Pakistan is under the military jackboot

The army has effectively ensured that Pakistan’s fledgling democracy is not allowed to take root

After India’s counter-terrorism air strikes at Balakot in February 2019 and the reactions that these evoked in the National Assembly, Pakistan appears to be headed towards an unpredictable denouement. Accused by India, Iran and Afghanistan of using terrorism as an instrument of State policy,Pakistan has been isolated in the region. With a seemingly uncontrollable insurgency in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK, erstwhile North West Frontier Province), a simmering freedom movement in Balochistan, growing unrest in Gilgit-Baltistan and rampant urban terrorism, the internal security environment is precariously unstable.

Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles: the funds are low, the debts are high, exports have dwindled to a trickle and the Pakistani currency has fallen to an all-time low of 140 rupees to a dollar. Pakistan has for long been dependent on the United States’ largesse to meet its obligations for the repayment of its burgeoning debt. However, due to its intransigence in extending its cooperation in the war against the Afghan Taliban, that source has dried up and Imran Khan, the beleaguered Prime Minister and chairman of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has had to run to China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for help.

Pakistan’s deep state — the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — has also been facing insurmountable challenges. The army’s counter-insurgency operations in KPK and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been floundering; its military camps have been repeatedly attacked with some attackers coming from within the rank and file; its relations with the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have plummeted to an all-time low; defence preparedness is sub-optimal; and, the morale of the rank and file is low. The only saving grace is that a pliable prime minister, with whom the army’s senior leadership is not at loggerheads, is now holding office.

The military jackboot has ridden roughshod over Pakistan’s polity for most of the country’s history since its independence. While Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf ruled directly as Presidents or Chief Martial Law administrators, the other army chiefs achieved perfection in the fine art of backseat driving. The army repeatedly took over the reins of administration under the guise of the “doctrine of necessity” and, in complete disregard of international norms of jurisprudence, Pakistan’s Supreme Court mostly played along.

The army has effectively ensured that Pakistan’s fledgling democracy is not allowed to take deep root. The origins of authoritarianism can be traced back to General Ayub Khan, who promoted the idea of “guided” or “controlled” democracy. The concept of the Troika emerged later as a power sharing arrangement between the president, the prime minister and the chief of the army staff (COAS). The “political militarism” of the Pakistan army imposed severe constraints on the institutionalisation of democratic norms in the civil society.

Some key national policies have always been dictated by the army. The army determines Pakistan’s national security threats and challenges and decides how to deal with them. Pakistan’s policies on Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are guided by the army and the rapprochement process with India cannot proceed without its concurrence. The army controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and the related research and development. The civilian government has no role to play in formulating the doctrine for nuclear deterrence, the force structures, the targeting policies and the command and control. The army chief decides the annual defence expenditure and all defence procurements. He also controls all senior-level promotions and appointments; the government merely rubber stamps the decisions.

In order to weaken India, as also to further China’s agenda to reduce India’s influence in Asia, the Pakistan army has adopted a carefully calculated strategy to bleed India through a thousand cuts. This has been given effect overtly through irregular warfare manifested in the Razakar and Mujahid invasion of Kashmir in 1947-48 and Operation Gibraltar in 1965; and, the Kargil intrusions of 1999. A proxy war has been waged through ISI-sponsored militancy and terrorism in J&K since 1989-90 and in other parts of India. In the 1980s, Pakistan had encouraged and supported Sikh terrorist organisations in their misplaced venture to seek the creation of an independent state of Khalistan.

The ISI provides operational, intelligence, communication, training, financial and material support to fundamentalist terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to wage war against India. Similarly, it provides substantial intelligence and material support to various Taliban factions like the North Waziristan-based Haqqani Network to operate in Afghanistan against the elected regime and against NATO forces. The ISI plays the destabilisation card despite the fact that Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally, as evidenced in the killing of Osama bin Laden in the army cantonment of Abbottabad, where he had been housed by the ISI for almost five years.

Some of the powers usurped by the army over the years can be attributed to the political parties’ self-inflicted injuries. The shenanigans of the two main political parties — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N) — and widespread corruption led several times to the people’s complete disenchantment with the rule of PPP’s Bhuttos (Zulfiqar and Benazir) and Asif Ali Zardari and PML(N)’s Nawaz Sharif. In addition to poor political leadership, the failure of democratic institutions can also be ascribed to constitutional and judicial weaknesses and the unsatisfactory levels of socioeconomic development.

Realisation must dawn on the army that it has let down the country. Pakistan cannot survive as a coherent nation state unless the army gives up four things: driving the country’s national security and foreign policies from the backseat; seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan; attempting to destabilise India through its proxy war; and meddling in politics. The army must pull itself up by the bootstraps and substantively enhance its capacity to conduct effective counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. In the national interest, the army must give up being a State within a State and accept civilian control, even if it does so with bad grace.

Gurmeet Kanwal is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi