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A smarter way to a Pakistani military dictatorship

Pakistan’s infamous military, the largest in the Islamic world, has had more than five decades of ruling over the country

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Running a military dictatorship is a pretty costly thing to do, and the administrative side of things is a nightmare. If you’ve gotten yourself into a position where you need to govern a place with martial law and an iron fist, it is safe to assume you’re not governing over the most cohesive and compliant population, for example.

A significant proportion of that population will want to fight you or assassinate you and your administrative cadre. Keeping them in check requires an extensive and intrusive intelligence and policing establishment. All very resource intensive stuff.

Pakistan’s infamous military, the largest in the Islamic world, has had more than five decades of ruling over the country in an intermittent succession of military administrations. And it seems this is just the conclusion that they have finally arrived at. They finally seem to have gotten smart about it.

Last year, Pakistan saw a wave of street protests led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, against various shortcomings of the government of Nawaz Sharif, from alleged electoral fraud, to political corruption, economic incompetence, and questionable constitutional tinkering. These protests could have ended the first government in Pakistan’s history to have been successfully formed after a general election administered not by the army itself, but by an ostensibly independent civilian Electoral Commission. And it could have ended either by capitulating to Khan’s demands for a new general election, or by a military takeover.

Well-rehearsed routine

Given some of the scenes that resulted in Karachi and Islamabad, but also around the country, you could have been forgiven for expecting that the army will step in, in typical fashion, declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution. This is a well-rehearsed routine in Pakistani history. And surely, the temptation must have been there for the army command to revert to old habits.

He has sold out the nascent democracy that brought him to power

But instead the army decided to exploit the situation in a much more effective way. It has decided to prop-up Sharif’s government and subdue the protesters, in exchange for a set of concessions. It just so happens that these new concessions have effectively rendered the civilian administration of the country as ceremonial. Enter the 21st constitutional amendment introduced this month, which, among other things, sets up military courts for trying terror suspects, and thus effectively allows the military to be not just policeman and prosecutor, through the intelligence establishment, but judge and executioner too.

For all practical intents and purposes, this constitutional arrangement allows the military to run domestic affairs in Pakistan, just as easily as they already control foreign affairs. In Pakistan today, the army runs the state.

True legacy

But it gets much better. Because there is an ostensibly democratic civilian administration in place, that administration will largely act as a front for the decisions made by the army. As such it will take the flack for any unpopular decisions - whether that criticism is domestic or whether it is from the international community. All the while, the army establishment can go about governing without having to bother much about such quaint notions as accountability or transparency.

So this will be the true legacy of Nawaz Sharif. He has sold out the nascent democracy that brought him to power in Pakistan to the old military masters of the country. And all in the name of what? Pakistan’s international standing is not any better than it has been in the past. The economy is still not going anywhere. Corruption is still rampant. Domestic security, if anything, is getting worse by the day. What has Sharif got out of his bargain with the Devil for the people of Pakistan? Nothing. But that’s okay. He has bought himself and his family offices and jobs for another few years.


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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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