Military’s power to be eroded by sustained democracy

August 17, 2014

Aqil Shah of Dartmouth College discusses the civil-military relations in the context of his recent book

Military’s power to be eroded by sustained democracy

Aqil Shah is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. His teaching and research focus on democratisation, military politics, and regional security in South Asia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University and an M Phil in International Development from Oxford University where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He has previously taught at Princeton, Columbia and LUMS and held fellowships at Harvard and Stanford.

He is the author of the book The Army and Democracy: Military politics in Pakistan (Harvard University press, 2014). In an interview with TNS, he discusses the civil-military relations in the context of his recent book.

The News on Sunday: You lay out two steps to democratic civilian control of the military: transition and consolidation. Where do we currently stand on these in 2014?

Aqil Shah: We seem to be stuck in the grey zone between transition and consolidation laden with the possibility of authoritarian backsliding. While the military has formally left power, it still retains reserve policy domains outside the purview of the civilian government which act as a form of autonomous institutional influence and power, such as national defence policy, internal security/counter insurgency in Balochistan and FATA, intelligence gathering, information management, economic enterprises, and so on. This relative autonomy is fundamentally antithetical to the process of consolidation.

TNS: Don’t you think there is a need to work more on the political forces than on the military to curtail the latter’s predilection to derail democracy?

AS: I don’t see these two goals as mutually exclusive.  Civilian institutions in Pakistan are undoubtedly frail. But focusing solely on the civilian side of the equation in isolation from the military is unlikely to be sufficient for establishing democratic civil-military relations. Low political institutionalisation is more a symptom of military influence and intervention than its cause.  The causal sequence follows a vicious cyclical pattern: military rule weakens political and administrative institutions, and then the generals impose confining conditions on incoming civilian governments as a price for exiting power. These constraints in turn limit the ability of the democratic leadership to govern. Their efforts to break these restrictions cause civil-military conflict, which confirms the generals’ low opinion of civilians which then provides them with the rationale for continued meddling.

TNS: Can we call Gen Azam’s Martial Law of 1953 in Lahore and parallel public outreach as the beginning of an unending political control of politics and civilian governments?

AS: Yes, it was the first road test of sorts for military government and its apparent success not only increased the generals’ confidence in their ability to manage civil administration but also helped engender their belief that the army had the organisation, discipline, and skills needed to properly govern Pakistan compared to civilians.

TNS: On 19 Dec 1971, Army came very close to internal revolt /coup. Have there been other occasions too?

AS: The military’s internal frictions in 1971 have to be seen in the particular context at the time. Many mid-ranking and junior officers held General Yahya Khan and his junta responsible for the humiliating surrender to India and wanted them out. In that sense, it was an exceptional situation. Overall, the Pakistan army has been remarkably cohesive compared to other interventionist militaries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. This is in good measure due to the war-prone rivalry with India, which has induced a rallying around the flag effect on the rank and file.

Groups of officers have occasionally hatched coup conspiracies but these have failed precisely because they violated the chain of command. So far, coups in Pakistan have succeeded only when led from the top. And recall that even in 1971, the threat of revolt was mostly localised. In East Pakistan, for example, the troops obeyed the orders to surrender without even firing a single shot.

Read also: Review of Aqil Shah’s book

TNS: What do you think Bhutto may have done differently to keep the civil-military balance tipped in the former’s favour?

AS: Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to pass judgement on Bhutto’s now apparent mistakes, including his reliance on personalistic rather than institutional control over the armed forces, which he could have exercised through the parliament or the Ministry of Defence.

To be fair, when Bhutto took over power, he faced the momentous task of literally creating new structures and rules of governance in the wake of the 1971 war, while operating under the constraints imposed by the legacies of prolonged authoritarian rule.  With those caveats in mind, I think he did make a fatal error by shelving the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report. In his book, If I am Assassinated, Bhutto himself regrets that decision. Whether he did it to protect the army’s reputation or to avoid a backlash, Bhutto inadvertently reinforced the military’s presumptions of impunity by letting the senior officers off the hook at a time when they were relatively weakened and disgraced in public eye. Not surprisingly, the generals were back to their usual tricks in just five years.

