Pakistan’s Military-I

Tradition of backseat driving

The Statesman | Jul 2, 2001

Now, less than two years later, the General has appointed himself President of Pakistan for five years and signalled that he is here to stay as General Zia-ul Haq. On the demise of General Zia, General Aslam Beg stepped into the power vacuum as COAS and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a Pakistan Civil Service bureaucrat, was sworn in as acting President.

Less than two years ago, on 12 October 1999 the military jackboot had returned once again to crush Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and the hopes and dreams of its oppressed citizens. The international community had wrung its hands in despair and watched helplessly as General Pervez Musharraf, Chief of the Army Staff, appointed himself Chief Executive. He and his hawkish senior colleagues had set about systematically undermining and, in places, even dismantling the civilian administrative structures. They lost no time in placing junior army officers in supervisory positions at grassroots levels. Now, less than two years later, the General has appointed himself President of Pakistan for five years and signalled that he is here to stay as General Zia-ul Haq.

Ever since the evolution of the floundering nation-state, Pakistan’s army is has projected itself as “the guardian of the nation’s values and ideals and the protector of Islam” and has always looked upon itself as the protector of the nations physical boundaries as well as its ideological frontiers. The militarisation of the Pakistani polity began soon after independence. General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan was for some time the Commander-in-Chief (1951-58) as well as the Minister of Defence (1954-58) before he finally overthrew the government and established Pakistan’s first military regime in 1958.


Instead of concentrating his energies on improving the organisational structure, the standard of training and the level of preparedness of his army, Ayub Khan chose to dabble in politics and gradually began to enjoy wielding extra constitutional authority. Ayub experimented with a system of “Basic Democracy” for Pakistan in which the people were allowed only a limited amount of participation. Military officers received many favours and were given plum assignments.

Though Ayub Khan did try to keep the bulk of the army away from martial law duties, even handing over the post of COAS to General Mohammad Musa (1958-66), he could not “save the reputation of the army as a professional, non-political institution from being greatly compromised”. General Yahya Khan (1966-71) was sworn in as interim president in 1969 when Ayub Khan was finally forced to step down after a popular people’s movement. Yahya Khan retained the post of COAS. His fall from grace and power in the wake of Pakistan’s humiliating military defeat at India’s hands and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, led to the appointment of General Gul Hasan as the COAS (1971-72) by Zuligar Ali Bhutto, who had taken over as President and Chief Martial Law Administrator. Gul Hassan was, in turn, replaced within three months by General Tikka Khan (1972-76), better known as the butcher of Bangladesh. To his credit, Tikka ‘Khan kept himself scrupulously aloof from civil-political affairs.

Bhutto tried to rein in the unbridled power enjoyed by the military. In May 1976, he issued a White Paper outlining the government’s defence and strategic policy and institutional arrangements for a Higher Defence Organisation. However, his efforts failed to work and Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup. Though Bhutto did much to transform the Pakistan armed forces from a defeated and demoralised lot into one of Asia’s leading fighting forces, his political manoeuvring bred m the rank and file an innate distrust of his party and government.

On General Tikka Khan’s retirement, Bhutto, by then Prime Minister, had handpicked General Zia ul Haq as the new COAS (1976-88; till his death in an air crash) over the heads of several senior Generals and hoped that his protege would toe the line of his civilian bosses. However, Zia had other ideas and not only overthrew Bhutto on 5 July 1977 and once again proclaimed martial law but also hanged him on trumped up charges. Zia ruled for eight years as the absolute ruler under martial law and for three years as a civilian president with absolute powers.

Zia got the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate embroiled in the Afghan war and commenced the Islamisation of the army. During 1983-85, after Bhutto’s execution, Zia began to seek ways to legitimise his military rule. He even tried limited local government in the four provinces without much success. In domestic politics, Zia played the role of a consummate politician to the hilt despite having had an army upbringing. Zia aided the growth of the Mohayit Quami Movement to check the spread of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi.

Two Posts

It was only in 1985, that General Zia yielded to a civilian regime but not before promulgating the dreaded Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, under the cloak of which elected civilian administrations could be and were repeatedly dismissed by Pakistan’s Presidents in collusion with the army brass. General Zia continued to retain the two important posts of President and COAS and introduced a structure in which the politicians were prepared to accept a political role for the military. However, he soon realised that a parliamentary form of government could not coexist happily with a strong President and dismissed Prime Minister Junejo in May 1988. Had Zia lived, it is reasonably certain that he would have guided Pakistan towards a presidential form of government with an institutionalised role for the military, possibly through a National Security Council.

On the demise of General Zia, General Aslam Beg (1988-91) stepped into the power vacuum as COAS and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a Pakistan Civil Service bureaucrat, was sworn in as acting President. Despite doomsday predictions by well known defence analysts in India and other parts of the world, this time the Pakistan army took care to act mature manner. Under Aslam Bag’s leadership, the Pakistan army headquarters carefully weighed the pros and cons of continuing with martial law regime and magnanimously decided that a return to army backed democracy would be more appropriate. It was at this stage (early 1989) that the concept of the ruling “troika” emerged. It was an informal grouping that comprised the President, the Prime Minister and the COAS and ruled Pakistan through consensus. However, the army made it quite clear that it was the source of real power and preferred to let the civilians bear the burden of governance.

The ruling elite grudgingly accepted Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister in 1988 under American J pressure but only when she agreed to their terms. Anwar H Syed has written that it was agreed that Benazir Bhutto’s party would support the election of Ghulam Ishaq Khan as president of Pakistan for a full term and not interfere with the military’s management of the government Afghan policy. She would also not intervene in the military internal administration (postings, transfers and promotions). Bhutto also agreed to be guided by Gulam Ishaq Khan and Aslam Beg in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capability.


Aslam Beg was followed by General Asif Nawaz Janjua (1991-93). He was a no-non-sense soldier and found it difficult to get along with Nawaz Sharif, whom he considered a scheming politician. He died of a heart attack under mysterious circumstances and was succeeded by General Abdul Waheed Kakar (1993-96) after a massive confrontation between the President and the Prime Minister who was vehement that Lieutenant General Farrukh Khan, whom the President had selected, must not be appointed. General Abdul Waheed did his best to wean the army away from politics. General Jehangir Karamat followed as COAS (1996-98) and continued the policies of his predecessor.

Acting on inputs provided by the ISI, during the period 1990-96, several civilian governments were dismissed by incumbent Presidents in connivance with the COAS. Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed by the president in consultation with the COAS in mid-1990 for “persistent and scandalous horse-trading for political gain, breakdown of law and order in Sindh, corruption and nepotism and use of statutory corporations, authorities and banks for political ends and personal gain”. The President declared a state of emergency and appointed Ghulam Mustafa Jaton as caretaker head of government. After general elections in October 1990, the Nawaz Sharif-led Islami Jamoori Itehaad coalition, believed to have been cobbled together and funded by the ISI to prevent Benazir from returning to power, won and Sharif became Pakistan’s Prime Minister.