Soft coups

July 07, 2015


The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

PAKISTAN is experiencing a ‘soft coup’ where the military has partially hobbled the Balochistan, Sindh and central governments. Soft coup is a journalistic concept, since there is little academic work on it. Nevertheless, it represents an interesting research area given its novelty and possible attraction for politically ambitious armies elsewhere.

But what is a soft coup and why call only the current situation so, given the army’s traditionally vast powers even under democracy? What is unique now is firstly the domain. Previous military political forays largely involved surreptitiously destabilising neighbours and Pakistani elected governments. The security establishment has now entered legal domains handled normally by civilian authorities, ie, domestic security.

This legality produces the second difference, ie, the military’s visibility, unlike its previous surreptitious forays. Army boldness has enthralled those viewing it as Pakistan’s saviour of first resort. Some call it Pakistan’s Kemalist moment which could transform the nation’s destiny. But can soft coups succeed where armies remain constrained, when three hard coups made things worse despite unbridled army powers? Supporters present three reasons why they may.

Firstly, the army has not supplanted politicians, hence eliminating the problems Pakistani dictators faced in crushing dominant politicians and creating artificial alternatives. Secondly, it is sticking to its core expertise, ie, security matters, rather than targeting everything. Thirdly, Pakistan faces mass life-threatening terrorism threats which necessitate unusual steps.

Mission creep is evident in Sindh.

Thus, even supporters accept that success requires the military sticking to its core expertise, keeping politicians engaged and pursuing mass life-threatening threats only.

Laced with this framework, we now review the soft coup’s trajectory on its first anniversary. The ‘soft coup’ started with Zarb-i-Azb’s unilateral launch while politicians were pursuing talks. However, politicians eventually accepted the operation. So, the three conditions above were largely met. The security apparatus next targeted Karachi. Fata and Karachi then represent the soft coup’s best success chances.

While military action is an unsuitable primary strategy in Balochistan where underlying issues are political, military-led crackdowns in Karachi and Fata were long overdue. However, even there, durable success against terrorism is not assured since politicians are not improving governance simultaneously. Clearly, this is not the army’s fault. But as important as assigning individual blame is analysing overall team success chances.

As in cricket, this depends not on the strongest player, but overall team capacities, especially when weaker players cannot be immediately capacitated or replaced by better players. Thirty years of failed hard coups prove the impossibility of replacing weak politicians by artificial means.

This sombre analysis becomes sombre still in other domains, where mission creep is evident given the security establishment’s messianic tendencies. Take military courts. While politicians are on-board, such courts fail the other two success conditions. Dispensing justice is not the military’s expertise.

Inadequate jail security means terrorists often escape or maintain external communica­tion. However, these issues were tackled better by assigning jail security (a military expertise) to the army while strengthening ATCs.

Mission creep is also evident in Sindh now where Rangers are moving from targeting terrorists to capturing corrupt officials purportedly financing terrorism. Corruption costs Karachi Rs230 billion annually, Rangers claim. Is this figure based on careful Rangers’ investigations or just plucked from unreliable media reports?

Corruption in Karachi is likely higher than elsewhere and must be curbed but by federal authorities and courts. This mission creep is incre­asingly failing all three success conditions as media trials and talks of minus one formulae and bans on parties become louder. Handling matters Rambo-style in Sindh and Balochistan can cause complications.

Thus, like hard coups, soft coups will likely largely fail in quickly resolving Pakistan’s deep-seated problems. So suggests the unexciting but realistic world of social sciences analysis. However, there is also the exciting but unrealistic Arabian Nights world where genies fulfil impossible wishes and miracles occur frequently. There, soft coups may appear as realistic short cuts for miraculously changing Pakistani destiny overnight.

The security establishment should focus on fighting terrorists in Karachi and Fata and realise that Pakistan’s destiny and development pace is ultimately tied to the undoubtedly weak capacities of its politicians and not military capacities. This reality evokes horror among many who worry that Pakistan will collapse politically under inept politicians without army interventions. They can take comfort in the fact that Pakistan’s worst violent political turmoil has all started under military dictators aiming to save Pakistan from politicians.

The writer is a political economist.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2015

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