The Paradox of the Pakistan Army

Critical role: the Pakistan army wields significant influence over the country's political direction. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

For all its many faults, the Pakistan army is becoming ever more important as the one institution that can resist the centrifugal forces endangering Pakistan’s future. However, the army needs to step back from its confrontation with Imran Khan and look for some form of understanding with India.

There is a lot that is wrong about the Pakistan army. It interferes in politics too much. It makes bad foreign policy choices. It blocks peace feelers with India. It accounts for too much of GDP. It is too deeply entrenched in the economy. Its human rights record is mixed. However, it is now the main institution holding Pakistan together. In a country with nuclear weapons, the survival of a disciplined Pakistan army matters to all of us. Ironically it should matter to India most of all because the disintegration of Pakistan would provoke a regional catastrophe. Meanwhile, there are significant changes happening in the army which could have major consequences.

The Pakistan army has decided that Imran Khan is unfit to be the next prime minister, so the former cricketer has been locked away and will play no part in the elections due to take place in the next few months. This is a big gamble by General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the newish Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir. On one level, it seems to have paid off. There has been no repeat of the widespread rioting of 9 May even when Imran was sentenced in August. Whether his adoring followers, beset by inflationary pressures, will forget him remains to be seen. It is hard to imagine that a technocratic government or another lacklustre Sharif/Bhutto coalition (which anyway seems unlikely to hold together) will excite the population to go out and vote; the probability, therefore, is that the next government will be elected by a feeble percentage of Pakistan’s burgeoning population.

Pakistan’s massive population growth is one of the factors putting the future of the state in peril. It currently stands at 241 million, over six times its size at independence in 1947. The rate of growth places enormous pressures on services, particularly education where Islamist madrassas are only too happy to fill the void in the state system. Levels of unemployment are bound to stoke unrest as is the continuing rise of food prices. This is doubtless why the army is worried by a populist politician who, it believes, places personal popularity above sound governance.

The other disturbing trend in Pakistan is the centrifugal pull of the four provinces (and the fifth and sixth if you include the disputed territories of Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir). There used to be a time when the Pakistan Muslim League, although largely Punjabi, had appeal across all six areas. Similarly, the then centre-left Pakistan People’s Party, although based out of Sindh, could harvest votes across the country. This no longer applies. A leading observer has described Pakistan ‘as a frail polity, a battered body with a badly bruised soul’.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces still bear the mental scars of recent insurgencies and the war in Afghanistan. Sindh not only hosts the traditional rivalry between Sindhis and Mohajirs (descendants of refugees from India in the later 1940s), but now has a substantial Pashtun population. Inadequate housing, poor services and congestion make Karachi a powder keg. Even in the Punjab, traditionally the stable hub of Pakistan, the pressures of population are taking their toll. Climate change will bite early in Pakistan, adding to the increasing phenomenon of Pakistani migration.

For all its faults, the Pakistan army is the one institution that inculcates a spirit of national unity

The army cannot be blamed for the population explosion but must share culpability for Pakistan’s failure to develop a stable democratic system. Constant coups and interventions over 75 years have led politicians to make hay while the sun shines. However, Pakistan is not the only democracy where levels of governance have declined markedly in recent years as populations fall prey to populist slogans.

In these circumstances, a former general told me that ‘it is time to prioritise governance over democracy’. This suggests a period of nominally civilian government under the strict control of the army. Ironically, this might help the economy. The leading economist Shahid Javed Burki has demonstrated that the economy tends to perform better under military supervision. This is in spite of the army tending to ring-fence the defence budget, which currently stands at $6.27 billion – amounting to some 3.83% of GDP (2021 figure). This is about double the global average. The reason for the high level of spending is both the perceived threat from India and the very real risk of terrorism from Afghanistan.

But the army is less adept at foreign policy. Rawalpindi is instinctively resistant to reaching an agreement with India over Kashmir. Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, former prime ministers of Pakistan, felt hamstrung by the army when it came to discussions with India, and even former President Pervez Musharraf, who came within a whisker of achieving a deal in 2007 and 2008, failed to inform the Corps Commanders of the details and would probably have faced opposition from them.

As for Afghanistan, it was the army that was mainly responsible for the Taliban-only government that seized power in August 2021. All other regional governments and the international community wanted a power-sharing arrangement. The tragedy of this huge miscalculation by Rawalpindi is that Pakistan’s best prospect for economic recovery would be to exploit its perfect geographical position between India, Iran, China and the Central Asian Republics as an ideal corridor for trade. For as long as the Taliban is in power in Afghanistan, that idea looks like a non-starter.

Yet for all its faults, the Pakistan army is the one institution that inculcates a spirit of national unity. Its structure is still based on the old British (post-1857 Mutiny) system of having a range of ethnicities in each military unit. Although Punjabis tend to dominate, there is a substantial role for Pashtuns, Baluchis and Sindhis. Although the action against Imran has been unpopular at rank-and-file level, there is no serious possibility of disloyalty, let alone mutiny, in the army. This is reassuring for a country that possesses over 170 nuclear warheads.

Above all, the army should be persuaded to support a new relationship with India, the single act which could transform Pakistan’s economic and political fortunes

However, the army is changing in ways that make the future hard to predict. The Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi elites no longer send their sons to the army. Instead, they despatch them to university in the US and UK (almost never China) and into the professions or business. This has broken the link between the civilian elite and the army. Instead, army officers are now from lower middle class and even more humble backgrounds. They are not Islamist (which was a Western fear in the 1990s and 2000s), but they are less in sympathy with the tiny ruling class in Pakistan and its Westernised habits including democracy. They are trained to be hostile to India, but they are also wary of being sucked too deeply into China’s orbit.

The other change in the Pakistan army is that it too is becoming less democratic. As late as 2001, President Musharraf experienced significant opposition from his Corps Commanders but nowadays the COAS is becoming less ‘first among equals’ and more dictatorial. This could be unfortunate because Pakistan needs good decisions after decades of poor governance.

The army is more unpopular inside Pakistan than at any time since 1947. Instead of doubling down against Imran Khan, it needs to step back and reconsider its approach to domestic politics.

Above all, the army should be persuaded to support a new relationship with India, the single act which could transform Pakistan’s economic and political fortunes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi might not seem like the most obvious partner for peace, but he has made a number of positive gestures towards Pakistan in the past, and in his expected third term, he will be looking for some legacy achievements.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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