Experiments in politics

August 17, 2014

Labyrinthine periods that impeded democratisation, economic progress and societal cohesion

Experiments in politics

Aqil Shah’s recent book The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan is an excellent addition to the existing literature on the conflation of civil and military roles in the politics of Pakistan. The book uncovers many myths about the army and informs us about the strategic, political and social ramifications of the khaki adventures since the incursion in Kashmir in 1948 which sowed the seeds of military insubordination.

The book is a result of rigorous research and labour of love. The 90 pages of footnotes and references not only give a thorough orientation, they also help refresh the contemporary history to avid observers of Pakistan who have been fed a false history all along.

Aqil Shah has authentically mapped Army’s institutional development, its professional and political expansion, and taking over of policy and consequently the society. By doing so, he has fulfilled his ambition of producing, "a fine-grained study of the institutional underpinnings of the Military’s power in the making and execution of the state policy".

The book in its seven chapters and 288 pages weaves an engaging narrative that fascinatingly tells the unique story of Pakistan’s military which has defied global trends of democratic waves. When elsewhere the political role of armed forces was declining (in the 1980s), it peaked in Pakistan which he terms as "military authoritarian exceptions to the global patterns of democratic resurgence".

The book candidly poses and dares to answer the million- actually a billion-dollar question, ‘who guards the guardians!’ Believing that a sound knowledge of history of chaos is essential to predict the future crises linked to the chaos, he takes the readers through hazy labyrinths of the military’s political experimentation which impeded democratisation, hampered economic progress and fragmented societal cohesion in the name of solidarity and integrity of nation and institution. He then lays out a course of action which can help the political as well the military leadership to gyrate out of current vortex which, if not tackled in the next few years, will spin us into oblivion.

Whenever the forces decide to produce a new breed and generation of thinking officers, as against the current majority of believing officers, this book will be handy for a non-offensive unlearning.

The story of an army, any army at that, is actually the story of that of its leadership. This book too tells the story of the institution of military by narrating the story of its leadership. In Pakistan’s 67 years, we have witnessed the military in Pakistan take up wars, coups, invasions, interventions, as well as defeats, surrender and humiliations. All these were feats or failings of the military leadership. Therefore, "at its core the book is about the Military as an institution of the state, and within that institution about the officers’ corps and the senior leadership which makes decisions with implications about the institution and consequently, the state," he asserts, referring to how one course of action was preferred over another.

He makes scores of well-researched and authentic statements, many of which would have been dubbed and dismissed as naysayers’ conspiracy theories in the past, but are likely to become quotable quotes now.

Read also: Interview with the Aqil Shah, author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan

He underscores that the military has had a negative opinion of the parliamentary system since the 1950s. The scorn for politicians is not something which the politicians have triggered; it was inherited from the colonial days. The talk of Turkish-style civil military regime has been in the works for long. The National Security Council has been another attempt at keeping them out by keeping them in. Military coups have succeeded when led from the top; any mid-level revolts won’t work. The important distinction of removing the military from politics and removing politics from the military must not be ignored. Civilian control is possible sans democracy (China, Cuba, USSR), but democracy sans civilian control is impossible (UK, USA, Canada, Europe, India).

The central argument of the book is that the military’s tutelary beliefs and norms, a legacy of its formative experience under conditions of geo-political insecurity and nation-building problems, have profoundly shaped its political interventions and influence by justifying the authoritarian expansion of its role in state and society.

His thesis is embedded in strong theory, and arguments are cognisant of other similar and recent works by Pakistanis. He takes insights from sociological institutionalism to the study of military politics, typically studied either through rational choice or institutionalist theories which ignore the "logic of appropriateness" that define bureaucratic-organisational interests, and shape how organisations interact with their larger institutional and social surroundings. We also see contestations with scholarly analyses of the linkage between external threats and civilian control of the armed forces: the Lasswellian garrison state or the external enemy unites civil-military leadership and causes civilian supremacy.

The Army and Democracy

On shifts in the use of coercion, he states that "the absence of a military norm of political subordination is also evident in the way the military remonstrates through the management and manipulation of the media and public opinion". This explains how coaxing judges and journalists is a better, swifter and more effective way to pressurise a political government than coercion or direct control.

On the puzzle of why they capture and then leave power, he infers, "after every coup, the retreat to barracks was more like a recouping retreat, than a defeat. It therefore remained tactical and tentative". Oscillation between governorship to guardianship and between professionalisation and politicisation premise on the military’s view that democracy is not the only or the best game in town; hence its quest for a more acceptable alternate and the ensuing trial and error is likely to continue, he holds.

As a way forward, he suggests two phases of transition and consolidation; but warns to walk with caution to thwart backlash. Presently, he laments that the issue of civil military balance is swept under the carpet of political expediency; and with each new crisis, it returns with a vengeance.

Whenever Pakistan Army decides to produce a new breed and generation of thinking officers, as against the current majority of believing officers, this book will be handy for a non-offensive unlearning.


Experiments in politics