Post-Withdrawal Civil-Military Relations

The army chief continued to be a key figure in the power structure, who interacted with the civilian government headed by the prime minister directly or through the president. An extra-constitutional power triangle, locally known as the troika, developed. It comprised the president, the prime minister, and the army chief; they met frequently to discuss high policy on foreign affairs, security issues and domestic matters. The prime minister was the weakest in the triangle, for three major reasons. First, the constitutional amendments introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1985, known as the 8th amendment, weakened the position of the prime minister and tilted the balance of power decisively in favour of the president, who was given discretionary power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the elected National Assembly if he felt that ‘a situation has arisen in which the Government of the Federation cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and an appeal to the electorate is necessary’ (Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution). Second, the political forces continued to be weak and divided, which made the task of political management extremely difficult for the prime minister. Third, the army chief represented the most powerful and entrenched institution in the body politic. In January 1997, while the National Assembly was dissolved, the president created the National Security Council to formalise the ‘advisory’ role of the services chiefs and the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee which placed an ‘advisory’ institutional constraint on the elected assembly and the civilian government. The military favoured retention of the power of the president to dismiss government because the senior commanders could persuade the president to do so, thus saving them from directly removing the government.

The military commanders are of the view that if their interests can be protected from the outside, there is no need for them to step in. Moreover, with growing ethnic, linguistic and religious polarisation, increasing civil violence, and socioeconomic pressures, the direct assumption of power by the senior commanders could drag them into the ongoing controversies and undermine their reputation. The army’s direct involvement in the maintenance of law and order in Sindh, especially in Karachi, during 1992-94, showed the hazard of such operations. The senior officers are thus reluctant to involve themselves directly in civilian affairs.

The military commanders attach such importance to their professional and corporate interests and make sure that the civilian leadership works towards their protection and advancement. They have a direct stake in foreign and defence policies, especially on Afghanistan, India and the nuclear issue, and want their perspectives to be accommodated; any major shift should be made in consultation with them. The military commanders do not want civilian interference in the internal affairs of the services. They jealously guard their autonomy pertaining to postings, transfers and promotions of service personnel, the disbursement of defence expenditure, training, and related affairs. Defence expenditure is another important interest. They are opposed to any unilateral cut in defence spending by the civilian government. Similarly, service privileges and perks, which have increased tremendously during the period of direct military rule, and absorption of ex-servicemen in civilian jobs are their permanent interests. They expect a civilian government to maintain a minimum measure of socio-economic stability and a functional participatory political order. Any serious crisis of governance on the part of the civilian government threatens the military’s interests because a society in turmoil and crisis cannot sustain its professional and corporate interests. Therefore, the military cannot be expected to support a government that has lost credibility, for any reason, and is confronted with street agitation.

No civilian government of elected assembly since 1988 has completed its normal tenure of five years. Civilian governments have been dislodged by the president with the full backing of the top brass of the military when governments developed differences with the military and lost credibility at the popular level. Benazir Bhutto, who assumed power in December 1988 with the consent of the military top brass, soon developed differences with them in her enthusiasm to assert civilian primacy. This, coupled with her political and economic mismanagement, serious conflicts with the Punjab government led by her adversary, and mishandling of the ethnic problem in urban Sindh, weakened her popular base, making it possible for the president to remove her from office in August 1990. Her successor, Nawaz Sharif, known for his pro-military disposition, ran into difficulties with the military in a little over two years. The developments that really undermined his position included insufficient attention to socio-economic problems and serious charges of financial impropriety and economic mismanagement, not to speak of extremely strained interaction with political adversaries and the confrontation his government developed with the president. He was removed by the president in April 1993, in the same way Benazir Bhutto was dislodged. Later, the Supreme Court restored his government, declaring the president’s dismissal order unconstitutional. However, the power struggle between the president and Nawaz Sharif, especially the latter’s attempt to install a government of his own choice in the Punjab, created such confusion and uncertainty that the top brass forced him and the president out of office in July 1993. An interim civilian government was appointed and new elections were held, which brought Benazir Bhutto back to power in October. During her second term, Benazir Bhutto avoided conflict with the military, but her political and economic mismanagement, including complaints about corruption in the higher echelons of the government and misuse of state resources, surpassed that of her first term. The handling of the ethnic problem and confrontation with the superior judiciary undermined her rule. These factors alienated the military, which joined hands with the president to remove her from office in November 1996.

In all these dismissals, the president acted in consultation with the top brass of the military, and there is enough evidence to suggest that the latter had come to the conclusion that the time had come to get rid of the civilian government. On all these occasions, troops took control of all the major government installations, including the prime minister’s office and residence, and radio and TV stations. In the case of the 1996 dismissal of Benazir Bhutto, the airports were closed and mobile phones were turned off. It was a coup-like operation on all these occasions, and the interim prime ministers were selected in 1993 and 1996 with the consent of the army.

The role of the Pakistan military has undergone major changes during the fifty years of independence. Its traditions emphasised aloofness from active politics and the primacy of the civilian leadership. The military gradually expanded its role, however, first by becoming an important actor in the decision-making process, and then by directly assuming power. It has, by now, become the most powerful political force in the political system. Its role has changed from direct governance to influencing the nature and direction of politics from the background.

The military prefers role over rule. If its professional and corporate interests can be protected adequately from a distance, it will not be tempted to step in directly and establish military rule once again. Much depends on how the political leaders perform the task of political and economic management. The civilian government faces two major constraints on its ability to assert its primacy. First, the regional security environment, marked by tension and conflict, increases the importance of the military in the decision-making process. Second, the political forces continue to be fragmented and weak, and often tend to disregard the democratic norms. The growing ethnic-linguistic divide and religious-sectarian cleavages, and the proliferation of sophisticated weapons in the society, have made governance an extremely delicate task. The civilian government needs the support and blessings of the military to stay afloat. The military’s preponderant role in the polity is thus assured.