Evolution of the Role of the Pakistani Army

31 October, 2014
By Anumita Raj

The role of Pakistan's Army in the country's power structure is fascinating and has evolved into a somewhat unique phenomenon in todaySs world. Many countries are military states, where the armed forces possess a disproportionate amount of power. In Pakistan the 'establishment' (a reference to the combination of the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency or ISI) has moved past being openly in charge by taking power forcibly through military coups or issuing orders to the civilian government, towards a more covert role as the country's foremost power base. It is important to note that the Army has by no means given up its control over Pakistan's affairs; rather, it has manipulated its image in such a way that it appears to be in support of the civilian government while continuing to exert power behind the scenes.

In Strategic Foresight Groups 2002 paper 'Future of Pakistan'. we outlined the evolution of the Armys role thusly. The Army will be the dominant institution for the next 10 years, though it may at times choose to share power with political parties and allow the latter to manage the domestic economy and the law and order situation. The fragmentation of political parties makes it very difficult to find a real and effective alternative to the Army to govern Pakistan.This is what has happened. This evolution in the perception of the role of the Army has taken place, more or less, through the design of former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaque Pervez Kayani. Kayani was a powerful figure in Pakistan during his tenure but unlike many of his predecessors, he did not crave a public role or profile for himself, preferring to rule from behind the scenes. He also assumed his role at a time when the dissatisfaction amongst the Pakistan people was growing over the absence of true democracy in the country. In fact it was only in 2013 that for the first time in Pakistan's independent history an elected administration finished its term and completed a democratic transition of power from one party to the next. Sensing public frustration with the status quo, Gen. Kayani took pains to publicly step back the Armys role while in reality holding on tightly to the reins.

Pakistan's civilian administrations under former President Asif Ali Zardari and current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been allowed to make decisions on domestic issues of a lower profile. Any attempt by them to dictate foreign or defence policy has been dealt with stringently by the Army. The most recent political crisis within Pakistan, where Chairman of Tehreek-e-Insaf Pakistan, Imran Khan and Chairman of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, Dr. Tahir-ul Qadri marched into Islamabad demanding the resignation of PM Sharif over allegations of election rigging was believed to have the hand of the establishment behind it. Both Khan and Qadri have proximity to the Army and their protest has been viewed as an attempt by the Pakistan Army to rattle PM Nawaz Sharif who has attempted to influence Pakistan's foreign policy to suit the civilian administrations goals rather than the Armys. Another theory has been that PM Sharif's civilian government was in favour of talks with the Pakistani Taliban rather than launching another operation (Operation Zarb-e-Azb was ultimately launched in June 2014 and announced by the Armed Forces rather than the civilian government), leading the Army to show its displeasure in what it viewed as the civilian government interfering in matters that are within the Armys purview.

In the coming years, it is likely that this uneasy distribution of responsibilities will continue. Following the precedent set by Kayani, current COAS Gen. Raheel Sharif has also held fast the idea that the establishment should control vital foreign and defence policy while allowing the civilian government to outwardly maintain a semblance of power by allowing it to manage domestic issues such as the economy. Barring any wildcard incidents or events, this power balance can be expected to continue as the Army has reaped the rewards of its strategy to take a step back publicly; public opinion and support for the Army and its actions has been high. At the same time, the Army has also shown its willingness to display a tough stance to the civilian government when it believes it has stepped over the line, as evidenced by the recent mass protests by Dr. Qadri and Imran Khan. Given this combination of factors, SFGs 2002 prediction will likely hold true in the coming decade as well.

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