Pakistan: An Army with a Country

Pervez Hoodbhoy reviews The Idea of Pakistan by Stephen Philip Cohen (Brookings Institution Press, 2004) in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. Here’s an excerpt about the role of the all-important army.

According to a popular but rather humorless Pakistani joke, “all countries have armies, but here, an army has a country.” Indeed, even when civilian governments have nominally been in charge in Pakistan, there has never been much doubt about who actually makes decisions there. In addition to holding political power, the Pakistani army controls vast commercial and industrial interests and owns massive rural and urban properties. As Cohen remarks, “regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan.

“General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s current chief executive, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, and there have since been several attempts on his life. After each, the media has warned of a nuclear state careening out of control, with radical Islamists fighting to get into the driver’s seat. Cohen rightly dismisses this view as alarmist. If the general were killed, the army establishment would quickly replace Musharraf with another senior officer, and various measures-the installation of former Citibank executive Shaukat Aziz as prime minister, most notably-have recently been undertaken to protect against a leadership crisis. Cohen also breaks with Musharraf’s staunchest international backers, who “see him as a wise and modern leader, a secular man who is not afraid to support the West or to offer peace to India, and a man who can hold back the onrush of demagogues and Islamic extremists.” Cohen notes that “no serious Pakistani analyst sees Musharraf in these terms. … If he resembles any past Pakistani leader, it is General Yahya Khan-also a well-intentioned general who did the United States a great favor.”

The question of why the warrior class was never tamed by civilian rule points back to the founding of the Pakistani state. As the respected Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmad has emphasized, the civilian system of power was never regarded by Pakistan’s citizens as just, appropriate, or authoritative. And despite Jinnah’s declarations, the idea of Pakistan was unclear from the start. Lacking any clear basis for legitimacy or direction, the state quickly aligned with the powerful landed class: the army leadership and the economic elite joined forces to claim authority in a nation without definition or cohesion. In subsequent years, the government maintained the feudal structure of society and entered into a manifestly exploitative relationship with Pakistan’s poor eastern wing (which became Bangladesh in 1971 after a short but bloody war). Even now, bonded labor is common, and many peasants live in conditions close to slavery. Politicians, with the exception of the mercurial demagogue Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, have made no attempt at reform, ignoring the hearts and minds of the masses in favor of cultivating elite favor and pursuing quick financial gain.

The result has been ideological confusion, civilian helplessness, and an environment eminently hospitable to putsches. Indeed, no elected government has completed its term in Pakistan’s 57-year history. Pakistani generals express contempt for the civilian order and steadfastly hold that “what is good for the army is good for Pakistan,” and Pakistani society is thoroughly militarized. Bumper stickers read, “The Finest Men Join the Pakistan Army”; tanks parade on the streets of Islamabad while jet aircraft screech overhead; discarded naval guns, artillery pieces, and fighter aircraft adorn public plazas. It is even a criminal offense to “criticize the armed forces of Pakistan or to bring them into disaffection.”

The military is only one (albeit the most important) component of the wider “establishment” that runs Pakistan. Cohen calls this establishment a “moderate oligarchy” and defines it as “an informal political system that [ties] together the senior ranks of the military, the civil service, key members of the judiciary, and other elites.” Membership in this oligarchy, Cohen contends, requires adherence to a common set of beliefs: that India must be countered at every turn; that nuclear weapons have endowed Pakistan with security and status; that the fight for Kashmir is unfinished business from the time of partition; that large-scale social reforms such as land redistribution are unacceptable; that the uneducated and illiterate masses deserve only contempt; that vociferous Muslim nationalism is desirable but true Islamism is not; and that Washington is to be despised but fully taken advantage of. Underlying these “core principles,” one might add, is a willingness to serve power at any cost.

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