Being an army chief in Pakistan has always meant being more than just a senior general in charge of a military. Almost 33 years out of Pakistan’s 71 have been superintended by military rule. In a lengthy essay in the August 1972 issue of The Left Review, the social scientist Hamza Alavi demonstrates how, at the time of its creation, the only established state institution Pakistan inherited was the army.
Alavi explains that, in August 1947, Pakistan lacked economic resources and political institutions, but inherited an established military from the retreating British colonialists. Pakistan struggled to develop civilian political institutions; its military was the only organised state entity to resolve issues triggered by political conflicts between “underdeveloped civilian bodies”.
Therefore almost every Pakistani military chief has brought something more to the table than what he was expected to. Pakistan’s first military chief was a high-ranking British army man, Gen Frank Messervy. He made his presence felt almost immediately. H.V. Hodson, in his 1969 book The Great Divide, writes that when then governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), George Cunningham, informed Messervy that the chief minister of NWFP, Abdul Qayyum Khan, was preparing tribal Pakhtun men for a clandestine invasion of India-held Kashmir, Messervy approached Muhammad Ali Jinnah and asked him to restrain Qayyum Khan.
Does military influence deter the maturing of political institutions or propel the country to take steps that politicians refuse?
Messervy retired in February 1948, and was replaced by another British military man, Gen Douglas Gracey. Though picked by Jinnah, some historians believe that, like Messervy, he, too, deterred Jinnah from sending troops inside Kashmir. However, Maj Gen Wajahat Hussain, in his 2010 book Memories of a Soldier: 1947, Before, During, After, writes that this was a latter-day concoction and that Gracey actually did much to organise Pakistan’s regular troops on the Kashmir border.
The ‘misperception’ may have been proliferated by Maj Gen Akbar Khan. Hussain writes that Akbar and Gracey were at loggerheads. In his 1975 biography Raiders in Kashmir, Akbar comes across as someone who wasn’t happy about the manner in which Gracey had conducted the Kashmir operation.
Akbar was arrested in early 1951 for planning a coup against Liaquat Ali Khan’s government. According to Hasan Zaheer’s 1998 book The Rawalpindi Conspiracy, Akbar, along with 11 other military officers and at least four members of the Communist Party of Pakistan, were hauled up and charged for planning to overthrow the government.
Gracey was eased out in January 1951 and replaced by Ayub Khan, the first Pakistani military chief of the country who then became commander-in-chief (C-in-C). The new C-in-C was active in ‘advising’ the many prime ministers who came and went till 1958. In late 1958, Ayub Khan installed the country’s first military rule through a coup.
The causes of the coup, Ayub claimed, were growing corruption, political instability and ‘the peddling of Islam for political gains by the politicians.’
Ayub Khan proclaimed himself Field Marshal and got himself ‘elected’ as president. He made Gen Muhammad Musa the new military chief. Ayub’s ‘modernist’ regime was largely popular until Pakistan went to war with India in 1965. Gen Musa remained entirely loyal to the government.
In September 1966, Musa retired and was replaced by Gen Yahya Khan as army chief. As the effects of the war began to impact the economy, Ayub’s regime began to face rising opposition. In March 1969, Yahya nudged Ayub to resign.
Yahya Khan, a colourful character, then became president. Though today he is remembered as the general under whose command the country lost its eastern wing (East Pakistan) in December 1971, it was also during Yahya Khan’s rule that Pakistan held its very first election based on adult franchise.
But due to the East Pakistan debacle, a group of military officers forced Yahya to resign and hand over power to Z.A. Bhutto, whose party had won the second-largest number of seats in the 1970 election. Bhutto appointed Lt Gen Gul Hassan as the new army chief. Hassan had been one of the officers who had asked Yahya to resign.
However, in March 1972, Bhutto dismissed Hassan. Political scientist Aqil Shah in his book Army and Democracy writes that the given reason behind the dismissal was that the inquiry report on the East Pakistan debacle had implicated Hassan for committing atrocities during the civil war. He was replaced by Gen Tikka Khan as army chief. The military’s influence on the country’s politics was at its lowest during the Bhutto years (1971-77).
In March 1976, Bhutto surprised political pundits by making Ziaul Haq the new military chief. Bhutto did not pick anyone from the list of potential chiefs prepared by the retiring Tikka Khan. A year later, in July 1977, Zia toppled the Bhutto government. The move was welcomed by most opposition parties, which had accused the regime of rigging the 1977 election.
Zia remained military chief through self-extensions for the next 11 years, as he oversaw Pakistan turn into a belligerent state ruled in the name of Islam. The military’s political role was greatly enhanced during his tenure. In August 1988, Zia was killed in a controversial plane crash and Gen Mirza Aslam Beg became the new military chief. Even though civilian rule returned, the military’s influence on politics continued to loom large.
Historians and commentators have written much about how nearly every army chief between 1988 and 1999 got drawn into both participating in, as well as resolving, various civilian political issues. These included Beg (1988-91), Gen Asif Nawaz (1991-93), Gen Abdul Waheed (1993-96), Gen Jahangir Karamat (1996-98) and, especially, Gen Musharraf — who executed the country’s fourth military coup in 1999.
The military’s political influence soared during the Musharraf regime (1999-2008), while Musharraf remained military chief through self-extensions. Even when civilian rule returned in 2008, the army’s influence loomed large across the next three chiefs as well: Gen Kayani (2007-2013), Gen Raheel Sharif (2013-2016) and Gen Bajwa (2016 to date).
According to some observers, the post-1980s political influence of the military is mostly due to the fact that the institution sees itself as the only cohesive and stable institution in a country with deep sectarian, sub-sectarian and political fissures. Though one section of the intelligentsia has blamed such influence to be detrimental to the maturing of the country’s political institutions, the other section suggests that the military is capable of doing what the politicians refuse to do.
The most recent example they give is of Gen Raheel and how he initiated the much-delayed military operation against extremists in 2015. Those holding this view say that, had it been left to the politicians, ‘Pakistan would have been turned into another Syria or Yemen.’
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 2nd, 2018