A History of Failure: The Rise and Fall of Military ‘Experiment’ in Pakistan

Posted on September 17, 2007
Filed Under >Athar Osama, Politics
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Gues Post By Athar Osama

In October 1999, when General Musharraf came to power in a coup and declared himself the Chief Executive of the country, he was met by a silent nod of approval by his 150 million compatriots. Many of us thought, quite naively though, that he would fix what was wrong with our political system. Today, as he wheels and deals to secure another term in office, he hardly has the support of the masses to lean on.

What has gone wrong in these last 8 years for him is quite reminiscent of what went wrong with his predecessors. Today, as Musharraf seeks to have himself elected for a second term, it is useful to ask a question: Is military rule the solution to Pakistan’s problems? Is Musharraf any different than his predecessor generals?
Answering these questions is critical to charting a new course of democracy in Pakistan for it will address and counter the argument at the very center of the ongoing political saga and the impending presidential elections in Pakistan.

In this piece, I will argue that, if we look through history, there is a clear “pattern of failure” associated with a military rule in Pakistan. Broadly speaking, each of the three (or four) episodes of military rule in Pakistan can be divided into three phases each of these, quite predictably, ultimately leading to the other as the regime struggles to gain legitimacy and falls under its own weight. In totality, this pattern found across all three (or four) military regimes in past indicates the unsustainability and failure of the military experience in Pakistan.

Phase 1: Reform Agendas and Search for Legitimacy

The first phase of each of the three episodes of military rule in Pakistan was characterized by either the rolling out of a reform agenda ( e.g. Ayub Khan) or promises to “clean up the mess” (as with Musharraf) or return to civilian rule (as with Zia and Yahya). The primary purpose of the regime is to gain legitimacy before the eyes of the masses and, more importantly, before the international community on whose support (and aid) the regimes’ claim for economic progress generally rest.

In each of the three instances of military rule, the international legitimacy did come in due course of time ( e.g. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for Zia, and 9/11 for Musharraf), although through questionable means. Another predictable pattern of all three military regimes is the initial burst of development and economic growth that they create thus providing a measure of relief to common man.

Here too, economic historians agree that the high economic growth rates seen during these periods were financed, in major part, by foreign aid coming from the Western countries (most notably America) and other external sources (such as expatriate capital during Musharraf era and Narcotics-funded Afghan Jihad during Zia’s period). Without foreign aid, and resultant loss of sovereignty, the economic growth wouldn’t have been possible. In all cases, it went away as soon as the foreign aid was stopped.

In that respect, military rule in Pakistan has also come at a considerable cost to the country’s sovereignty in that increasingly, during military rules in Pakistan, the country has aligned itself with Western interests ( e.g. Pro-West military alliances in 1950s and 60s, Afghan Jihad in 1980s, and War on Terrorism in 2000s) that may have taken a heavy toll on the country’s social fabric. What is also worth noting is that these alliances have often been undertaken without much thought to the costs and benefits to the country and without due regards to its own long-term interests. The creation of Taliban as a result of the Afghan Jihad maybe a case in point.

Phase 2: Legitimacy Remains Elusive & Democratic Facade

In the second of the three phases, with the quest for legitimacy remaining largely elusive, the regimes’ attention turns to providing a facade of civilian and democratic rule. This is done through a series of three steps: 1) measures to eliminate political opposition to the regime by banning the “old guard” political leaders and parties ( e.g. Ayub’s use of EBDO and Musharraf’s use of NAB cases) and co-opting others; 2) by isolating and elevating the General above the political fray through a pre-rigged referendum that ensures his control over the political apparatus; and c) by setting up alternate systems of governance ( e.g. Basic Democracies by Ayub and Local Bodies by Zia and Musharraf) to weaken the national and provincial political parties.

Why do these Generals even find it necessary to create the facade of democracy. Why can’t they simply rule under the Martial Law in perpetuity, like leaders of some other countries have chosen to do for years, even decades? I think the answer to this question lies within ourselves. I believe that the people of Pakistan are inherently a democratic people who would like to make decisions about their affairs for themselves. True, their efforts are often frustrated but that does not negate the first assertion.

By the time the General in question is at the mid-point of his rule, the regime is running out of steam. There is hardly a reform agenda left to implement. It is politics as usual with one set of corrupt stakeholders being replaced by another set of corrupt stakeholders. Even the Army is not spared of the signs and effects of weak leadership at the top. Ayub’s weakness during 1965 War is legendary and so are many of the instances of neglect to the duty of COAS during Zia’s time as narrated by none other than General K. M. Arif. Musharraf may be no exception.

Phase 3: Collapse of the Experiment

With the civilian “controlled” democratic experiment in a state of decline, the regimes begin the last of the three phases of their rule. This phase is marked by an intense and growing popular discontent and disillusionment with the “artificial” democracy that is being held together in place with the support and threat of a return to military rule.

