Civil-military relations in Pakistan have transformed since the hard power days of Ayub Khan, Zia Ul-Haq, and Pervez Musharraf. For one, current military leaders prefer to lead from behind: Instead of evicting civilian leaders by force and establishing totalitarian control, the military chooses to leverage its interests carefully while building favorable mass opinion for its behavior. By virtue of managing the nation’s most critical portfolio, i.e. security, the military is still able to project itself as Pakistan’s ultimate “savior” institution. This portrayal is fruitful after terrorist attacks, especially when coupled with frequent reports of inadequate governance and oligarchism, and allows the military to overshadow the civilian administration and have the final word on domestic and international policy.

While Pakistan’s political history throws up many reasons—external and internal—for the systematic empowerment and enlargement of its armed forces, the biggest thorn in its path to power has often taken the form of a civilian government. Perhaps this is why the military has made efforts to demonstrate a level of aptitude that supposedly outclasses the civilian government when it comes to, say, responding to crises or maintaining the functionality of state apparatus. Today, the military doesn’t need to oust a civilian leader and declare martial law. Today, the military’s strategy is far more nuanced, utilizing soft power techniques of political interference and opposition while simultaneously portraying itself as having superior capabilities. Is it any wonder, then, that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), currently the main opposition party, has been rather supportive and accommodating of the military?

By pointing to the civilian government’s malfeasance and mismanagement of public policy, the military is able to shore up generous public support and justify its ever-increasing budget. As Aqil Shah notes, in the wake of each national tragedy, the military seems to be able to aggrandize political power. Routinely labeling the government as corrupt and neglectful (mostly via mainstream media and political opposition), Rawalpindi launches fierce media campaigns to burnish its credentials as it goes about announcing grand operations (example, Zarb-e-Azb), which the civilian leadership ultimately gets behind. Couching itself as the patriotic protector of the integrity of the “qaum”, the military and its intelligence wing are able to promote their policies and (veiled) interests in moments of insecurity and hysteria—an environment guaranteeing minimal public pushback. 

As scholars have shown, the military decides the state’s security priorities, part of which is choosing which groups should be prosecuted and which should be co-opted for the state’s grand strategy. Off late, it has displayed a blatantly aggressive and intolerant stance against all kinds of terror outfits. Most importantly, however, it hasn’t shied away from showcasing itself as the Pakistani state’s power center and main decision-maker. In the past couple of years, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Raheel Sharif has received more public attention than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, including his noteworthy presence in key meetings. The military’s PR is widely followed on Twitter, and mainstream media is too intimidated to question GHQ’s policies. Also, how can one forget the posters saluting Raheel Sharif that adorned the streets of Karachi and Islamabad after December 2014?

Aside from conducting mop-up operations in KPK and Balochistan, the military has stuck its fingers in other pies—most notably the judiciary and policy-making apparatus. Take, for instance, the National Action Plan. Implemented following the grisly Peshawar school attack, it gave the army enormous teeth to prosecute its war on terror, especially awarding it judiciary power in the form of military courts. Born out of discussions between the offices of the COAS, Prime Minister, and Interior Minister, the plan was allegedly tweaked and implemented by the military in a unilateral manner. However, the military’s presence goes beyond its frequent spats with the PM’s office and its counterinsurgency operations: It has surfaced in the politics of Karachi, mounting corruption cases against a major political party and employing the Rangers paramilitary forces to wage a shadow war.

In the process of protecting its own interests and consolidating power, the military has experienced some resistance from the Sharif administration. We know that Rawalpindi disapproves of PM Sharif’s conciliatory and cooperative moves towards India. We also know that it diverges from the civilian government’s approach to countering violent extremism in the country. Fissures in the civilian-military relations became visible following the Easter Sunday blasts in Lahore. The military authoritatively decided to enter Punjab, which also happens to be home base of PM Sharif. Nullifying the jurisdiction of the Punjab police and swatting away concerns of the provincial government, the army has began operations much to the chagrin of many political leaders. But the army has its own agenda at play: Despite Nawaz Sharif’s promise back in 2014 that Pakistan would stop differentiating between the “good” and “bad” Taliban, GHQ still follows a policy of carefully selecting which terrorist outfits to target and how much force to use.

As the two Sharifs battle for supremacy, we are yet to see how troubled the waters get for civil-military relations in Pakistan. While the nation’s civilian leadership adopts new approaches and policies with each rotation, the military only changes tactics to satisfy its unyielding ideological motivations. The military-intelligence nexus has made it abundantly clear that Rawalpindi cannot be subtracted from the decision-making process on a host of issues (which it inevitably relates to national security), leaving little wiggle room for Pakistan’s democratic institutions. When thinking about the Pakistan we see today—a nation battered and bruised by religious extremism and political violence—it could be productive to consider some sort of formal or informal power-sharing arrangement between the two state institutions, one having fortified itself over a longer shelf life, and the other, a recent phenomenon but holding the power of civilian mandate.



Srijit is a scholar from New Delhi, India. Having received Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Oberlin College, he hopes to pursue further studies in public policy and international development. His research has focused on analyzing geopolitical dynamics and development policies in South Asia and the Middle East, especially from the lens of political violence, social protection, and community relations.

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