SINCE 1947, Pakistan has passed through an unending sequence of critical junctures. Reeling from crisis to crisis, and plagued by war, the machinations of hostile external forces, and the depredations of uniformly corrupt and incompetent civilian governments, Pakistan has always been saved from complete and utter destruction by the timely and judicious intervention of the military, the only institution in the country possessing the expertise and wherewithal to address these complex problems. Even today, as Pakistan experiences yet another political impasse featuring intractable political forces engaged in an escalating cycle of antagonism, it may be the case that only the military possesses the deftness of touch and the maturity of outlook required to bring matters to a swift and efficacious conclusion.

Or so we are told. As Aqil Shah argues in The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, the military’s continued involvement in Pakistani politics can be attributed, amongst other things, to its self-perception as the only organisation capable of defending Pakistan from the myriad threats, violent and otherwise, that it allegedly faces.

Drawing on a variety of different sources, including interviews of military personnel, declassified military documents, and educational materials and publications emerging out of the National Defence University, Shah convincingly demonstrates that the military’s belief in its unique ability to protect and pursue Pakistan’s national interests, defined in the broadest possible sense, has deep roots in the institutional culture of the organisation. When the military topples civilian governments or shapes foreign policy, it does not just do so to protect its corporate interests; while that may play a role in the military’s decision-making, Shah argues that the military genuinely possesses a sense of manifest destiny with regards to the role it has assumed as the guardian of Pakistan.

The problem with this, pointed out repeatedly over the course of the book, is that the role the military has historically played in Pakistan’s politics has been counterproductive at best. With a clarity and directness that is refreshing, The Army and Democracy attributes Pakistan’s lack of democratisation to the military’s formal and informal political interventions, further suggesting that this has, on the balance, greatly impacted the state’s ability to effectively resolve the perennial problems of ethnic conflict, governance, and growth that have blighted Pakistan’s history.

Indeed, as is demonstrated through a detailed, historical overview of the different episodes of military rule in Pakistan, the military has actively damaged democratic institutions and politics, co-opting and controlling different civilian actors through a combination of coercive and non-coercive measures. If Pakistan’s democratic governments appear to be led by poorly institutionalised political parties stuffed full of opportunistic patronage politicians, and if the courts, parliament, and civil society have historically been unable to rein in the military, it is largely because the military has prevented them from developing into more effective mechanisms through which to achieve substantive democratisation. The banning of political parties, the introduction of presidential forms of government, the dismissal of democratically elected leaders through the use of dubious constitutional amendments, and the suppression of alternative, radical forms of politics, are all routine features of military politics that have systematically undermined democracy in Pakistan.

In tracing out the dominance of the military in Pakistan, Shah goes over familiar ground when he outlines how the perceived threat posed by India, coupled with the ethnic tensions between East and West Pakistan that quickly surfaced after 1947, provided the predominantly Punjabi military with both the opportunity and the justification to play a more active role in Pakistan’s politics. In a departure from scholars like Hamza Alavi, whose arguments about the “overdeveloped” nature of the colonial state have often served as a starting point for understanding the power of the Pakistani military relative to civilian governments, Shah suggests that the country’s descent into authoritarianism was not inevitable. On the contrary, it was leaders in the Muslim League, including Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, who invoked the spectre of Indian aggression to legitimise attempts at centralising state power in the face of Bengali demands for greater autonomy and representation.

The identification of India as an existential threat to Pakistan, and the subordination of all other interests to the need to build an effective military, provided the armed forces with the means through which to strengthen their internal organisational coherence and establish an India-centric ideological worldview. It also reinforced biases, inherited from the colonial tradition, which viewed civilian politicians as being utterly incapable of dealing with the problems they confronted.

As the civilian government ceded increasing amounts of space to the military, particularly after the death of Liaquat Ali Khan, the military assumed a more central role with regards to the formulation of policy in a number of areas including the establishment of strategic ties with the United States in the context of the Cold War, and the form to be taken by the nascent federal system in Pakistan. Taking over responsibility for formulating responses to the external and, crucially, internal threats it believed Pakistan faced, the military developed as an institution that deliberately cultivated a mindset defined by a contempt for civilian politics and politicians, extreme suspicion with regards to India and other external forces, and a belief in the efficacy of violence in dealing with ethnic and ideological tensions within the country.

The wide-ranging nature of the military’s responsibilities in this early period, coupled with its almost unchallenged authority, allowed it to define ‘national interest’ and then cement its role as the entity best suited to pursuing it. Throughout the narrative that unfolds in The Army and Democracy, it becomes evident that even though circumstances have changed, and the military has often been forced to adapt to changed political environments, these beliefs remain the cornerstone of the military’s approach to understanding, and engaging in, politics.

