A 2011 PTI rally in Karachi. As Pakistan urbanises, the political landscape is becoming trickier for the military to navigate.Photo: Flickr / Musti Mohsin
A 2011 PTI rally in Karachi. As Pakistan urbanises, the political landscape is becoming trickier for the military to navigate.Photo: Flickr / Musti Mohsin

The cantonment state

How will Pakistan’s armed forces cope with the increasing power of the urban middle class, many of whom live on land they own?

Four sugar mills, three cement factories, one woollen mill, one pharmaceutical plant, one lubricant factory, two banks, one insurance company, three housing schemes, one experimental seed farm, two corn mills, one plastics factory, two gas plants, two fertiliser factories, one oil well, 12 hospitals, 24 mini health centres, 65 pharmacies, two artificial limb factories, eight eye clinics, 64 schools, two colleges, 11 training centres, 2,000 HGVs, 4,000km of roads, 19 airfields, at least 13 hydroelectric dams and drainage projects, a land reclamation project, nine power plants, two wind farms, 15 other factories, all telephone and internet services in the Northern Province and Kashmir, an undisclosed number of ordnance factories, a tank factory, and pretty much all of the infrastructure and service providers in the border regions of the north and parts of the tribal areas.

According to the Pakistani army's website this is the sum total of the military's commercial assets. Of course this is not the case. For a start, they missed out the golf courses.

The garrison state

Within Pakistan, the army is very, very powerful. This much is agreed. Often, however, that is as far as the analysis goes, and there is very little understanding of what the nature of this power actually is. That is not to say the role of the army in Pakistani society is either overstated or understated, but is misunderstood and every bit as threatening as you would assume. Perhaps a more telling way of estimating the power of the Pakistani military is to consider that Pakistan has spent exactly half of its 67 years since Independence under military rule.

The history of the military's dominance of Pakistani society has its roots in the British occupation of India, which was founded upon a strong military recruited from areas that were thought to be loyal, and used to exert control over other areas thought to be less loyal. This recruitment pattern soon developed an ethnic aspect in the form of the 'martial castes' doctrine, while the mechanism by which these recruits eventually came to exert administrative control developed into what we now know as the 'garrison state' model – in essence, the army controls society.

What was later to become the Pakistani Punjab was a prime area of recruitment for the army of the Raj, and therefore Partition left Pakistan with a disproportionately larger share of the machinery of the garrison state, which increased further in 1971 with the secession of what is now Bangladesh. Thus we should not be surprised at the fact that the military continues to play a major role in the political life of Pakistan.

Unlike many other nations that have suffered numerous military interregnums, successful coups in Pakistan almost always come from the top and take the whole army with them. But this loyalty shouldn't be mistaken for homogeneity: the Army is huge, and there is much diversity in its size.

In my interactions with senior members of the Pakistani military, I have noticed two distinct schools of thought. Under last dictator-but-one Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani Army developed a coherent political doctrine which was right-wing, politically Islamic, and nationalistic. This is the classic ideology one associates with the Pakistani military, and one can still find many followers in senior positions – particularly in the Inter-Services Intelligence.

However under the last military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, a different kind of military politics started to develop: more moderate, occasionally almost socially liberal, and more secular. Followers of this school saw the army in the mould of the Turkish Army – as defenders of moderate, middle-class values against the populist barbarism of the masses. This military outlook was accompanied by more outwardly liberal policies such as the government's attempts to revise some clauses of the strict Hudood Ordinance, and their increasing of the number of seats reserved for women in the National Assembly and Senate. The top brass were encouraged to be seen patronising social and cultural events such as concerts and plays.

This kind of attitude was encouraged by Musharraf himself, as well as many other like-minded, middle-class and centre-right Pakistanis who found the dysfunctionality and corruption of civilian rule unsatisfying and bad for business, but were otherwise political moderates. Perhaps the biggest boost to this second group's fortunes came in the form of US policy post-9/11 (particularly USAID policy), which made being a moderate and secular member of the Pakistani military dictatorship a highly lucrative line of work.

After Musharraf's fall, one of the things that this group increasingly professes is that it no longer feels the military should ever again directly exert political control over the country. Army Chief Kayani had touched on these themes in speeches before the 2008 elections, and the army also stayed aloof during the 2013 polls. In August the newly-elected Sharif government took steps to expand civilian oversight over Pakistan's security and foreign policy through the reconstitution of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, as the Cabinet Committee on National Security. Indeed, this new hands-off, liberal dynamic has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of officers recruited from conservative religious backgrounds, a trend which has yet to receive attention in the mainstream media, although it has been noted by some Pakistan-watchers in the US.

