Pakistan: Where democracy and political power flow from the barrel of a gun


As reports began to circulate that Pakistan’s former President and Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf had passed away in a Dubai hospital, his family clarified, on 10 June, that he had been in hospital for three weeks but was not on a ventilator. The family also disclosed that he was suffering from Amyloidosis and “recovery was not possible and organs are malfunctioning”. Clearly, the family was acknowledging that Musharraf was reaching the end of his earthly sojourn.

Musharraf played a dominant role in Pakistan’s national life for a decade between 1998, when then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed him Army Chief, and 2008 when he resigned from the presidency. During these years his decisions also impacted on South Asia and the wider region. With his life ebbing away, it is not unnatural to ponder over the many and varied dimensions of his life and career and the many aspects of Pakistan’s governance and society they illustrate. One of these is the centrality and criticality of the Army chief’s office in Pakistan’s public affairs.

For an overwhelming part of Pakistan’s history, the holder of the office has been the most powerful person in the country whether during military rule or elected civilian administrations. The process began soon after the creation of Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, had an autocratic nature. Besides, he died only thirteen months after the country came into being. He was simply unable to lay a foundation for true democratic rule even if, despite his natural dictatorial tendencies, he would have been willing to do so.

Nor did Liaqat Ali Khan, who was the number two in the Muslim League and became Prime Minister at the country’s formation and continued in that office till he was assassinated in October 1951, tried to put in place a democratic system. After Khan’s death the country came into the grip of political instability. It was able to adopt a constitution only in 1956. The period 1952 to 1958 witnessed governments come and go.

Meanwhile, General Ayub Khan was appointed Army Chief in January 1951, becoming the first Pakistani to hold that office. He was the junior-most Major General in the army and was not even on the list of eligible officers for the post but was favoured by the influential Defence Secretary Iskander Mirza. That set a precedent that the appointment of army chiefs could be made by overlooking seniority and going by political convenience. Ayub Khan had obvious political ambitions and agreed as army chief to join some governments between 1954 and 1958 as Defence Minister. In 1958 Iskander Mirza who had become President in 1956 abrogated the two-year-old constitution, dismissed the government and imposed martial law and assumed supreme power. Ayub Khan went along with him only to stage a coup a few weeks later against a coup-maker Iskander Mirza. Thus, Ayub Khan became President of Pakistan in October 1958, setting the precedent of an army chief assuming direct control of the government.

On becoming President, Ayub Khan relinquished his post of army chief but chose a ‘safe’ officer to succeed him. He was the ethnic Hazara general Musa Khan who was his deputy at the General Headquarters. The Hazaras are Shias based in Balochistan, principally around Quetta. They are of Afghan descent and in recent years have been the targets of Sunni terrorist organisations who have undertaken acts of mass murder against them. Six decades ago to they were looked down upon by both the Pathans and the Punjabis. Clearly, Ayub Khan considered that Musa Khan would not be able to do to him what he had himself done to Iskander Mirza. He was right because Musa Khan remained loyal to him till he retired in 1966 and was succeeded by General Yahya Khan. Also, in 1965 Ayub Khan appointed himself Field Marshal.

The 1965 India-Pakistan war was a great setback for Ayub Khan. His protégé Zulfikar Ali Bhutto broke away from him and formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PPP adopted the agitational route and its socialist slogan of “Roti, kapda aur makan” captured the imagination of the people and Ayub Khan saw his power slip away. The army under Yahya Khan got worried and literally forced him to hand over power not under the constitution which he had put in place but to Yahya Khan who imposed martial law. This happened in March 1969.  Unlike Ayub Khan, Yahya did not take the risk of appointing another officer as army chief. He held that office till December 1971 when after Pakistan’s ignominious defeat at the hands of India and the break-up of the country he had to hand over power. The army’s defeat meant that the forces stock among the people became low and so Yahya Khan could not appoint an army officer as his successor. He was compelled to make Bhutto the President of the country in December 1971. Both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan faded away unlamented. The former died in 1974 while the latter in 1980.