It is also one where the General has become quite insulated from the pulse of the masses and is increasingly committing blunders–sometimes blunders of immense magnitude ( e.g. Ayub’s celebration of Decade of Development and firing of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Zia’s firing of Mohammad Khan Jonejo as PM, and Musharraf’s recent reference against CJP)?in an attempt to perpetuate his rule.

It is at this point that the regime makes a last ditch attempt to buy more time for itself through political sloganeering ( e.g. Islamization by Zia, Development by Ayub, and Enlightened Moderation by Musharraf). However, each of these slogans are really meant to provide a few more years at the top to the Generals in question and nothing else.

This pattern is predictable and clearly points towards the lack of sustainability and failure of military rule in Pakistan. Today, Musharraf stands at the end of the last the three phases of his rule with all his energies focused towards merely elongating his rule and Pakistan’s misery by another few years. Should this happen with or without uniform it would only come at the expense of Pakistan and its people.

In either case, though, it is yet another chapter in a sordid tale that represents a general pattern of failure repeated at least three times over during 33 years of Pakistan’s history. Repeatedly, Generals–Ayub, Yahya, Zia, and Musharraf–have proven themselves incapable to rule over a people that may have erred in asserting their rights at the right moments in their history but are, nonetheless, acutely aware of them.

If military dictatorship was to be the best thing that ever happened to Pakistan since sliced bread, it would have worked by now. Instead, it has failed on each one of the three (or four) occasions that it was put into practice in this country. If military dictatorship had been this nation’s destiny, as it is sometimes argued, the people would have happily embraced it and not repelled against it.

But is not our destiny and it probably never will be. The army–both its men and leadership–has repeatedly shown its willingness and desire to distance itself from the actions of its sole-leader. Each time a general grabs power, and forces the army into political corridors, the latter, to its credit, is willing to play only so far. This happened not only during the events leading up to Ayub’s and Yahya’s resignation but also on several minor occasions as well ( e.g. army’s refusal to fire at PNA protestors under Zia’s leadership during Bhutto’s premiership).

For sixty years, Pakistan and its political institutions have been suffering from a disease–a political cancer of sorts–whose causes include, in that order, its inept and selfish political leaders, its adventurous military generals, its bureaucrats, technocrats, and intelligentsia who seem to benefit from and share in the spoils of this political (dis)order, and its poor people–oppressed as they may be–who refuse to take responsibility for their own destiny and assert their fundamental rights.

This cancer is silently eating away on the body of this nation. The patient is dying a slow but sure death. The only thing that a period of military rule, like we’ve seen on several occasions in the past, achieves is that it delays the inevitable. It provides the patient with a drip and a booster shot of some energy that creates an artificial impression that things are getting better but, that too, only for a while. When the signs of this booster shot wear off, however, we’re left with a patient that is weaker, sicker, and nearer to its death than it was before the military intervention was administered for not only is the booster shot only an artificial and temporary remedy, it also results in considerable waste of time–years, sometimes a decade–that could have been spent curing the cancer in the first place.

The death will surely come unless we, Pakistanis, learn to differentiate between treatment and life-support and make a resolve that we will treat this patient rather than leave it to die on a life-support system that is only meant to delay the inevitable. Saving this patient will require every ounce of energy and will power in our body and the best team of doctors that we can assemble but that’s the only sane thing to do at this moment–at any moment. The choice is ours, so can be the future.

About the Author: Dr. Athar Osama is a public policy analyst and an amateur historian of Pakistan’s political and constitutional history. He is also the Founder of Understanding Pakistan Project. An earlier version of this article was published in Dawn.com.

43 responses to “A History of Failure: The Rise and Fall of Military ‘Experiment’ in Pakistan”

  1. Tahseen Wattoo says:

    salam, can you please tell me that what was the procedure adopted by musharraf and zia to legitimize themselves? or any url on which i can read this?

  2. ahmed says:

    mae aek young pakistani hoe mae apne ane wale mustaqbel se dar raha ho jab hum pe aek aesa sadar ya prime minister a jae ga jo pakistan ko sirf nam se janta ho ga jis nae kabhe pakistan ke bazaro me dekhe nahe kahae ho gae jis ne sarkari school ke tarf rukh bhke nahe kiya ho ga jo kabhe sarkari hospital ke boe nahe songhe ho ge wo aae ga waraste kurse le ga aur apne baap ke tarha america ka lato ban jae ga magar …………………………………..

  3. AOA.
    I am Syed Bahadar Shah from Lahore, I want to ask about Peoples of Pakistan are disturb with the Problems of ROTTI. I Belong to PPP since 1984. Now a days i am sad to see this situation what i can do? According to my advise some fix Problems demanding to running. We feel Problem if we push some Problems just continue, Can i see the positive Result? Syed Bahadar Shah.

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