Long March organised by Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), a self-proclaimed pro-military outfit consisting of Islamist and militant organisations.  — Photo by AFP
Long March organised by Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), a self-proclaimed pro-military outfit consisting of Islamist and militant organisations. — Photo by AFP

The military-mullah nexus has become somewhat of a political aphorism in Pakistan, especially favoured by the country’s beleaguered “liberals”. Every now and then, you hear the odd journalist or politician claiming that this nexus is dented, fractured, or may even be crumbling. But rarely has the military’s liaison with the mullahs received any critical scrutiny.

Lately, however, some scholars have questioned its theoretical and practical utility for making sense of national security politics and policy in Pakistan.

For example, writing in this magazine, Humeira Iqtidar, an England-based political scientist, has dismissed the argument as a liberal cliché because it overly simplifies the complexity and contradictions of shifting political alignments.


Also read: Moving beyond the cliché


Her critique is based on at least three factors. Firstly, the mullahs are a deeply divided lot. And even if some Islamists parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), aligned with the military in the 1970s and 1980s, they now seek autonomy and distance from the military because of conflicting interests and goals.

Driving this rupture of old bonds is the military’s alignment with the United States in the war on terror, including its acquiescence in drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

Outgoing JI President Munawar Hassan’s public statement in November 2013 that military personnel killed in Fata did not deserve the moniker of “shaheed” (martyr), and the quick rebuke the statement elicited from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) is cited as the latest indication of this divorce.

Secondly, imputing unity to the Islamists overstates the salience of the liberal-Islamist fault line. In fact, the real divide in Pakistani politics is between the haves and have-nots, not between secularism and theocracy.

In other words, economic deprivation and inequality lie at the heart of the main political problems facing Pakistan.

Thirdly, the military itself is subject to deep internal fractures and power struggles between the generals and the colonels, particularly over Pakistan’s embroilment in the US war on terror.

The high command presumably welcomes the alliance with the Americans because it means more dollars for them, but the middle and lower level officers are in a state of near revolt because they hate shooting at their own people.

An organisation with such deep splits can hardly control the dizzying array of mullahs and militants all with varying agendas.

All three of these assumptions are misguided. First, while some journalists and authors may view the military-mullah coalition as a constant in Pakistan’s history, no self-respecting social scientist would deny its contingent nature.

In fact, many scholars have acknowledged the contradictions and friction between its two components (such as the JI’s open opposition to Field Marshall Ayub Khan’s regime), as well as the ideological and political divisions amongst the mullahs which have historically hampered their ability to sustain electoral alliances, such as, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) or the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

  Supporters from the Pakistani religious group, Sunni United Council, carry placards as they gather in front of the Geo television building during an anti-Geo TV protest. — Photo bty AFP
Supporters from the Pakistani religious group, Sunni United Council, carry placards as they gather in front of the Geo television building during an anti-Geo TV protest. — Photo bty AFP

Concluding from the military’s ties to some groups that all of them are in bed with the generals makes for bad social analysis. Complicating the nature and composition of the military-mullah coalition, however, does not reduce its importance as a heuristic device for interpreting the blindingly obvious continuities that most of its critics underestimate.

These include the military’s continuing patronage of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jesh-e-Muhammed (JeM), all of which profoundly affect Pakistan’s internal politics and regional security.

Besides, it is important not to ignore or underestimate the durable power of the hostility consensus against India that underwrites and drives this alliance despite apparent breaches.

A careful analysis of military publications, such as the different editions of the official Pakistan Army Green Book (2000, 2008, 2011) and the National Defense University (NDU)’s journal and annual strategy papers (2000-2012), shows that the military still considers militants as Pakistan’s first line of defence against India as part of a strategy tripod, whose other two legs are conventional force and nuclear deterrence.

In fact, senior officers continue to take pride in the military’s capability to conduct proxy wars against India to offset its conventional superiority despite the disastrous blowback of that policy on Pakistan in the form of terrorism and international isolation.


Instances when military-mullah interests converged since 2000



Practical examples of interest convergence also abound. For instance, in the wake of increased tensions between Pakistan and India after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) held a press conference in Islamabad to tell the world that the Pakistani Taliban were “patriotic” and that the military had “no big issues” with them.

