Coup in Pakistan—An Expert' Initial Observations

October 15, 1999

Comment: #325

I asked Professor Hal Gould, a noted authority on South Asia, for his initial take on the coup in Pakistan. The remainder of this message is his response.

----[Begin Professor Gould's Comments]---

The Coup in Pakistan:

Some Observations by Harold Gould

Almost everyone who has commented on the most recent coup in Pakistan has declared that this event did not come as a surprise. For as much as a month, rumors persisted that cleavages between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the military were growing more acute. The immediate precipitant for this widening gulf between civilian and military authority was said to be the outcome of the Kargil adventure in Kashmir. It will be recalled that the so-called "freedom fighters" who occupied the ridges along and in some cases well inside the Line of Control had been staged and supported by the Pakistani military, even to the point of incognito Pakistani regulars intermixing with them. India's powerful response to this infiltration certainly exceeded Pakistani expectations. It resulted in heavy casualties and the gradual loss of most of the territory originally seized by the infiltrators. Then, to add insult to injury, as far as the Pakistani military were concerned, civilian authority "betrayed" them when Nawaz Sharif ordered the complete withdrawal of Pakistani forces behind the LOC following his having been pressured to do so by the United States and other segments of the international community.

Tensions were mounting in other quarters as well. It has been widely reported that Sharif himself was undermining the frail secular political institutions which have been more or less in place for the past eleven years. Having proved incapable of significantly reducing corruption, improving living standards, or constructively managing political dissent, the Prime Minister responded to mounting challenges to his competence and authority by suppressing public debate in parliament, the press and on the streets. He paralyzed the judiciary. He seemed to antagonize everyone. Finally, he so thoroughly alienated the military, the most coherent and viable institution in the state, that they came out of their barracks and deposed him. General Musharraf had not been regarded as a "political" officer, as had his predecessor, General Karamat. He is a "soldiers soldier," a type one finds in both the Indian and Pakistani armies, who is admired by his fellow officers and regular soldiers for his leadership abilities and his personal integrity. He had, in fact, been appointed to replace General Karamat as Chief of Staff for the very reason that he purportedly possessed these qualities. This was supposed to make him "politically safe" in a country where the military has a long, well-known record of staging coups whenever their top commanders believe that the ruling politicians have lost their moral mandate to rule.

I have spoken with friends inside the State Department and the academic community about the reasons why this confrontation occurred between Sharif and Musharraf. There is a sense of amazement and bewilderment over the fact that Sharif would have peremptorily dismissed General Musharaf so soon after he had appointed him to replace Karamat, and patently when it was so politically risky in the face of the already simmering discontent within the military establishment. It was asking for trouble, it is believed. But no one can offer a clear explanation for why it happened. I take this development as indicative of how desperate the civilian authority in Pakistan had become to try and find a way to govern the country outside the ever-present threat of military intervention in the political process. Apart from whatever personal animus between Sharif and Musharraf might have been involved, it may even have been an act of "testing the limits", as it were. That is, by dismissing the army COS outright, Sharif would in effect be able to determine how far the military's recent pledges to stay out of politics and under civilian control (as is the case in India) could really be counted on. If this was indeed an "experiment" to determine how much latitude the civilian authority really enjoyed to conduct politics in constitutional terms, it was surely an experiment that failed. It shows that far less has changed in the Pakistani political system than has met the eye.

Here are some things to consider, however, that transcend the immediate and the personal if one is to have any sort of systematic understanding of what has taken place. There is one very striking point that cannot be ignored. That is the contrast with India. India just completed her thirteenth general election since Independence in 1947. This means there have been thirteen changes of government, all by full-franchise elections. They have involved on at least three occasions the transfer of power from one party or coalition of parties to another. The system even survived one attempt by Mrs. Gandhi to impose a dictatorship on the country, under the guise of "national emergency" in the mid-1970s. The pressure was so strong to restore democracy that she did so within two years, and then the electorate voted her party out of office. All of the changes in government, with this single exception, have been peaceful and lawful. Never have the Indian military intruded themselves into the political process. Even during the Emergency theirs was a reluctant role. India has remained a stable democracy through its more than half century of freedom. Pakistan, on the other hand, has now experienced four military takeovers, with each of the three preceding the present one resulting in several years of military dictatorship. In all, about half the years that Pakistan has been an independent state it has been ruled by military dictators. One could say that whereas in India political succession has been determined by a constitutional process, in Pakistan it has been more frequently determined by extra-constitutional processes of which military intervention has been the principal type.

