6. Pakistan: Civil-military Relations in a Praetorian State

Hasan Askari Rizvi


The role of the Pakistan military has undergone major changes during the fifty years of independence, gradually expanding its role to become an important actor in the decision-making process and by directly assuming power.

The author plots this gradual rise of the military by examining the military heritage and identifying the material benefits to the military. He notes the degeneration of the political institutions and the conflict between the political forces and military rule, as well as the post-withdrawal civil-military relations.

He concludes by stating that the civilian government needs the support and the blessings of the military to stay afloat, declaring that the military’s preponderant role in the polity is thus assured.

Pakistan can be described as a praetorian state where the military has acquired the capability, will, and sufficient experience to dominate the core political institutions and processes. As the political forces are disparate and weak, the military’s disposition has a strong impact on the course of political change, including the transfer of power from one set of the elite to another. Such an expanded role is at variance with the traditions and temperament of the military at the time of independence in 1947.

The Pakistan military inherited the British tradition of civilian supremacy over the military, aloofness from active politics, commitment to professionalism, and assistance to the civilian authorities with respect to law and order and national calamities. Its role expanded gradually. At first, it emerged as an important actor in the decision-making process, especially in defence and security affairs. In 1958 General (later Field Marshal) Mohammad Ayub Khan, Chief of Army Staff [COAS] from 1951 to 1958, overthrew the tottering civilian government. He ruled under martial law until June 1962, when a new presidential constitution was introduced which civilianised military rule through co-option of a section of the civilian elite. In March 1969, General Yahya Khan, COAS from 1966 to 1971, took power after Ayub Khan’s resignation in the wake of mass agitation against his rule. Yahya Khan abolished Ayub’s constitution and ruled the country under martial law until December 1971, when he was forced to hand over power to a civilian leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, following the surrender of the Pakistani troops in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was temporarily successful in asserting the primacy of civilian government. He enjoyed popular support in the early stages of his rule while the military’s reputation had declined dramatically owing to the East Pakistan debacle. However, Bhutto’s assertion of civilian supremacy did not prove durable for three major reasons. First, his efforts to personalise power rather than work towards establishing viable participatory institutions and processes eroded his popular support. Second, in their determination to dislodge Bhutto, some of the opposition leaders made it clear in the later stages of anti Bhutto agitation in 1977 that they would not challenge the military in the event of his overthrow. Third, by 1977 the military had recovered from the shock of 1971. When the senior commanders found that the Bhutto regime was discredited and could not survive without their support, they retrieved the political initiative.

This was accomplished when General Zia ul Haq, COAS from 1976 to 1988, staged the third coup in July 1977, and governed under martial law until 1985. During this period he tailored a political system and carefully stage-managed partyless elections to ensure the continuity of his rule after the termination of martial law. When Zia ul Haq died in an aircrash in August 1988, the military allowed the constitutional process to become operative, facilitating the holding of elections and transfer of power to an elected leader, Benazir Bhutto. However, the military monitored the elected government’s actions and periodically commented on its performance. Differences developed between the military commanders and the civilian government over the government’s performance, which was considered unsatisfactory. The military joined with the president to dismiss the government in August 1990.

In addition to the privileges of exercising power, other considerations which impel the senior echelons of the military to maintain interest in politics include overall political stability, the size of the defence budget, security and foreign policy, professional interests, especially the autonomy of the military in its internal affairs, and corporate interests, including the privileges and benefits for military personnel, especially senior commanders.