Pakistan introduced a parliamentary system of government at the time of independence, under the interim constitution of 1947. This system was maintained in the 1956 constitution which the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan approved after about nine years of deliberations. However, it was not long after that the decline and degeneration of the civilian institutions set in, making it difficult to sustain the principle of civilian supremacy over the military.
Pakistan faced a serious crisis of political leadership within a couple of years of attaining independence. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a charismatic leader who led the independence movement, died in September l948, just thirteen months after independence. His lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan, partially filled the gap but he was assassinated in October 1951. There was thus insufficient time for these leaders to establish and legitimise participatory institutions and processes. This was in contrast to what occurred in India where Jawaharlal Nehru led the country from 1947 until his death in 1964. Although Nehru’s personal appeal was more powerful than the political institutions he established, the fact that he insisted on developing institutions and processes provided a firm foundation for the political system and guaranteed civilian supremacy.
The Muslim League of Pakistan failed to transform itself from a nationalist movement into a national party which could lead the way to democracy and political stability. Given its weak and divided leadership, the lack of a clear socio-economic program, and the absence of procedures to resolve its internal problems, the Muslim League was not instrumental in nation building. The roots of these problems can be traced back to the pre-independence period. Founded in 1906 mainly by a Western-educated Muslim elite, the Muslim League could not establish a popular base among the Muslims of South Asia until 1939-40, and functioned as a popular mass party for only seven to eight years. As a result, it could neither bring forward a group of leaders who had sufficient experience of working together at the popular level as members of a party, nor evolve procedures to resolve internal conflicts and aggregate diverse interests. It relied heavily on the towering personality of Jinnah, and soon after his death the Muslim League began to become disunited and lose direction. Other political parties, established mostly by those defecting from the Muslim League, suffered from similar discord, indiscipline and weak organisation. They were neither able to bring forward a national alternative to the Muslim League nor evolve a broad-based consensus on the operational norms of the polity, and thus failed to produce a coherent government.
The interim and permanent constitutions of Pakistan adhered to democratic and participatory norms but when it came to putting these into practice the political elite floundered and often engaged in a free-for-all power struggle. The sole objective of the ruling party was to hold on to power at any cost, while the opposition groups sought to dislodge them by any means. Such conditions were bound to compromise the ability of civilian governments to assert their leadership over the military, and the military consequently had ample freedom to deal with its internal affairs and consolidate its position. Political leaders also attempted to cultivate the military so as to strengthen their own positions vis-à-vis their adversaries.
The civilian governments frequently relied on the army for the restoration of authority in law and order crises and in coping with natural calamities. These operations helped to enhance the image of the military and exposed the weakness of the political leaders. Senior commanders were able to get firsthand knowledge of the politicians’ inability to manage their affairs. These situations provided the military with useful experience in handling civilian affairs. The experience also provided the military with the impression that it could perform the job when the civil governments failed and that the civilians were surviving because of the military’s support. Three periods of martial law – 1958, 1969, and 1977 – were preceeded by law and order disruptions and serious legitimacy crises for the existing governments. The military thus never had any problem in justifying its assumption of power while blaming the displaced governments for political chaos, misadministration and corruption.
The military’s strength is also a result of its strong ethnic and regional cohesion. The Punjab provides the majority of officers, followed by the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas. The army consists largely of Punjabis and Pakhtuns (Pathans). These two groups have not only developed strong mutual ties but have also established links with the civilian bureaucratic elite, most of whom have a similar ethnic background. In fact, only two COAS in Pakistan’s history have come from outside the Punjab and NWFP areas. These were General Mohammad Musa (from Baluchistan but not a Baluch) and General Mirza Aslam Beg (an Urdu-speaking refugee from Uttar Pradesh, India, who settled in Karachi-Sindh). The traditional Punjabi-Pakhtun composition of the army has been a major source of grievance for Sindhis and Baluchs, who are under-represented in the army and virtually absent from the higher echelons. This ethnic cohesion has, however, enhanced the military’s efficacy in politics. Moreover, the military chiefs were given extensions which enabled them to further consolidate their hold over the armed forces. Field Marshal Ayub Khan, COAS from 1951 to 1958, was given two extensions; General Mohammad Musa, COAS from 1958 to 1966, had two full terms of four years each; and General A.M. Yahya Khan, COAS from 1966 to 1971, extended his tenure after assuming power in 1969, but had to resign after Pakistan’s military debacle in East Pakistan in December 1971; General Zia ul Haq, who enjoyed the longest tenure of any COAS – from 1976 to 1988 – died in service in an aircrash in August 1988. Those who did not get extension included: Lt General Gul Hassan (December 1971 to April 1972, forced by the civilian government to resign), General Tikka Khan (1972 to 1976), and General Mirza Aslam Beg (1988 to 1991). They served under civilian governments. General Abdul Waheed (1993 to 1996) retired after completion of his normal tenure, although the civilian government offered to extend his tenure by one year.