AfPak Behind the Lines: Pakistan’s army
This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistan’s army with Ahsan Butt. 1) The Pakistani army has taken a prominent role in both rescue and relief operations in response to the recent flood crisis, and its efforts seem to have been viewed in a much more positive light than the civilian government’s response. ...
This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistan’s army with Ahsan Butt.
1) The Pakistani army has taken a prominent role in both rescue and relief operations in response to the recent flood crisis, and its efforts seem to have been viewed in a much more positive light than the civilian government’s response. How are people in Pakistan talking about the relief effort? Do you think the comparatively more positive views of the army’s response to crisis will alter the military’s relationship with the civilian government?
The first thing that needs to be said about this is that the very nature of the response almost necessitates a prominent role for the military. If you need helicopters to deliver food and water, who are you going to go to, the local civil administration or the military? If you need boats to rescue stranded people, who are you going to go to, fishermen or the navy? This needs to be understood because to the extent that this is purely a logistical crisis, the military almost has an “unfair” advantage in that it has the better toolbox for the immediate aftermath.
When people in Pakistan talk about the nature of the response, it is generally accused of being lackluster and negligent. In my view, there’s not a tremendous divide in individual views on the response from the civilian government and the military. My reading of the situation doesn’t suggest that people are saying “Oh, the civilians are doing terribly, but the military’s doing well.” Rather, people are saying “Everyone’s doing badly.”
As for the military’s relationship with the civilians, I think normal politics are on hold right now. That’s not to say the military, were it so disposed, would hesitate to malign the civilian government when the time comes. But that time certainly isn’t now. Even rival political parties, for the most part, have temporarily put “normal” wrangling and blame games on hold. Moreover, one needs to understand that while the military has undermined the current government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in important ways since its inception — particularly on foreign and nuclear policy — it has also helped protect it against what is probably the PPP’s biggest rival domestically: the judiciary.
In short, this is not a relationship, at present, that can be reduced to a sound byte.
2) Even before the flooding, a Pew poll found that 84 percent of Pakistanis thought the army had a positive impact on Pakistan, in comparison to significantly lower support for the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and even other opposition figures like Nawaz Sharif. Given the military’s mixed record of success throughout its history, how do you explain such persistently high support for the army as an institution?
The first reason would be short memories. Many of the same people that distributed sweets on the streets when Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in the 1999 coup were the ones leading the opposition to Musharraf in 2007. Both Benazir Bhutto and Sharif led pathetically mismanaged governments in the 1990s (twice each), and both were fêted and celebrated upon their returns to the country. Two years is an awfully long time in Pakistani politics, and I daresay many people have forgotten what the depths of the Musharraf regime felt like because time heals wounds in Pakistan much better than most places.
The second would be that the military-bureaucratic “establishment” in Pakistan has important supporters in the country’s mainstream media, particularly amongst one or two of the top-rated news channels like Geo. The media, both print and electronic, has different standards by which it judges civilian and military mistakes. The issue of corruption is a great example; Pakistanis are quite rightly told every day about the misdeeds of civilian leaders when it comes to graft, but the military’s institutionalized corruption — perhaps because it is institutionalized — is often ignored or underplayed. For instance, news channels spend little time discussing the ways in which senior and retired military officers get land for private use, both in urban and rural areas, at lower than market rates.
The third reason would be that Pakistan is a hard place to govern for a multitude of reasons, and anyone not in the position of attempting to govern it ends up looking better. Conversely, those actually trying to govern look worse over time. To use a cricketing analogy, batting is a lot easier at the non-striker’s end.
The fourth would be that Pakistanis, when they clamored for democracy during the 2007-08 period, probably had unrealistic expectations of what it would deliver. Democracy is about guaranteeing certain processes but it cannot guarantee certain outcomes, and I think that fact, when discovered, has caused great disillusionment among average Pakistanis.
And finally, the fifth reason would be that there is a sense of yearning for strongmen or saviors in Pakistani society, both in urban and rural areas. People ignore the fact that many of our problems are deeply structural. They would like our problems to solved in one swoop; they tend to think that all it requires is good intentions and strong leadership, and we’d be on our way. For both supporters of the military as well as civilians Pakistani politics are highly dependent on personalities
This “Savior Syndrome” often manifests itself as support or acquiescence for the military, which by definition can provide the ultimate strongman.
3) Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was recently granted a three-year extension of his term, an unusual but not unexpected occurrence. Has this extension provoked any concern given Pakistan’s history of military rule?
Perhaps some civil society liberals have expressed muted concern, but it wasn’t a hugely significant piece of news. It was a confirmation and reflection of what we already knew to be true about Kayani’s role in the country, rather than some shock to the system. Everybody knew it was coming. Along with the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the leaders of the civilian government, Kayani has been one of three final arbiters of Pakistani politics for a couple of years now. With Pakistan’s history, any interaction between civilian governments and the military is viewed with inquisitively raised eyebrows, and this was no different, but I wouldn’t say it occupied the headlines for more than two days in a row.
4) The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the ISI’s annual assessment found for the first time that domestic militancy posed a greater threat to Pakistan’s security than India. How has the army reacted to this report? And has the threat calculus changed for members of the army, or is India still widely perceived as more threatening?
I’m glad the ISI caught on to what the rest of us have known for the better part of a decade.
I’ve always found the inflation of the threat from India to be quite curious. I’m not saying that India has behaved in a saintly way with Pakistan throughout our history, but the extent to which India can hurt Pakistan absent some massive provocation is limited by the nuclear deterrent that both sides hold. In my view, India stopped being a significant threat to Pakistan in 1998, and certainly by the early 2000s by which time the two sides had added significantly to their nuclear arsenals. Clearly, more important people
disagreed with me.
About the report itself, I’d find it scarcely believable that such assessments would be made without the blessing of the Army high command anyway, so talk of a “reaction” is probably misplaced. It’s not like the ISI is some independent organization that exists outside the de facto, if not de jure, purview of the military, and would serve up a report that would catch the military unawares. No, they’re really two sides of the same coin, essentially.
It’s difficult to say what the average soldier or officer thinks of this report without actually talking to them. On the one hand, their entire upbringing would be based on the Indian threat — it’s basically what every generation of cadets has been fed since they enrolled in the military, and Indians were who they were trained to fight. On the other hand, these are the very people who’ve been fighting and dying on the field, and have borne the greatest brunt of militant violence in terms of casualties over the last few years, so if anyone should understand the threat from domestic militants, it’s them. That’s a roundabout way of saying, “I don’t know.”
Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees.
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