When armies surrender – by Dr. Niaz Murtaza

global experiences confirm that ultimately it is not a question of if but when the Pakistan army surrenders to civilian rule

This article is not a treatise on military tactics. It does not explain why and when armies throw in the towel on the battlefield. Rather, it analyzes the factors which force politically over-active militaries to ultimately surrender to civilian sovereignty, as has happened recently in several countries between Indonesia and Brazil. Instead of launching another coup, why did Turkish generals recently resign meekly in the face of an assertive civilian government? Obviously, this question is important for Pakistan, whose own army wields enormous covert powers even when it is cooling its heels back in the barracks after extended sojourns in the driver’s seat.

The military’s political role varies significantly globally. At their weakest, armies tend to be in meek subordination to elected governments. Politicians obtain military input where needed. However, army officers cannot air dissent publicly if overruled. At their mightiest, armies have ruled unchallenged for decades, e.g., in Burma and Spain. In between these extremes lies a wide range of army power constellations. Such armies alternate between phases of formal rule and informal string-pulling from behind the scenes where they wield varying levels of disproportionate authority in various domains. These domains include the ability to acquire and spend large defense budgets, and manage large businesses with little civilian oversight. They also include the ability to control national foreign and security policies, interfere extensively in domestic politics and civil society activities, and manage the appointments of senior military officials independently.

Armies acquire such disproportionate powers due to numerous factors. Externally, most important is their ability to cozy up with a regional or global superpower by presenting themselves as pliant clients more suited to the superpower’s strategic calculations than representative governments. This gives them access to the foreign aid, arms and international political support needed to remain in power. Their ability also depends on the general acceptability of military rule internationally, e.g., among western governments and global civil society.

Internally, most important is the strength of politicians and political parties, i.e., their level of popularity within society and actual governance performance. It is difficult to undermine well-performing and popular governments out of fear of a popular revolt, as in Turkey today, but easy for the army to present itself as an efficient and uncorrupted alternative to unpopular and inept governments. A strong media, civil society and judiciary also check the ambitions of army generals as they can mobilize public opinion against military interference. The presence of a national threat from an aggressor (internal or external, real or contrived) or a security endeavor in which the national ego is heavily invested (e.g., territorial claims on neighbors) also strengthens the army’s position as its muscularity provides psychological pay-offs.

Internationally, there has been a huge reduction in the acceptability of military rule since the 1960s when authors like Samuel Huntington actually considered it as beneficial for developing countries. Gone are the days when Maggie Thatcher could sip tea proudly with Chile’s Pinochet. Dictators are no longer welcomed for high visibility state visits in western capitals and are generally sneaked in through the back door for late nights meetings if absolutely necessary. More importantly, while the US viewed Pakistan’s army as its partner of choice during the Cold War, it now views it as the obstacle-in-chief to the achievements of its regional aims. Thus, the external environment has become much less favorable for military ascendancy in Pakistan. However, this could change again with the continuing rise of China, which is gradually taking over the mantle of being the dictators’ best friend from the US. Unlike the US, China to-date has been content with supporting existing dictatorships rather than engineering military coups to plant pliant rulers.

While external pressures discourage overt military rule, they are less successful in clipping the informal powers of the military. The genie can only be completely put back in the bottle by internal changes. Unfortunately, there have been only modest changes in the internal factors which facilitate military predominance within Pakistan. The performance of political parties remains dismal. However, some improvements are still noticeable. Political parties have developed sufficient project management capacities to be able to deliver reasonable quality municipal and infrastructural services in cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, thus reducing the military’s comparative advantage here.

The army’s own blunders during its own rule and recent repeated fiascos since May have damaged its reputation somewhat and have also dulled its own appetite at least for overt interventions.  Overall, economic performance has been only slightly better during Pakistan’s three military eras, but that too mostly along superficial, short-term dimensions and due to luck-driven, external factors.  Even this modest edge pales in comparison with the fact that almost all of Pakistan’s worst bouts of violence have started during dictatorships. However, corruption and political bickering continue to damage the reputations of politicians and help keep the army entrenched as a messiah in the minds of many people.

The most visible change internally has been in the form of the increasing assertiveness of the media, civil society and the judiciary. This has made overt army interventions more difficult and has put increasing spotlight on the army’s own poor performance in different arenas.  However, the lack of resolution of the Kashmir issue and the so-called Afghan Jihad continue to provide the national security projects that help in keeping the army high on the pedestal of general public opinion.

Given these unbalanced changes in external and internal factors, while the chances of overt military rule have decreased significantly, the army continues to dominate informally in most of the domains listed earlier. Since these internal factors only change gradually, Pakistan is destined for several more years of covert military dominance, along with all its attendant problems. However, global experiences confirm that ultimately it is not a question of if but when the Pakistan army surrenders to civilian rule. Timing and sequencing would be crucial to success. Attempts to clip the army’s wings must be part of a broader effort to establish a genuine democracy by simultaneously enhancing the powers of other institutions, such as the judiciary. Success would also be more likely if an elected government has established sound economic management and good relationships externally. Where these prerequisites are missing, the elected government may fail to develop the societal and external support needed to succeed, as in the case of Bhutto and Sharif, and may even instigate another coup.

The writer works as a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. murtazaniaz@yahoo.com. This article recently appeared in Dawn.



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