Has there been a soft coup in Pakistan?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Pakistan has been ruled by its military for over half its life as an independent nation. In many ways the military is the state, as it is widely recognized as the only functioning institution in the country. There have been experiments with democracy in the past, but they have not generally gone well.

In 2013, Pakistan held elections that marked its first transition from one freely elected government to another. Finally, it seemed as if democracy was taking root. Yet a fundamental problem remained: the army was still the only institution in the country that was vaguely functional.


The army denies that a ‘soft coup’ has taken place, but for most practical intents and purposes, the post of prime minister is today largely ceremonial.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has always been an incompetent politician propelled to office through nepotism and disinformation against the opposition. He has a long history of civic and economic mismanagement of the country, presiding over alleged large-scale government corruption and the squandering of the country’s limited resources.

Marked improvement

Yet the last couple of years have seen a marked improvement in Pakistan’s domestic situation. In 2013, the Pakistani Taliban and other radical Islamist groups were active, and there would be tens of civilian deaths daily, while the government was too busy fighting in the streets with official opposition parties.

Civil administration was nearly in complete collapse, the economy was suffering, and it would not have been far-fetched to predict a descent into chaos similar to neighboring Afghanistan.

Sharif’s civil administration and management skills may not have improved much, but the security situation today has improved beyond recognition. So far this year, the Pakistani Taliban have only managed to carry out one major suicide bombing. Order has been restored to the large inner cities. Even the remote rural areas have been largely pacified.

Tougher approach

What has happened is that the new army chief General Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister) has taken a much more aggressive role in returning the county to order than his predecessors, especially in the wake of the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar last December that killed 145 people, 132 of them children. The school catered largely to children from army families.

The army and intelligence services in Pakistan have a long and murky relationship with terrorism and various Islamist groups. It has long pitted various militant groups against each other, and against Pakistan’s strategic rivals India, Afghanistan and Iran.

It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden managed to live in hiding in Pakistan for 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. Many senior U.S. officials believe he was protected by elements of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment.

The terror attack against the school, and the domestic outcry that followed, finally focused minds in the Pakistani security establishment, driving it to clamp down hard on all non-state violence. Capital punishment has been reintroduced, official media outlets are now tightly regulated to prevent the dissemination of messages that might “aid the enemy,” and the army has set up a parallel legal system where it processes terrorists and other threats to the state.

Army actions

The civilian institutions that were supposed to perform these functions have been swept aside, and within just a year the results have been dramatic. Almost everyone in Pakistan, except Islamist militants, welcomes this power-grab by the army, and thinks it is a reasonable trade-off for the new security they enjoy. For many, it is hard to argue with the new state of affairs.

What is even more interesting is that despite having completely overshadowed the democratically elected civilian government - both in terms of running the country and of domestic popularity - army leaders have not so far felt compelled to take over the civilian administration, as they have often done in the past.

They seem happy to carry on governing the country, and letting politicians be democratically accountable without much power. The army denies that a ‘soft coup’ has taken place, but for most practical intents and purposes, the post of prime minister is today largely ceremonial.


Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. 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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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