Several commanders of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) reciprocated this friendly gesture by offering their services, including suicide bombers, to the army for fighting India.

In fact, in a 2009 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, then-director general of the ISI, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, went all liberal to defend the Taliban’s right to freedom of speech and their obligation to wage jihad, even as the military was busy forcefully denying this right to secular Baloch nationalists.

Consider also: In February 1999, when then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif invited his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore for bilateral talks, the JI took to the streets, calling it a national betrayal.

The JI’s then-president, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, only evaded police arrest because Military Intelligence (MI) provided him sanctuary. In contrast, when General (retd) Pervez Musharraf went to Agra in July 2001, Ahmed as well as Maulana Fazlur Rehman appeared on a state-run television channel to commend the general for his bold peace initiative.

Not to mention the Musharraf government’s manipulation of electoral rules in the 2002 elections – such as setting a bachelor’s degree as the minimum educational qualification for contesting parliamentary elections – which benefited the MMA. According to some estimates, this provision disqualified about half the previously elected parliamentarians of moderate parties from competing.

At the same time, graduation from madrasas was allowed to count as a bachelor’s degree, so virtually no MMA candidate was blocked. Let us also not forget the MMA’s backing of Musharraf’s far-reaching constitutional amendments in 2003, including the revival of Article 58(2)B.

All of this happened in the 2000s, not the 1970s or 1980s.

It did not stop there. In November 2011, Islamist parties, such as the JI, and militant organisations, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Sipah-e-Sahaba (renamed the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat) and the Ansar-ul-Umma (a reincarnation of the Harkatul Mujahideen), formed the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) in response to the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) aircraft in Salala.

Headed by Maulana Samiul Haq and comprising such militant luminaries as Hafiz Saeed and Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the DPC had a clear anti-India agenda shared by the military, including backing jihad in Kashmir and opposing granting India the status of Most Favoured Nation (MFN).

Just last month, many of the same groups carried out loud countrywide protests to ‘save the honour’ of their khaki patrons after Geo Television aired Hamid Mir’s accusations that the ISI chief was involved in the assassination attack on Mir.

Bottom line: The military continues to use these groups to maintain its legitimacy and protect its interests against perceived encroachment by the civilians, be they politicians or journalists. Surely, viewing this relationship as dynamic and intricate does not mean that we simply dismiss it as a misguided banality no longer relevant to state-society dynamics in Pakistan.

  Difa-e-Pakistan Council Long March. — Photo by AFP
Difa-e-Pakistan Council Long March. — Photo by AFP

Secondly, the universalistic have versus have-not binary propounded by Iqtidar and others is itself devoid of context and history.

Let us assume for a moment that this economic deprivation thesis offers the best framework to study politics in Pakistan. It, therefore, ought to provide the most accurate explanations for the country’s main political problems, such as terrorism.

However, applying this logic to terrorism actually produces a dangerously simple answer: Terrorist violence is a product of poverty.

Since have-nots cannot peacefully overturn the exploitative socio-economic order, they have no other option but to resort to violent means.

In this view, terrorism becomes almost heroic and revolutionary, just another weapon of the poor against the powerful.

Not only has recent political science scholarship on terrorism debunked the poverty thesis, such a conclusion would make sense if terrorism were a smart bomb, but it is not.

Islamist militants are equal opportunity murderers who have indiscriminately slaughtered over 40,000 civilians in the last 10 years, with the have-nots most likely bearing the brunt of their brutalities.

A related problem in this apparently “progressive” narrative is its contempt for “bourgeois” democracy, and especially the “secular” parties, such as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

In another oversimplification, these parties are lampooned as family fiefdoms devoid of the will or capacity to provide good governance and social development.

These parties, therefore, use religious groups as bogeymen to divert attention from their own incompetence and avarice.

The main evidence for this claim is that Islamist parties have not been in power long enough, so we could not possibly hold them responsible for Pakistan’s underdevelopment.

There are at least two gaping holes in this argument. Firstly, the PPP, or even the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), have hardly ever attacked the Islamist parties for creating obstacles to economic reform.

What liberal politicians, mainly from the PPP, have done is to challenge the Islamists’ obscurantist agenda, for instance, by opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws at high personal risk.

