Political Engineering in Pakistan. The Military View

From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain

Following piece about recent clouds on Pakistan’s scene was mainly for non-Pakistani audience as many questions/confusions came my way. 

 This is an attempt to understand the view from barracks although I strongly oppose such moves from military.  This is first of two part. Second part will deal with modus operandi.


Political Engineering – View from the Barracks

Hamid Hussain

In July 2017, disqualification of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif by Supreme Court again opened the debate about the role of country’s powerful army.  This was one of the most politicized decision of country’s Supreme Court.  In April 2017, Supreme Court not only ordered formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) but went ahead and nominated its members.  It included a serving Brigadier Kamran Khurshid of Military Intelligence (MI) and a retired Brigadier Nauman Saeed of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Supreme Court disqualified Sharif based on JIT investigation.  In the aftermath of Sharif disqualification, many political changes including change of provincial government in Baluchistan achieved by defection of several members, defeat of government’s nominee for Senate chairman position and defection of many politicians from ruling political party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) to rival Pakistan Terek-e-Insaaf (PTI) were alleged to be orchestrated by the army brass.

All available evidence strongly points to direct involvement of senior army brass in political engineering but no one dares to say the obvious.  Using a very sophisticated campaign, military has silenced all alternative views.  There are whispers and rumors and some limited discussion about the pros and cons of army’s latest experiment of political engineering among officers.  There is not much written material about thought process of Pakistan army senior brass as far as involvement in political affairs is concerned.

Like any army, Pakistan army is a conservative institution that instills nationalist ethos among its officer corps.  Officer corps is mainly from middle and lower middle class.  Majority of officers come from cadet colleges.  Retired army officers run these schools on lines of British public schools with discipline, focus on academic excellence as well as active involvement in sports and other clubs.  Students usually enroll at the age of twelve or thirteen and groomed for military academy.  During military career, there is mutual reinforcing of entrenched views about national security and impact of political course on national security.  In every country, army is a large bureaucracy and not known as a soil conducive for alternative views or challenging established ideas and Pakistan army is no exception.

At psychological level, soldier follows an orderly life within an accepted chain of command where orders are followed.  Military cantonments and facilities are well organized and clean when compared to civilian populations with crumbling infrastructure and a disorderly life. In Pakistan, army generally enjoys a very high level of respect and public adulation for its professional work. This sometime generates a self-righteous attitude among officers where they feel they have monopoly over patriotism and everybody else is suspect. Deep mistrust between civilian and military leaders ensures a permanent dysfunctional state.

Pakistan has more than its fair share of normal political activity with not only different views but significant polarization on various issues.  Political leaders behaving like mortal enemies is seen by army officers as a serious threat to national unity. Corruption at highest levels and involvement of some elements of political parties in Mafiosi like criminal activities reinforces the view of the officer that he is the only one standing between order and chaos.  It is with this background that army brass moves out of its own lane and intervenes in internal political affairs.  The type of intervention depends on the situation ranging from direct control of the state and running the show completely with uniformed officers to behind the scenes maneuvers and using political pawns willing to play second fiddle to generals.

Unresolved issues with Pakistan’s larger neighbor India is the central piece of army’s national security doctrine.  In some cases, a genuine national security issue is enlarged to encompass everything including direct political interference.  Army’s intervention is not solely from altruistic purpose but institutional and personal interests as well as personal ambitions of senior officers are also at play.  In addition, personality of army chief and institutional pressure from below can also determine the course.  Army considers itself as the custodian of national security therefore it wants monopoly of formulating and implementing security policy.  They consider civilians as neither qualified nor sufficiently committed to take charge of national security policy.  This is the major source of friction between civilian and military leaders. In this tussle, each side tries to extract concessions for personal and institutional interests.

The current crisis of break between Nawaz Sharif and military brass has its origins in the same old stumbling block of national security. There were several additional factors that widened the gulf until the sword finally fell on Sharif. Army chief heads a ‘college of cardinals’ of about dozen senior officers consisting of Corps Commanders and Principle Staff Officers (PSOs).  They periodically meet to discuss internal and external issues.  The nature of discussion depends on the composition of senior brass.  When a new Chief takes over, some senior officers are of the same seniority and he can be considered ‘first among the equals’. In such a case, senior officers can be vocal and express views candidly.  In cases where many senior officers are superseded or a Chief has a longer than normal three years tenure then significantly junior officers sitting around the table usually defer to Chief and may not express their views candidly if they are contrary to Chief’s views.  In some cases, during change of command (especially if newly elevated army Chief is not from the inner core of close confidants of outgoing Chief), some naughty senior officers try to play their own little games.

There was friction between Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif (2013-2016) on some issues (trial of former army Chief General Pervez Mussharraf was a major stumbling block) but a reasonable functional relationship continued. At institutional level, army had launched a major operation against last stronghold of militants in North Waziristan and needed a civilian cover.  On personal note, Raheel was looking for an extension of his tenure or elevation to the rank of Field Marshal.  Raheel had also opened a front against Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari by arresting many of his close friends involved in corruption as well as eliminating militant wing of Karachi’s urban ethnic political party Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).  All these measures required working relations with Nawaz Sharif and Raheel worked hard to convince hawkish senior officers. Army Chief is the sole spokesperson for his institution when interacting with civilian leadership. A vigorous discussion among senior brass provides the Chief the necessary raw material to work with as well as sort out differences.