TNS: What has been the US role in undermining or strengthening democracy in Pakistan, considering that in all dictatorships the country was awash with US money?

AS: On the whole, the US role has largely been counterproductive for the growth of democracy in Pakistan. American backing of successive coup-makers enabled the consolidation of their power both by providing them access to strategic rents and by reducing the external costs of military rule. Whether it was the political expediencies of the Cold War or the so-called War on Terror, the Americans have been in love with each one of Pakistan’s military autocrats.

TNS: The military rules have all initiated vehement decentralisation. Why did these attempts not let democracy take deeper social roots in Pakistan? And why did the civilian governments that followed, undo these?

AS: As I discuss in the book, the goal of authoritarian decentralisation is not to inculcate democracy. Instead, military governments institute these schemes to undercut national and provincial politics and politicians, and to root their power base in dependent local elites. Hence, local governments are essentially exercises in regime maintenance and consolidation. But these projects have little or no popular legitimacy, and they die with the dictator’s political demise.

TNS: Which of the three martial laws had the best and/or the worst social and economic impacts on Pakistan?

AS: This is a hard question to answer because keeping aside the generally corrosive impact of military governments on democratic institutions, each period of military rule has damaged Pakistan in specific ways.  Let’s take the example of Ayub Khan. He is still idolised by many military officers and influential civilians for heralding a decade of spectacular economic growth in the 1960s. But it was growth without redistribution, which deepened both class and ethno-regional cleavages, especially in East Pakistan, and paved the way for Bengali secessionism. And then there was General Ziaul Haq. His policies had particularly egregious effects on civil society, including the suppression of dissenting voices, the ideologisation of history in school textbooks, patronage of Islamic extremists including Sunni sectarian groups, the privatisation of armed violence, and the institution of oppressive laws, such as the Hudood Ordinances.

The Musharraf government was also praised for its deft economic management like Ayub’s. However, the main achievement of his supposed economic miracle, which involved a fair bit of statistical jugglery, was wealth creation not re-distribution. The ultimate outcome was that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Ironically, Musharraf’s ‘liberal’ authoritarian regime repressed moderate political parties, allied with Islamist parties and facilitated their success in the 2002 elections, surrendered parts of FATA to Taliban militants, and sparked an insurgency in Balochistan where the ISI, the MI and the FC committed gross human rights violations.

TNS: Did Zia’s Islamisation have any green effects on the military?

AS: Yes, in many ways. For instance, Zia formally expanded the military’s mission to the protection of the country’s ideological frontiers. Moreover, the display of religious piety became acceptable, the Tableeghi Jamaat got unprecedented access to military units, and Islamic strategic thought was introduced into officers’ curricula. However, I don’t think these changes had any significant impact on the military’s interventionist inclinations.  When institutional interests are at stake the army acts as a corporate body. So it does not matter much whether you have a Zia or a Musharraf at the helm.

TNS: Will the military in Pakistan voluntarily forgo its powers in the near future?

AS: As the political scientist Adam Pzeworski once said, it is one thing to remove the military from politics and quite another to remove politics from the military. The Pakistan Army’s entrenched traditions of tutelage and intervention are unlikely to change in the short term; short of an external shock like defeat in war or revolution (both unlikely for different reasons), Pakistan’s primary chance at eroding military prerogatives and power is a sustained process of democratisation. But the question then arises:  will the military let democracy stick? Here, I think civilian elite unity and loyalty to the democratic rules of the game can help reduce the opportunity for the military to divide and rule. The PPP and the PML-N appear to have reached a consensus on the necessity of democratic continuity. However, the actions and rhetoric of spoilers like Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan, not to mention Altaf Hussain’s flip flop politics, continue to threaten democracy.

Military’s power to be eroded by sustained democracy