  JuD Rally in Karachi for ISI. — File Photo
JuD Rally in Karachi for ISI. — File Photo

Secondly, and even more importantly, by laying most of the blame at the door of the non-Islamist parties and counterfactually exonerating the Islamists, this sanitised discourse obscures the fundamental political problem of Pakistan: Military dominance over civilian authorities.

Since Pakistan gained independence in 1947, only once has an elected government completed its tenure and peacefully transferred power to another elected government.

Even when they were not directly in control of the government, the armed forces maintained a firm grip on national politics.

At the outset of statehood, various factors, including weak national solidarity and the perceived existential threat from India, helped empower the military to take national security and ultimately government into its own hands.

As the military’s habit of disrupting the natural course of politics gained strength over time, it arrested the development of democratic institutions, including political parties and the parliament; weakened state capacity by substituting military skills with methods for civilian problem solving; undermined economic development by diverting scarce resources from national welfare to the development and procurement of arms and and fragmented civil society along ethno-regional and religious lines through divide and rule politics.

Yet, the military’s deleterious effects on Pakistan’s political and economic development barely appear as a footnote in the left-inspired narrative of dysfunction.

Seen from the have versus have-not perspective, military officers are shorn of their institutional identity and become part of the predatory bourgeoisie interested in keeping the have-nots down.

Therefore, even when analysts acknowledge the military elephant in the room, they single out the generals.

In fact, commentators and authors like Tariq Ali caricaturise them as greedy ogres who are remote-controlled from Washington.

These rich neo-Marxist imaginings notwithstanding, geopolitics is rarely this simple. Any credible scholar of international politics and civil-military relations will tell you that the generals in Pakistan are not simple extensions of America’s evil agenda who intervene in politics to serve their foreign master’s interests.

Of course, America has exercised significant influence over Pakistan’s political development and foreign policy, but that does not make the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) an outpost of the Pentagon.

If that were true, we would need to explain how these presumed khaki puppets have managed to consistently cross their Yankee bosses, for instance, by pursuing nuclear weapons or supporting militant groups that have killed American troops in Afghanistan.

There may be generals beholden to the US who are more interested in lining their pockets than in anything else, but this view misses the forest for the trees. It mistakes personal greed for institutional policy choices borne out of the military’s tradition of tutelage over civilian governments and national security.

Third, like military organisations elsewhere, the Pakistani military is not immune to disagreement in its ranks.

But having studied the organisation for over a decade through a close analysis of its training syllabi, doctrinal publications, professional journals, strategy documents and extensive interviews with officers, I can say with a good degree of confidence that the military in Pakistan is a relatively coherent organisation compared to other politically meddlesome militaries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This is in part due to its clear and present external combat mission against India, which induces a rally-around-the-flag effect lacking in most praetorian militaries fighting internal enemies.

Conceptualising the military as a unitary actor is, thus, more than a matter of theoretical convenience or selling the military’s snake oil; it is borne by actual evidence.

Differences of opinion do exist among officers and soldiers, between junior and senior officers, and even across the general staff.

These are regularly aired at different levels — from regimental darbars to the corps commanders’ meetings. But there are also strong normative pressures for conformity with institutional thinking, including shared expectations about appropriate behaviour.

Taught identical curricula at each stage of their careers, officers tend to hold fairly predictable views about the army’s proper institutional role in state and society.

Although these views may be coloured by an officer’s ethnic origins, social ties, political affiliations or even personal ambition, the history of the Pakistani military in politics and the uniformity of views expressed by officers show that the sense of institutional unity, loyalty and purpose instilled by professional indoctrination, especially against the threat from India and the guardian role in which it casts the army, can often be a more powerful indicator of officers’ behaviour than other factors.

Besides, there is little room for dissent or disobedience once the army chief or other senior officers make a decision.

Those who dare violate military discipline can incur heavy personal and professional costs.

Of course, there is no denying that many Pakistani officers would prefer not to fight what is called “America’s war” on Pakistani soil but does this presumed reluctance to kill other Pakistanis translate into organised resistance to institutional decisions?

We have all heard rumours, insinuations and conspiracies but the actual evidence of this alleged institutional fragmentation is thin to non-existent.