India evolved a constitutionally structured, secular political system from the inception of Independence. The starting point was a "constitution" called the Government of India Act adopted in 1935 born of collaboration with the British Parliament and the emerging nationalist leadership in India. This set the framework of representative government out which the 1950 Constitution of India evolved after much hard bargaining among the many interest formations that were allowed to represent their interests in the constituent assembly. Jawaharlal Nehru was the primary architect of this process and it resulted in the full and fully free democratic political system with which India commenced her life as an independent state.

Pakistan commenced its nationhood against the background of the same 1935 Government of India Act. Only instead of making it the basis for further constitutional evolution, the new Pakistani leadership essentially stood pat for years with the original document. The trouble with it was that it allowed for a limited franchise, which implicitly limited the exercise of real political power only to the landed classes, the mercantile communities, civil servants and technocrats, and other elements of the upper strata of society. Only very limited popular democracy was possible under its provisions. That's why the Indians, determined to achieve a real democratic polity, moved beyond it, combining these changes with land reform, five year plans, social and judicial reform, and other measures designed to empower as wide a spectrum of the Indian public as possible.

Pakistan's failure to take these additional constitutional steps, and attendant socioeconomic reforms, in the name of some vague notions about having a state governed by "Islamic principles", left the society dominated by a comparative handful of landed gentry families who employed their political clout in a limited franchise polity to protect and preserve their vested economic and status interests behind a structure of civil servants of the old school (the structure originally created to sustain the Raj) when threats to their privileged status really loomed large, the professional military was called in. The United States, of course, helped to strengthen and ramify this reactionary, elitist structure by incorporating Pakistani into its military alliance system from the outset of the Cold War. The effect of our assistance to Pakistan under this rubric was to strengthen and amplify the Pakistani military ˆ in effect, to help make it what it soon became and remains: The most viable institution in the state, conditioned to think of itself as the arbiter and "savior" of the country by virtue of its having been accorded this role by the elitist groups who got control of the political t process after Independence in turn made possible of their ability to prevent the kind of constitutional evolution and social reform that saved India from a similar fate. And a fate not uncommon, one might add, among Third World nations.

US policy also had the effect, by strengthening the power of the Pakistani military and preserving the power of the elitist classes who controlled it, of reinforcing Pakistani determination to refuse to pursue any solution of the Kashmir dispute that did not involve their achieving complete victory over India. While we constantly urged the two parties to "settle" this dispute on amicable terms, the US pursued a strategic policy toward the subcontinent that intensified antipathies between India and Pakistan by reinforcing Pakistani intransigence and motivating India to turn to the Soviet bloc in search of compensatory military and diplomatic support.

This aside, however, the point is that Pakistan never underwent the early stages of political institution-building that India experienced following Independence. When, by the 1970s, stirrings of popular democracy began to occur, it was already too late. These early attempts to broaden the political process under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took on demagogic characteristics, and in any event were in many respects pointedly anti-western due to the disillusionment and anger of the country's ruling elite over the US's unwillingness to support Pakistan in its first attack on India in 1965. This had come in the context of Pakistan's first military dictatorship, in this case established by General Ayub Khan, Mr Richard Nixon's great friend!