Furthermore, many senior military personnel had their hands badly burned and their reputations tarnished over what was seen as the mismanagement of civilian affairs under the Musharraf regime (this is in sharp contrast to previous coups where military administrators were condemned for their authoritarianism but praised for their efficiency). Some of these administrators now form a fairly powerful opinion block within the Pakistani army which internally espouses the view that Pakistan's structural problems are so severe that the military could not now govern Pakistan directly without risking its lucrative reputation for competence.

It would be wrong however, to term the army's sentiment as democratic. The generals' backtracking from the political arena stems largely from the feeling that military coups can also be bad for business, and that rather than dealing with the nitty-gritty of governing a nation as frustrating as Pakistan, the military's time would be better spent in administering the cherry-picked aspects of the nation's affairs in which it has a financial stake. The military is still a massive player in the Pakistani political landscape, particularly in the Punjab, and is still very protective of its role in the management of Pakistan's economy, as well as aspects of foreign policy and security strategy.
Naya Pakistan
For the time being there seems to be no significant threat to this position. Therefore, the military is unsure as to what its role in 'Naya Pakistan' should be, and it may be the case that the army is willing to concede a certain amount of civic and direct political power, or at least not attempt to regain ground lost in the fall of Musharraf, provided it is able to retain the economic and financial benefits it currently enjoys. In other words, the status quo has been kind to the Pakistani military, and there would be a lot to lose and little to gain from attempting to alter it.

'Naya Pakistan', the slogan of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (an improvement on his other, more prosaic 'Vote for Bat') has now come to refer to the phenomenon by which new media, urbanisation and the forces of consumer capitalism are causing fundamental political and social changes, making Pakistan – or at least the more well-to-do bits of urban Punjab – more modern, youth-focused and connected. But, to what extent does Naya Pakistan exist beyond Twitter – a medium only used by, at most, two million Pakistanis (one percent of the total population)?

Pakistan has certainly had a resurgent democratic movement of late. This started with the Lawyer's Movement that led Musharraf to step down in August 2008, and was followed by the first ever democratic transition of power following 2013's May elections. And Pakistan is certainly turning into an urban state. The exact rate of urbanisation is highly disputed, and the lack of reliable census data does not help matters, but nobody denies that it is happening, and happening fast. The 2001 census suggested that Pakistan was 32 percent urban, almost certainly a gross underestimation; senior figures in the previous government suggest the figure now could be over 60 percent.

So what does this mean for the army?

Pakistan's rural political systems built around patronage and land ownership are fairly well understood. Urban political power is a much trickier phenomenon. It appears to be based around the nebulous concept of 'street power' – the ability of the various groups within Pakistan's transient urban patronage networks to quickly mobilise followers into visible and audible manifestations of their clout. This street power is often rented by established political parties.

The seemingly endless clashes in Karachi provide the most violent manifestation of the nexus between street power and urban political interests, but the Punjab too suffers from the same phenomenon, even if the body count is lower. Here, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Jamaat-e-Islami (which, despite being a political party in its own right, invariably has more impact as a street organisation working for others than it does in its own name) are usually at the centre of such street tussles – although which group supports which political party in any given area varies depending on the deal that is offered. Indeed, the whole discussion of clashes over street power is often an inexact science, based on picking apart rumours and making conjectures as to who was supporting who at what time and why any two groups clashed.

Street conflicts between cadres or supporters of rival political groups are hardly new, but Pakistan has now urbanised to the point where these urban power dynamics are becoming more important and influential than the more traditional and better-understood rural relationships. Changing demographics have created a critical mass of young people, while rural-to-urban migration has increased the number of people living in cities who find themselves culturally, and thus often politically, displaced. This, combined with the organisational ability of new technologies means that there is an increasingly influential non- or self-aligned movement capable of projecting a considerable street presence at the drop of a hat, and it is this movement that several political parties, most notably the PTI, have attempted to harness. Voters between the ages of 18 and 25 made up 30 percent of the electorate in 2013 (some 30 million people), and votes from this section of society were not insignificant in the PML-N's overall victory.

Much ink has been spilled attempting to establish a clearer picture of this new force in Pakistani politics but, much like the Western 'Occupy' movement (with whom they otherwise share very little), urban Pakistani youth defy easy categorisation. The issues that concern them are largely the issues that concern the more traditional, centre-right Pakistani middle class; indeed what differentiates the newer movement has far more to do with the medium of communication than the message itself. Thus the motivating factors are not new: corruption, shortcomings in the provision of services (particularly electricity), and an ambivalent attitude towards what are perceived as Westernising influences, which overall combines an enthusiastic embrace of the more material aspects of western modernism with an opposition to secularism on nationalistic grounds. Khan has been the first leader to mobilise this group on a national scale, but at a more local level a variety of political voices have provided leadership to these sections of the electorate. The IJT, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, often performs this role, while Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has strengthened his precarious position within the Pakistan People's Party via his appeal to these voices, and Twitter-based belligerence.

