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An Army With a Country


The failure of civil rule in Pakistan, Christophe Jaffrelot argues in “Pakistan at the Crossroads,” is a reflection of the willingness of civilians to be dominated by the military.




The famous quote about Prussia—that it was not a country with an army but an army with a country—has been used to describe any number of states. Turkey and Argentina, two countries where the military has taken an oh-so-generous role in governing, leap to mind.

Pakistan has a distinct version of this familiar problem. It has a military that rotates between exerting direct control via coups (1958, 1977 and 1999) and indirect control through its far-reaching influence over domestic and especially foreign policy. It is this indirect control that prevails in Pakistan today, notwithstanding the presence of a democratically elected legislature and prime minister.

Yet despite the military’s role in everything from crushing political dissent to dominating various sectors of the economy, Pakistan is a country with an army that is, well, not very effective. When was the last time that the Pakistani armed forces were admired for anything tangible? The military has lost every war it has ever fought; it has been humiliated time and again by its archenemy, India; and it was even responsible for the catastrophe of 1971, when Pakistan lost more than half its population after the country’s eastern wing seceded and became Bangladesh amid horrific war crimes committed by those same armed forces.

The real question is thus how the military has attained primacy in a country where it has been responsible for one disaster after another. That is the tacit question underlying “Pakistan at the Crossroads,” a thorough and intelligent collection of essays on modern-day Pakistan edited by Christophe Jaffrelot.

Although the contributors touch on everything from Pakistan-China relations to the current functioning (such as it is) of the country’s electoral system, the overarching theme running through the book is the way in which military rule has inserted itself into almost every aspect of Pakistan’s existence.

The country was formed in 1947 when the British Indian, Muslim-majority states of Punjab and Bengal were partitioned amid inter-communal violence. The new, Muslim country called Pakistan (meaning “land of the pure” in Urdu) was therefore neither ethnically nor geographically united, with India sitting inconveniently between the country’s two wings. The only other Muslim-majority state in British India, Kashmir, became a source of endless warfare between India and Pakistan. When Kashmir’s (unelected) ruler opted for India after partition, war broke out; today India rules Kashmir with a blatant disregard for human rights.

As Aqil Shah—himself the author of an excellent recent book on Pakistan’s military—writes in his superb chapter on the armed forces, the fight over Kashmir, coupled with Pakistan’s fear of majority-Hindu India, “spurred the ‘militarization’ of the Pakistani state in the early years. . . . As state building and survival became synonymous with the ‘war effort,’ the civilian leadership diverted scarce resources from development to defense and abdicated its responsibility of oversight over the military, thereby allowing the generals a virtual free hand over internal organizational affairs and national security management.” A decade later, in 1958, the military launched its first formal coup, overthrowing a flailing civilian government.

Much of this collection covers the most recent decade of Pakistani history, with less attention paid to the lost wars against India (1947-48 and 1965); the military-led genocide that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh and another lost war against India (1971); and the rise of Zia ul-Haq, an autocrat who overthrew an elected government in 1977 and ruled for over a decade.

After the most recent military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was forced out in 2008, a civilian government survived its first full five-year term and handover of power, in this case to the country’s current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. But Mr. Sharif must reckon with a military that still controls all major decision-making, as well as withImran Khan, the demagogic cricket star who is both a stalking horse for the armed forces and the most popular man in the country.

Mohammad Waseem, whose chapter on political parties ably lays out this recent history, doesn’t address exactly why they have failed to establish themselves as the supreme actors in Pakistani politics. But Mr. Jaffrelot, in his introduction, does have a go at it, and his thesis is arresting: The failure of civilian supremacy is in part a reflection of the willingness of civilians to be co-opted by the military. “Dictators all have had to liberalize their regime after some time and civilians never asked for all the power,” he writes.

It’s true that the military’s popularity has made it difficult for civilians to demand their fair share of control. But several of the dictators written about, such as Yahya Khan and Zia, either didn’t liberalize or did so half-heartedly. Moreover, civilians have never asked for total control because doing so would be futile and dangerous, given the control the military has always exerted over the country.

Still, Mr. Jaffrelot’s conclusion seems undeniably correct: “The return to normalcy of Pakistan domestically implies a normalization of its relations with both its neighbors, India and Afghanistan.” The problem is that the military has long prevented any normalization of relations with India and has long viewed the Taliban (which it helped install in Afghanistan) as a helpful ally, despite the “blowback” this has caused in Pakistan itself: Terrorist groups routinely attack civilians—often religious minorities—and even their onetime military patrons. And, as Avinash Paliwal points out in his dispiriting chapter on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan’s understandable anger at Pakistani meddling may lead to an increased use of proxies by the former against the latter as a sort of tit-for-tat. It’s hard to see a positive result for the people of either country.

For this reason, the title of Mr. Jaffrelot’s fine volume is misleading. Despite the military’s willingness to belatedly go after (some of) the extremist groups it has long nurtured for its own ends, its raison d’etre remains its own power, and it’s difficult to imagine its leaders allowing for stability in Afghanistan or closer ties with India. Pakistan is less at a “crossroads” than it is humming along the same path it’s been on for decades, albeit with slight adjustments of speed.

Mr. Chotiner is a contributing writer for Slate.




Courtsey The Daily Telegraph