Each succession of civilian regimes following Bhutto, including two terms by his daughter (Benazir) and two by Nawaz Sharif, failed to achieve stable democratic government primarily because nothing could be done in the face of the entrenched landed/mercantile/technocratic elite controlling the levers of real power, to make the fundamental changes needed to give viability to the country's nascent democratic institutions. Power and money remained and remains in their hands and they use them to milk the country of its wealth. And whenever political heat from the grass-roots appears to rise toward a critical mass, the army comes out of the woodwork to abort the process by imposing a military dictatorship. This happened with Yahya Khan in the 1970s and resulted in the Bangladesh war in which the Nixon/Kissinger-US government sided with their personally-fashioned creature, the Pakistani military and its political fellow-travelers, who committed genocide against their own people. It must be remembered that all the Bengali leader, Suhrawaddy, was guilty of was wanting to assume the power that had been voted to him in an election which his party had won. The Zia-al-haq dictatorship of the 1980/90s was another manifestation of this endemic weakness of the Pakistani political system. Zia, in fact, judicially murdered his populist predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, because he had challenged the bona fides of the country's economic royalists.

So what about the recent events? It is more of the same pattern, facilitated by the frailty of the country's basic institutions and the desperate economic conditions which decades of neglect, war, foreign debt, bloated military budgets and pervasive corruption have given rise to. Add to all this the factor of a rising link between elements of the Pakistani military and the Islamic fundamentalists (who have drawn sustenance from the Iranian and Afghan revolutions on the borders). This might even herald an eventual shift in the allegiance of the army from its old landed/mercantile/technocratic patrons to the religious right, should the latter keep growing in importance. In any event, the disgruntlement of the army has been crucial. I think this is because in the growing cleavage between the civilian authority and the military, whatever its causes, the military incursion into Kargil was initiated by them and then presented as a fait accompli to the Sharif crowd. Because it involved "national honor", Sharif was essentially blackmailed into going along, and all the "paper work" was done retrospectively to make it appear that Sharif had thought of it first.

The claim that Sharif was indeed the initiator has been the conventional wisdom in the think tanks and in State, and I believe they are mistaken. All the subliminal evidence points in the opposite direction. And remember, General Musharraf was in charge of the Kargil operation which really melded terrorists and Islamic militants with regular Pakistani soldiers to an unprecedented degree . The army's and militants' disgruntlement is Musharaf's disgruntlement. And he is now in charge of the state.

One of the most compelling indications that Sharif had been manipulated by the army is last year's "Lahore agreement" between India and Pakistan. It is inconceivable that Sharif, after having moved so far toward amicability with India, would have deliberately erased all that progress with such a stupid, reckless adventure as Kargil turned out to be. The "Lahore initiative", on the one hand, and the "Kargil initiative", on the other, are emblematic of the profound cleavage between the secular-state-struggling-to-be-born and the military/landed/mercantile/technocratic nexus that dominates the Pakistani political arena behind the scenes. And perhaps now one must add emerging Islamic fundamentalism as still another ingredient in the mix. But one thing seems certain to me: Lahore and Kargil did not emanate from the same political locus.

Everything adds up to the conclusion that in any event the United States is not in control of the agenda either in Pakistan or, for that matter, South Asia as a whole. Our Cold War policies failed there, and indeed helped set the stage for much that has happened there subsequently. Sanctions and pique following the nuclear tests failed because these measures further isolated both states and increased the tendency in both to engage in nationalistic stridency toward us and each other.

One lesson to be taken from what has taken place is to view democratization and reform processes in Pakistan with a large grain of salt. A number of Pakistan officials have been in the US in recent months uttering reassuring phrases about the country's determination to move toward a more liberalized, open, democratic society dedicated to overcoming the country's manifold problems. These optimistic pronouncements still belong primarily in the domain of wishful thinking. Pakistan's political institutions are still not ready to handle the heavy burdens and responsibilities of democratic politics. Its military institution is still not prepared to place itself unambiguously under the control of civilian authority, as is India's. Its landed/mercantile/technocratic elites are still not prepared to sacrifice the privileges including virtual carte blanche to engage in corruption) they enjoy in the name of the greater good for all the people of Pakistan. And finally, the American foreign policy establishment is still unprepared to face the preceding facts of life about Pakistan and stop clinging to their old, worn out Cold War fantasies about having a "strategic relationship" which, in effect, sustains over there the very status quo which has been the source of Pakistan's political, economic and military woes since it attained Independence in 1947.

-----[End of Professor Gould's Comment]-------

Chuck Spinney

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