In November 2016, new army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa took command of the army.  He was not from the inner core of outgoing Chief and hence not in the loop of many crucial decisions.  In such a case, new Chief needs to learn fast to ascertain details of ongoing projects.  He is more mallow in character and was initially inclined to continue this working relationship with civilians.  Two hawkish senior officers were superseded when he was elevated therefore he had a good start where he could bring two newly promoted officers to the table.  In the beginning, he shuffled the deck removing some senior officers from inner core and sidelining them.  This relieved some pressure but the number of hawks clearly outnumbered the doves and in the end institutional pressure forced him to change the course.

The popularity graph of Nawaz Sharif government rapidly declined in the last 2-3 years due to poor governance and allegations of corruption at all levels.  Clearing of North Waziristan, winding down of large scale combat operations and marked reduction of violence gave confidence to officer corps.  The most common phrase that I heard from number of officers was that ‘it is a total different army.  It has gone through cauldron of fire, given enormous sacrifices and officer corps especially mid-level officers will not allow business as usual by civilians’.

The institutional pressure in army comes from three different avenues.  First, if the number of senior officers taking a certain position is significant enough then it puts limits on Chief as he cannot sideline six or eight senior officers in a brief period.  Junior officers expressing their views in Durbars and groups of retired officers forming WhatsApp groups and advocating tightening the leash on civilians are other avenues.  In case of Bajwa, institutional pressure from all three avenues resulted in current showdown.

Officers blame civilians for dragging them into internal affairs.  They claim that after thoroughly making a mess of the job, civilians then ask army to pull their chestnuts from fire.  Majority of officer’s loath civilian leaders including Nawaz Sharif.  In their mind, Sharif is already guilty of all crimes.  Now that direct military control is not an option, then they concluded that to get rid of him if any political maneuvering in necessary, there is no harm in it.  The problem is that to achieve this objective, they must work with some other unsavory political actors. They justify holding their noses temporarily by suggesting that they will take care of others in due course.  This is perfectly in line with military thinking where you open only one front at a time and avoid entangling on multiple fronts. The result is the farce currently unfolding on Pakistan’s political horizon.  This time, heavy fire against civilian leadership is coming from activist courts. We will only know the details when a disgruntled retired judge or a superseded retired army officer will enlighten us in due course what was done in the name of that old wretched ‘national interest’.

Acknowledgement: Author thanks dozens of officers of different ranks for candidly sharing their views.  All errors, omissions and conclusions are author’s sole responsibility.

Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

May 24, 2018

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

17 thoughts on “Political Engineering in Pakistan. The Military View”

  1. Pakistan – or rather it’s Mil/Intel agencies – have been nurturing political parties and political personalities to promote Mil/Intel establishment and it’s policies when they find more regular parties/personalities are getting too big for their boots.
    Their latest blue eyed boy is Milli Muslim League – which is simply a new label for Lashkar-e-Taiba


    LeT has proved it’s useful to mil/intel in Pakistan by conducting it’s terrorism outside Pakistan i.e. India and Afghanistan. Who better in ISI’s eyes to be their front man in Pakistani politics

    Usually , nurturing religious terrorists only bites it back – but mil/intel never seems to learn


  2. @Omar

    This is a great account of the local Pakistani political intrigues. Even for a person, like myself, who is generally informed about South Asia the fine-grained specifics of internal Pakistani dynamics are new. So always good to learn more.

    My interest was especially piqued by the following consecutive paragraphs:

    Military cantonments and facilities are well organized and clean when compared to civilian populations with crumbling infrastructure and a disorderly life. In Pakistan, army generally enjoys a very high level of respect and public adulation for its professional work. This sometime generates a self-righteous attitude among officers where they feel they have monopoly over patriotism and everybody else is suspect…

    …Political leaders behaving like mortal enemies is seen by army officers as a serious threat to national unity. Corruption at highest levels and involvement of some elements of political parties in Mafiosi like criminal activities reinforces the view of the officer that he is the only one standing between order and chaos. It is with this background that army brass moves out of its own lane and intervenes in internal political affairs.

    While I find the first paragraph above to be completely true, word-for-word, of India. The second does not follow from the first like it seems to in Pakistan.