However, at the last elections traditional electoral forces were largely able to contain this movement. A Gallup Pakistan poll of first-time voters in May 2013 showed that among those aged between 18 and 24, a larger number voted for the PML-N rather than the expected PTI. And the landslide nature of the PML-N's national victory was so overwhelming that it disguised many fundamental long-term changes happening under the surface. The movement itself still remains a force to be reckoned with and it remains to be seen how it will evolve in urban areas, as well as whether its growing presence there will stir the army into action to defend its interests in urban areas.

The army's way into the cities

The army runs a number of construction firms and service companies (such as the Frontier Works Organisation, the country's largest construction company, and the National Logistics Cell) that provide services to the cities. These firms have many subcontracts with a variety of smaller urban companies, making up a complicated quasi-patronage arrangement which includes the civilian government, military companies and various local contractors. Thus far this network has seemed to be too tenuous and ethereal to deliver any measurable consequences in terms of the manifestation of urban power, but it may be the case that, as Pakistan's urban politics develops, this network – and the military's role within it – develops a greater importance.

The extent of the Pakistani military's commercial interests is hard to ascertain. A question asked in the Pakistani senate in 2004 suggested that there were 55 military-owned firms. Aside from this, all we have is the limited amount of information the Pakistani military deigns to share, and the occasional titbit such as the leak which revealed to a Senate committee that army land was being turned into golf courses for the purpose of entertaining senior officers and their guests. However, research by Ayesha Siddiqa, in her Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, explains that the various mechanisms the military use to administer companies conceals the much higher true figure, and estimates that the Pakistani military owns companies worth USD10bn, and land valued at another USD10bn.

More than half of these commercial interests are in rural areas, and even those in urban areas have little to fear from the youth's political flowering, which thus far has been a largely middle-class affair and has not been accompanied by demands for increased rights for workers, or for the reform of heavy industry. The Pakistani factory worker remains woefully lacking in political capital and ripe for exploitation by all forces, civilian or military. If Naya Pakistanis do decide to confront the power of the military head-on, the resulting tussle would be fascinating. However, currently the newly-conscious, tweeting middle-class urbanites seem as unsure and ambivalent about the army as the army is about them.

For the moment, then, the new urban power and the old fauji are happy to leave each other be. But, if there is to be a new political game afoot in Pakistan, it will be played in a stadium part owned by the army. A significant proportion of Pakistan's urban population lives works, and shops on military-owned land. Large areas of almost every Pakistani city, including 12,000 acres of east Lahore, 12,000 acres of the 'nice bit' of Karachi, 8,000 acres – or almost the entirety – of Rawalpindi, 4,000 acres of Peshawar, 3,500 acres of Kamra, 2,500 acres of Taxila, and 2,500 acres of Quetta fall within army-owned military cantonments. Nor is there a one-to-one mapping between the cantonments and the areas that fall within the nation's 46 military-owned commercial housing schemes (the defence housing scheme in Lahore alone is 96 square kilometres), thus the urban area under military control is greater still – Siddiqa estimates that in total the armed forces own 12 million acres across Pakistan, approximately twelve percent of the country.

And while many of these cantonments started out on the outskirts of these cities, the rapid rate of sprawl of these cities – coupled with the military's frequently higher standards of municipal services in these areas – means that many of these cantonments are now fairly central, and tend to form the more well-heeled parts of town, where the majority of Naya Pakistanis live. In other words, this is prime real estate, and currently the army is not exploiting it to nearly the extent that it could.

Naya Fauji?
The military were initially very keen on Imran Khan's sudden increase in popularity. Indeed tacit military backing was seen as being an important factor behind the 'PTI tsunami' – the sudden blossoming of Khan's party as a political force in the summer of 2011. But this fervour appeared to cool as elections approached, perhaps because the generals were concerned that Khan's movement, and similar movements, couldn't be contained the way traditional forces could.

Khan's supporters are a dilemma for the generals. On the one hand these groups largely espouse an ideology which is compatible with that of some sections of the army: quasi right-wing populist nationalism, anti-Western sentiment and a guarded anti-secularism. Nevertheless, Khan has managed to successfully manufacture a public persona as a non-threatening patrician quasi-liberal, which appeals to different sections of the army, and – more importantly – is acceptable to donor nations whose development budgets the army would very much like its own Frontier Corps to spend.

Yet on the other hand, Khan's is a movement defined largely by its opposition to the established order, and the army are the very epitome of this order. Whether the army considers this new dynamic friendly or threatening, it is far less capable of pulling the strings of urban power than it is rural. Past masters of the use of patronage, land ownership and occasional brute force to maintain their pre-eminence in rural affairs, the upper echelons of the army appear unsure how to approach the traditional custodians of urban street power.