Barring isolated incidents of insubordination, there have been no reported mass desertions by junior officers or soldiers. Aside from alarmist predictions of a coup led by resentful junior officers after the US Special Forces raid to kill Osama bin Laden, there have been no colonels’ coups rampant in other divided militaries such as Cold War-era Greece, Turkey and Thailand.

While the army faced some internal pushback because of unexpectedly high casualties in the early phases of military operations in Fata, there is no credible evidence of any sustained internal resistance to the high command’s orders either.

My interviews with over two dozen retired and active duty officers, including Pakhtuns who have fought the Taliban, revealed that they see themselves first and foremost as military men.

And by the very nature of the military profession as management of organised violence against enemies of the state, soldiers are nationalists and not ethnic loyalists. Besides, the powerful effects of military indoctrination mean that Pakistani officers view everything through the lens of India.

The NDU’s most recent strategy documents project India and other assorted infidel international baddies, such as the US and Israel, as the real sponsors of the TTP.

These external powers are presumably seeking to implode the land of the pure to deprive it of its prized nuclear weapons.

Many officers also view alleged Indian collusion with the Taliban as payback for the army’s backing of the Kashmiri insurgency. The Taliban, therefore, become a proxy enemy and fighting it forms an essential part of the military’s larger professional mission.

The presence of foreign militants in Fata only lends credence to this “international conspiracy”.

Also, if the past is any guide, the Pakistan Army has had no trouble killing fellow citizens in East Pakistan or, for that matter, in Balochistan.

Why should it be any less willing to fire away in the tribal areas especially if it thinks that it is defending the motherland from foreign agents?

Iqtidar and others find it hard to believe that the military can continue to support the mullahs and the militants since, unlike during Ziaul Haq’s time, there are no Islamist generals in today’s army.

Again, making sense of this apparent contradiction requires a focus on military organisational dynamics.

Whether an officer has a beard or not is generally immaterial to his professional conduct. A general does not need to be a rabid fanatic like Hamid Gul to support the jihadi enterprise.

Apparently, secular generals such as Jahangir Karamat, Musharraf and others, have been equally committed to it for strategic reasons. Put simply, what matters most is institutional policy.

Thus, the military disunity thesis does not stand up to logic. You do not really need an entire 600,000 strong army to pursue jihad in the region or to aid Islamists in domestic politics.

What you do need are coherent clandestine agencies, such as the ISI, which enjoy a good degree of operational autonomy but operate within the broad policy parameters set by the military high command.

Of course, the ISI’s control over disparate militant groups cannot possibly be perfect or smooth but the agency has, in fact, proved itself quite adept at organising and coordinating even fractured insurgencies through its selective distribution of patronage, as it did with the Peshawar-based seven Afghan Mujahideen parties during the covert jihad against the former Soviet Union, or as it is doing now with the Afghan Taliban fighting the US-led coalition forces.

It can also dump a recalcitrant partner, like it did with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JLKF) in the early 1990s, and switch support to other more pliant proxy groups like the LeT.

Ultimately, the scholars advising others to focus on disunity among the military and the mullahs to interpret Pakistani politics need to apply the same method to the other side of the divide.

Why examine only the divisions among the mullahs or the military while painting liberals with a broad brush? After all, there are social liberals who are political conservatives, and political liberals who have socially conservative preferences.

For instance, many Pakistani liberals supported Musharraf’s military regime yet many also actively opposed it. And, above all, there are those who support military operations in Fata and those who do not.

Let us conclude with a thought experiment: Imagine if former president Asif Ali Zardari or even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had ridiculed the martyr status of Pakistani soldiers like Munawar Hassan did.

Would the military have then simply stopped at issuing a public statement? Remember there was no apology from the JI, nor even a half-hearted expression of regret.

Yet, the military never called the party’s patriotic credentials into question. In contrast, the military has frequently labeled the more moderate politicians as national security threats on mere suspicion or even lesser charges.

What explains this selective policing of the national interest? You cannot answer this fundamental question without acknowledging the continued relevance of the military-mullah coalition.

Of course, this coalitional view is just one of the many tools of political analysis, which should obviously be used with due regard for context and complexity.

But simply discarding it on the basis of unfounded assumptions is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water.


— The author is a visiting professor at the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (Harvard University Press, 2014). You can tweet him @aqilshah_


This article was published in the Herald June 2014 issue.


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