The Army and Democracy is arguably at its most interesting and informative when it details the socialisation process that takes place within the military. Through his analysis of the military’s publications and training materials, as well as his interviews with military personnel, Shah provides a rare insight into the internal workings of the military mind. Whatever the original imperatives might have been that gave rise to the military’s dominance and worldview, it becomes clear that the perpetuation of these beliefs and ideas is the outcome of concerted efforts to inculcate them within the military’s rank and file.

The sociological approach Shah takes to understanding the military’s institutional norms, beliefs, and values is extremely useful because it helps to illuminate and explain many of the actions that its personnel take; for example, the military’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution and democracy makes more sense when recognising how the National Defence University’s curriculum for 2012-13 only devotes two hours (out of a total of 987) to explaining and understanding the Constitution, with only a fraction of this time being used to understand the military’s constitutional role. Similarly, when it comes to broader strategic questions, such as the wisdom of maintaining militant proxies in Afghanistan or the alleged role played by India in fomenting unrest in Balochistan, the policy papers and articles disseminated within the military play a fundamental role in fostering a culture that, as Shah points out, is steeped in “conspiracy and paranoia.”

Furthermore, the military has actively disseminated its beliefs throughout the rest of society, using the ISPR and close links with the media and journalists to align public opinion with its own strategic and political objectives. The demonisation of democratic politics, the hysterical approach to relations with India, and the enthusiasm for Islamisation that are now a central part of the public discourse are in no small part the result of the military’s efforts to garner greater legitimacy for itself.

For Shah, this institutional culture is also the primary impediment to the exercise of effective civilian power and oversight over the military. While there are a range of potential measures through which civilian governments could potentially exercise a check on the military, their chances of success are unlikely in the absence of the military’s own willingness to submit to such control. Again and again, throughout Pakistan’s history, attempts to reform the military and bring it within the ambit of civilian jurisdiction have failed, and have almost invariably prompted a backlash ranging from outright coups to the behind-the-scenes attempts to destabilise and weaken democratically elected leaders.

Even when the military has apparently been in retreat, as was the case after 1971, or has voluntarily ceded political space, such as in the aftermath of the Musharraf regime, Shah makes it clear that the military has always retained the option of undertaking more direct interventions while making use of other, informal means through which to discharge its self-appointed role as the custodian of national interest.

For all its attention to detail and scholarly insights, The Army and Democracy is an extremely accessible read that will undoubtedly be of great value to experts in the field as well as a more general audience. There are, however, two areas that could have benefitted from a more comprehensive treatment in the book. Firstly, The Army and Democracy could have said more on the dynamics of collaboration and co-optation that often define civil-military relations, particularly in the context of electoral politics. While the book does devote some time to this particular theme, especially when discussing the use of patronage and funding to prop up acceptable civilian actors, it would have been interesting to see more about the effects of this on political parties and governance.

Secondly, while the book understandably focuses on the internal culture of the military, and the way in which this has shaped attitudes towards civilian governments and democracy, not enough attention is paid to the question of the military’s material interests. While it is certainly the case that the military’s capacity to define the threats faced by Pakistan, and its belief in its ability to deal with them, helps to explain the military’s political actions, it is difficult to discount the role that concrete economic interests might play in prompting interventions in the political sphere.

When discussing the Musharraf era and its aftermath, Shah argues that there has been a shift in the way the military views a number of issues currently being faced by Pakistan. For one, the military has apparently decided to play a less “activist” role in politics, focusing instead on manipulating events in the background rather than engaging in overt interventions. It also appears to be the case that the military has slowly started to reevaluate its support for Islamist militants, recognising the disastrous effect they have had on Pakistan domestically. In both areas, however, it is clear that change, to the extent it is taking place, is slow; the military’s voluntary withdrawal from formal politics does not herald a new appreciation for civilian politicians or democracy, and there are many within the military who think the long-term benefits to be accrued by working with militant proxies outweigh the short-term costs of doing so. Given the conservatism inherent to all militaries, as well as the lack of any effective means through which to challenge the military in Pakistan, it is unsurprising that this is the case. However, as Pakistan’s problems continue to worsen, it is also increasingly clear that more democracy, not less, will be required to build the kind of accountable, participatory, and responsive governments that can deal with these issues.

In a context where almost seven decades of overt and covert military involvement in politics have largely served to exacerbate Pakistan’s most deep-rooted problems, it is clear that things will have to change before they can improve.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at LUMS

The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan


By Aqil Shah

Harvard University Press, Cambridge

ISBN 978-0-674-72893-6



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