There appeared to be an effort at one stage to make the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), an umbrella collective of right-wing religious groups, the go-to group for projecting the military's perspective onto the streets. The DPC, the brainchild of General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, a former Director General of the ISI, was founded in November 2011 in the aftermath of the killing of 21 Pakistani soldiers in a US airstrike. The government's decision around the same time to grant India Most Favoured Nation status, also provoked an uproar from both the army and the religious right, who argued that softening of policy towards India was unjustifiable as there had been no progress on Kashmir. Subsequently, the group held a number of public meetings at which the keynote speakers included Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the JuD, and Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, another former ISI Director General. The group's emotive and widespread campaign to expose the government's 'secret deal' with the US allowing for the continuation of drone strikes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resulted in a series of marches in July 2012 to protest against the use of drones in Pakistan. Religious parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam – Fazlur Rehman were vocal in their support for the campaign.

However, the individuals and groups involved appeared to have too many of their own agendas to effectively represent the military's view, and the experiment seems to have petered out as there have been far fewer such events of late. There continue to be sporadic attempts by sections within the military to temporarily ally with sections of the urban religious right, particularly the JuD, on issues of common interest such as NATO convoys, but the military's ability to set the agenda has to be questioned.

Where does this leave us? Previously, threats to military dominance had always come from Pakistan's smaller provinces, and in many cases had gone hand-in-glove with attempts to rein in Punjabi dominance. Now it is the Punjab itself that is giving the army headaches: the Lawyer's movement, the resurgent PML-N, the growing PTI, and the splits in the military are all coming from the Punjab.

As of yet, the disparate movements in the cities have not morphed into an out-and-out threat to the army, but as Pakistan urbanises, the political landscape certainly becomes less easy for the military to navigate. This may push the army to further reduce its role in politics and concentrate on its commercial endeavours – particularly as for the moment the majority of the military's commercial holdings remain unaffected by Pakistan's urban political flowering.

However, while the new dynamics of the Pakistani city have yet to cause the army any direct harm, the owners of phenomenally large commercial portfolios rarely take kindly to sweeping fundamental changes in the systems upon which those portfolios are built. But were the army to attempt to do anything to arrest this change, they would be required to engage with the murky world of Pakistani urban politics. This is a desire that the military hasn't yet shown, but were it to do so it has a serious problem, in that it does not really possess the tools needed to get the job done. The Pakistani Army has no real street power, no powerful urban patronage networks, and no youth following that it can command by SMS. It does not appear on television as frequently as Imran Khan.

The army does however, possess all the other trump cards of the Pakistani political game: it has enormous amounts of money, land, manpower, influence with the courts and election commission, and a position of traditional authority within society. Moreover, the support from some corners for Musharraf during his trial shows the army does have many friends and supporters within the media and the upper middle-class intellectual community. These are powerful weapons indeed, albeit weapons not particularly tailored to the task at hand.

Whether the army will move into the city networks all depends on the extent of the military's greed. They could, as they currently appear to be doing, see the glass as half full, and be happy to control a significant portion of Pakistan's economy, the totality of security policy, and the lion's share of foreign policy, and remain viewing with trepidation the powerful new forces which are on the move in the urban Punjab. Or they could see the glass as half empty, and look to expand their role in the cites beyond that of cement hawkers and rent collectors – a step which would require them to either forge new alliances or make new enemies.

The last time the Pakistani Army attacked an enemy it massively outgunned, but who knew the terrain far better than it did, was in 1971. The conflict was incredibly brutal, incredibly messy, and the Pakistani army lost. In a very different way this would be the most likely outcome of a tussle for overt political control of the Pakistani cities. Thus the army might find masterly inactivity a more productive approach.

It is too early to say what direction the army will take in the long term, but for now we can read a little into their new tactical approach, if not their strategic direction, from the concerted effort currently underway to rebuild the army's image as a military opponent of the Taliban. Officers and commanders have been using social media and the internet to display the images of dead young officers in the hope of presenting the army in a more heroic light, and the Taliban as adversaries. This speaks of an increased awareness of the media used by some members of the new urban power base, but we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that we therefore know what the message is going to be. Today the army is at war with the Taliban, but when it comes to its arguably more important activities away from the battlefield, friend and foe become harder to identify.

Fred Carver is a PhD candidate at King's College London's department of War Studies. He is also the campaign director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. After a career in British domestic politics, he spent time as a researcher and freelance journalist working on issues of state building in South Asia and democratic transitions worldwide. Over the last five years he has travelled extensively in the Pakistani Punjab.

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