From the Cold War to Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Pakistan's military state within a state has shown a deadly ability to turn crises to its own ends, says Gurharpal Singh.
In making sense of the turmoil in Pakistan since last autumn and the recent tragic death of Benazir Bhutto, most analysts have overlooked one important fact: the historical role of the military in shaping the Pakistan polity. While media attention has been focused on the struggle between the "dictator" and the "people", few have provided satisfactory answers as to why President Parvez Musharraf was able to get away with imposing a state of emergency during which he sacked most of the Supreme Court judges who refused to rubber-stamp his election as civilian president. The general response is that Musharraf is doing the West's dirty work; in reality, he was playing a constitutional game whose rules were framed in the early 1950s.
Mazhar Aziz, to his credit - in what is otherwise a brief volume lacking much detail - takes the weakness of theorisation of the military in Pakistan politics seriously. In a field dominated by journalistic accounts in which the mullah-military alliance has become the conventional wisdom, Aziz introduces the concept of institutional path dependency. According to him, the institutional innovations of the formative years of Pakistan's history (1947-54) created a form of path dependency that has been responsible for thwarted democratisation, military intervention and post-military withdrawal crises.
At the core of this development has been the emergence of the military as a "parallel state" with distinctive institutional interests that have enabled it to reposition itself continuously as the premier institution in the state. From the Cold War to the War on Terror, the "military in Pakistan has shown a remarkable consistency in pursuing its institutional interests, regardless of the terms of debate". The main reason why the military has been so successful at this game has been its ability to link external threats to its own interests and in the process turn Pakistan into what critics have described as "geo-political utility" or a "neo-vassal state".
Aziz's reading of Pakistan's history suggests that the forthcoming elections are unlikely to result in a permanent democratic restoration. Rather, they will produce a weak civilian government "due to the presence of a strongly institutionalised military". Indeed, all the evidence points in this direction. Past attempts at democratic restoration (1969-71, 1985-88) were bedevilled by persistent efforts by the military to craft the polity to its design. In this respect, Musharraf is conforming to type, but what makes this transition especially troublesome is his claim that only he can successfully prosecute the War on Terror in Pakistan.
However, Pakistan's history also suggests an alternative: that the overmanagement of democratic transition by the military can unravel as a result of exceptional events (the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971) or untimely assassinations (Zia in 1988; Bhutto in 2007). To what extent the political parties make effective use of this opportunity will be determined primarily by their ability to mobilise the Bhutto "sympathy wave" to their advantage and to outwit the military Machiavellis who will use the resources of the "parallel state" - especially the mullah-military alliance - to cut into the power base of the non-religious parties.
Although Bhutto's death is likely to shift the balance of power in Pakistan society in favour of political parties and civil society, with Musharraf as the main victim, the more serious challenge of building a democratic Pakistan after 60 years of independence will remain an uphill struggle. At the root of this struggle, as Aziz notes, is the need to dismantle the military's "parallel state". Sadly, the record of neither Bhutto nor her father suggests that the populist ideology of Bhuttoism is up to this task.
Military Control in Pakistan: The Parallel State
By Mazhar Aziz
Published 24 October 2007