander Mirza (1956), hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1979), sacking of Junejo (1988), adjudication of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and 1996, dismissal of Nawaz Sharif in 1993 and 1999, or the imposition of martial laws (1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999), the armed forces have always taken the driving seat in matters of national and political importance.

They have covertly or overtly played their roles in removing the political figures from their offices as soon as they become “threats,” as per the military’s perception. The civil-military relations throughout the political history (1947-2007) of Pakistan have been under constant strain and generally remained unstable due to the decisions and policies opted by the elected leaders and the military.

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The army’s notion is that with Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination and his alleged perpetrators sitting in the National Assembly, the army could not trust the civilian government to govern the country. therefore, the civil-military bureaucracy has remained skeptical about the politicians and has kept important powers to itself.

The non-competitiveness of civilian governments, their bad governance, inability to maintain law and order and deal with internal crises, prevailing corruption, and threat to their pivotal interests, has been a constant bone of contention between the army and the civil governments.

The first dismissal carried out by the military in Pakistan’s history was that of Khwaja Nazimuddin, on the pretext that he was the first political leader to cut the military’s budget by 1/3rd. This speaks a lot about how and why the military’s intervention works. Similarly, in 1958, the severe internal political chaos amounting to religious politics, “compelled” the army to take power from the civilians as they were inept to maintain peace within the country and staged the first coup.

So now, the army which was acting from behind the stumps came in front of the wickets to play. Once in power, the dictators have left no stone unturned to maximize and constitutionalize their powers through referendums and elections. The civil-military relations worked cordially as long as the civil governments kept out of the military bounds and did not challenge the military’s opinion in matters of national security and foreign policy concerning India, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.

However, when the civil governments tried to overpower military institutions, undermine their autonomy, or defy their roles in critical state affairs, the military has intervened and played a significant role in their removal from offices—as in the case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1977), Benazir Bhutto (1990 and 1996) and Nawaz Sharif (1992 and 1999). Nevertheless, there were obviously many other factors that led to the dismissal of these leaders.

Civil-military Relations in the Zardari Era

The third and the prime section of the book deals with the emerging intra-state and interstate challenges which shaped, improved, and deteriorated civil-military relations. The Zardari era (2008-2012) has been quite against the tide as far as the military is concerned. The army led by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani took a back seat from politics and let the politicians do their work but this did not mean that the military stepped back from the matters of national importance.

Pakistan’s military continued to influence its foreign policy with respect to India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. The principal reason why the army took a secondary position is that General Pervez Musharraf’s regime had fairly distorted the army’s image as the savior and guardian due to a number of hostile policies.

These policies include the imposition of an emergency, dismissal of 60 judges of the Supreme Court including the chief justice, the use of force against the Baloch nationalists, and the provision of NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance) to PPP – all in 2007.

The brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 provided Asif Ali Zardari with the sympathy vote, which was sufficient for bringing him to power, through a coalition government with PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-N), MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), and ANP (Awami National Party). This political union alienated Musharraf and caused him to resign.

After Musharraf’s disappearance from the political chequerboard, the army became more conscious of its position and policies to restore the lost prestige. The Zardari regime was flooded with various challenges at home and abroad which kept his government under constant critique and distaste from the military and public.

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The mismanagement and poor governance displayed in the disastrous floods of 2010, escalating corruption cases, the infamous Hajj scam (2010), the nationwide lawyers’ movement (2009), the PPP-PMLN rift over the restoration of judiciary, increasing poverty, deteriorating economic conditions, the rise of ethnic politics in Sindh, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), all of them made the military wary of Zardari and his government and termed him as a “national security threat.”

However, where many challenges caused a divergence in the civil-military relations, simultaneously many crises brought them closer in cooperation and communication. Operation Rah-e-Raast in Swat, mutual consent over improving the socio-economic and political participation and development of Balochistan, Operation Neptune Spear which killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and the Salala check posts attack on the Pakistani soldiers (November 2011), brought the civil and military factions on the same page.

The government made sure to keep popping the political milieu with a grave crisis one way or another which could result in a coup, but the military kept its cool and did not take over. The 26/11 Mumbai Taj Attacks, the acceptance of the Kerry-Lugar Bill by Zardari’s government (2009), the issuance of a visa to Raymond Davis whom the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) had not given security clearance (March 2011), Zardari’s pro-Indian stance on Kashmir and nuclear policy and his over-reliance on India’s friendship, and the notorious Memogate scandal, all brought the military and civil governments on a one-on-one confrontation.

While the army was on the verge of reacting to Zardari’s government, due to the political consensus against the military takeover, it prioritized dealing with security challenges first, and the vigilant and non-ambitious Chief of Army Staff collectively kept the army away from any adventure. Surprisingly, even after so many blockades, Asif Ali Zardari became the first president in the history of Pakistan to complete his tenure of five years.


The book is a great learning experience for somebody who is willing to understand and have an insight into the civil-military relations in Pakistan’s context, right from the beginning till 2013. As sensitive as this topic is, Dr. Nasreen Akhtar has carefully presented the factual information and prevented biases toward any of the concerned factions.

The book keeps the reader intrigued and hooked till the end and conveys its message in a simple, comprehensible, and unambiguous diction. The book clearly outlines the reasons behind the army being the most effective, disciplined, and capable institution of the country and where the civil political plethora lacks. The chief reason behind the instability and feeble foundations of Pakistan’s institutions is the overlapping and overstepping of power and authority between the government, judiciary, and army institutions.

Each of these institutions has tried to overpower and undermine the other establishments when given even the slightest of opportunities. The emergence of internal and external security threats ever since Pakistan’s inception and four lengthy dictatorial regimes have caused the armed forces to be modernized, organized, and well-equipped for every calamity.

Nonetheless, their entry into politics owes to lawlessness, corruption, poor socio-economic conditions, bad governance, and preference for personal gains over the country’s betterment by the civilian government. This imbalance of power between the civil and military institutes in the favour of the military has caused the subversion of civilian authority, resulting in the further weakening of the fragile and pseudo-democratic trends Pakistan has had.

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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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