Two civilian leaders in Pakistan harboured ambition to cut the army to size and ensure that the army chief does not have either a political role nor be the final word on national security policies. These were Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later Nawaz Sharif. With the army discredited because of the 1971 defeat Bhutto was able to ride roughshod over the senior generals. To show that he was cutting them to size he renamed the top slot in the army from commander-in-chief to chief of the army staff. This was a symbolic move for in actual fact even with the latter designation the general who led the army was not really diminished in public status or his control over the army. Bhutto appointed Tikka Khan, the butcher of East Pakistan, as Army Chief in March 1972. He faithfully carried out his role under Bhutto’s orders including butchering the Baluch who had risen once again in revolt because of systemic discrimination against them.

In 1976 Bhutto, overlooking the claims of seven senior Lieutenant-Generals, appointed Lt General Zia ul Haq as army chief to succeed Tikka Khan. General Zia-ul-Haq was an Islamist. He was obsequious to Bhutto who often publicly humiliated him. However, when Bhutto’s political fortunes fell after he had rigged the 1977 elections Zia struck by staging a coup. He was encouraged by the opposition political parties to do so. Less than two years after taking over Zia ensured that Bhutto was hung in what can only be called a judicial murder. Now Zia was supreme in Pakistan and had become President but he took care that he retained his position as the army chief. He knew that the foundation of his power lay in his control of the army and if its leadership was handed over to another, then his own power would be eroded. Zia changed the character of Pakistan by turning it in an Islamist direction. He also imbued the army with an Islamist ethos.

President Zia-ul-Haq remained the army chief till he died in a an yet unresolved plane crash in August 1988. At that stage the country was restless and the senior generals decided against continuing army rule. However, they ensured that the control over the country’s security and critical aspects of foreign policy remained under the army’s control. From 1988 to 1999 Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who began his political career as an army favourite alternately ruled Pakistan. However, successive army chiefs did not take a hands-off approach in political matters too.

In 1998 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who wanted to control the army too had a major difference with Army Chief General Jahangir Karamat who had publicly advocated the creation of a National Security Council with civil and military participation to decide on critical security issues. By then Pakistan had followed India in undertaking nuclear tests. Nawaz Sharif objected to Karamat’s intervention in a matter that the Prime Minister felt was solely within his competence. Karamat resigned but the army was unhappy. Nawaz Sharif, like some of his predecessors, chose a relatively junior and safe general — Pervez Musharraf — as Karamat’s successor. Musharraf, a mohajir, did not, Sharif obviously thought, have dangerous political linkages.

Musharraf became army chief in October 1998 and immediately, at least in the beginning, going behind Sharif’s back planned the occupation of the Kargil heights in winter. Next year, while Sharif responded to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wanted to establish the beginnings of peace between the two countries Musharraf and a few generals had Pakistan army formations intrude into Indian territory. India reacted furiously with armed might and threw the Pakistan army out of the areas it had occupied. For Pakistan, it was a military and diplomatic disaster. And, as it tried to pick up the pieces, relations between Sharif and Musharraf soured.

Matters came to a head when Sharif dismissed Musharraf while he was on a flight between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in October 1999. Musharraf’s supporters among the senior generals intervened and amidst high drama, Sharif was ousted and the army staged a coup and Musharraf became the supreme leader of the country. He too, like Yahya and Zia before him, retained the office of the army chief. Musharraf ruled the country as President for nine years. In November 2007 he handed over the army chief’s baton to his handpicked General Ashfaq Kayani. Within nine months he had to resign as President and go into exile to London and Dubai. He still nursed the illusion of popularity but returned contrary to the wishes of the army to Pakistan to participate in politics. He was humiliated by the country’s courts and a case of treason was launched against him. He remained in house arrest since his return to Pakistan in 2013. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif had become Prime Minister and Musharraf’s presence complicated matters between the army and him. The army ensured that he was not humiliated beyond a point and that he could leave the country in 2016. He has been abroad since.

Since 2007 Pakistan has had only three army chiefs. Kiyani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa. All three have played a political role in addition to their professional duties. Now Bajwa wants the army to be apolitical but that is impossible in Pakistan where it is a part of public life. Given all this, the army chief is a pivotal figure in Pakistan. He has to astutely manage a complex set of relationships with his immediate constituency which is the army and the civilian leadership, especially in periods of civilian rule. Thus, he is generally both the head of a professional force and directly or indirectly the wielder of the ultimate power in the country. This position is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.

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Pakistan: Where democracy and political power flow from the barrel of a gun
Pakistan: Where democracy and political power flow from the barrel of a gun
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