    Indian middle class, at least the sort I grew up in, has a fair share of people who really hanker after some utopian benevolent dictatorship (their bias confirmed by the daily corruption of the bureaucrats and local politicians), led by some sort of saviour figure who can sort the mess out. The belief in a saviour may sound Christian, but it is probably a diluted version of the Hindu idea of the avatara (lit. descended), the form Ishvara (lit. Supreme Lord) takes periodically for “deliverance of the righteous and destruction of evil-doers and the re-establishment of law/order” (Bhagavad Gita 4.8)

    So, as far as I see it, dictator-love resonates no less among the Hindus. Then what prevents the, largely Hindu, Indian army from doing the bidding of the people it draws its men from? Or conversely, what’s special about Pakistan – is it the smaller size of the country? Or relatively less religious/cultural diversity, i.e. the number of people of the same religious denomination (Sunnis) above some theoretical critical threshold? Or the existence of a larger and more militarily powerful (and ostensibly hostile) neighbour? Or is it the nature of Islam itself and/or the vision of the Pakistani state as an incubator for a jahangeri (world-seizing) form of Islamism à la Iqbal?

    Or is it India that is special and Pakistan the norm? Which brings me to the more general question of how important are the religio-political beliefs of the population in informing the views of the military, esp with regards to political interference? To my mind, the two major Muslim countries where armies currently have a large share of the political pie are Egypt and Pakistan (Turkey under Erdogan no longer fits that pattern, nor does Iran since 1979).

    The trend is clearly not limited to Muslim countries alone: France (under Napoleon), Chile (under Pinochet), Spain (under Franco), Burma under its military Junta etc. The military order seems like a natural institution to take the reins of a society in political/economic turmoil, but continuation of this state of affairs needs more ideological fodder from the general public than merely the need for stability. So, to cut the faff, what are the general lessons an Indian (or anyone else) can learn from the specific Pakistani example?

    (Apologies for the long comment and too many questions. Feel free to delete if deemed too digressive)

    1. The Pakistan Army is largely made up of one ethnic group (Punjabis) while the Indian Army is not so ethnically homogeneous. This is usually offered as an explanation of why it is so much easier to plan a coup in Pakistan than in India.

    2. It is true many Hindus would like a benevolent dictator but each (caste or region based) group among them have different notions of who would be acceptable in that role. This is what keeps India’s democracy going – not a love for democracy so much as mutual disagreements which are resolved through negotiation and compromise.

      I would hesitate to speculate on Pakistan’s spotty record in this regard. But looking at the “Muslim world” as a whole, Pakistan is not very far from the norm.

      1. Pakistan has been under military rule for half of its existence. This is not normal, even in the “Muslim world”.

  3. Pakistani army also owns a large number of commercial enterprises including sugar mills, gas supply , cement and what have you. This has nothing to do with ‘defense’ . So, the army and it’s personnel have a vested business interests , apart from the regular army role.


    No wonder civilian leadership is treated as the scum of the earth.

    1. Isn’t that a ramification of political power than the cause of it?

      The interesting question is how did military gain an oversized political presence in the first place given similarities with India. What did Pakistan do that India didn’t and how generalizable is it?

      1. This is a country made in the vortex of communal violence to which it was a contributory cause. A country not made with a political vision or political debate nor with a respect for human life is an easy prey for those with guns. The root cause of Pakistan was a distrust of democracy and it continues.

      2. India’s first great leader (who had led the way to independence) remained alive and in charge for the next twenty years. The Indian National Congress continued to get elected. As long as Pandit Nehru was alive, he was running the show (whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your POV).

        Quaid-e-Azam died within a year of Pakistan’s creation. Liaqat Ali Khan was assassinated in the early 1950s. The leadership vacuum had be filled by someone and it was filled by Pakistan’s Army. Once the political party created by Q-e-A fell apart, it was only a matter of time before Field Marshal Ayub Khan took over in 1958. Then the pattern of military coups was set. In India, the Army has always worked for the Prime Minister (like it is supposed to in normal countries). In Pakistan, Prime Ministers work for the Army. That is just how the country is structured. The idea that India wants the Islamic Republic to fail also accounts for why the Army is seen as the defenders of the faith and the nation.

        Now the Army has realized that it doesn’t need to take over directly. There are, in fact, distinct disadvantages to doing so. But it can make and break parties on the sidelines and influence the course of events. This is what is happening in the current lifetime disqualification of Nawaz Sharif (who is no more or less corrupt than Zardari or anyone else). Shahbaz Sharif is willing to play ball with the Army, so he may well become PM. Of course, the Army would prefer to totally destroy PML-N but we will see how that works.

        1. Things don’t happen due to one man, unless it is a dictatorship, that too only under extra-ordinary circumstances for a short period of time. The entire generation of Congress leadership pre-1947 had similar education and views as Jawaharlal Nehru . Nehru was a socialist and he gave that twist to the economic policies

    2. All the elite residential areas are named “Defence Housing Authority”, “Bahria Town” (navy) etc.

      1. I love DHA; it’s my spiritual home as it is for any good Karachiite (I am one in spirit though Isb is meant to be my “hometown).

        1. There are 9 Phases of DHA in Lahore (I live in one of them). And I think two phases of DHA in Isb.

          There are also Bahria Towns in all of Pakistan’s big cities (Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad certainly).

          1. The original Defence is in Karachi. But now there is a Defence in all the large cities. Lahore DHA is huge, extending almost all the way to the Indian border.

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