How can Pakistan end the military’s role in politics?

How can Pakistan end the military’s role in politics?

A conversation with Salman Rafi Sheikh on Pakistan's continued crises

"The military's exit from politics would not only stabilise civilian democracy but also strengthen the Parliament, as the country's supreme body that is directly accountable to the people," writes Salman Rafi Sheikh, assistant professor of politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in his article for Himal Briefs looking at how Pakistan needs to go beyond the 18th amendment to end the military's role in politics.

In our latest Himal Twitter Spaces session, recorded on 6 February, we speak to Salman about this continued cycle of crises in Pakistan, and how reviving the 2010 reform process can be key to stabilise the polity and target the vast business empire controlled by the military establishment.

The full discussion is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This is an edited selection of excerpts from the Twitter Spaces recording. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.

Himal Southasian: In the piece that we're unpacking today, you talk about a cycle of continued crises in Pakistan. So could you start by telling us what's happening in Pakistan, politically? For example, the local government elections – what is happening, politically, in terms of the current crisis?

Salman Rafi Sheikh: The crisis that we're dealing with is not directly linked with the question of local government in Pakistan. It is actually far from it. The crisis that we are facing today is that of macroeconomics and macro-political landscapes, which have actually put the question of local governments backstage.

The change of government and the way things have developed ever since with massive economic deterioration has kind of made the question of local government irrelevant at the moment. The focus currently is overwhelmingly on the economic question. That is the nature of the crisis that Pakistan is experiencing today.

Some people would argue that it is primarily a political crisis. Some argue that it is primarily an economic question. But my understanding of this crisis is that it is a crisis of political economy in which embedded political actors are at the forefront of the problem. People trying to resolve the economic crisis are in fact the same actors who created the same problem in the first place.

By calling it a cycle of crisis, I mean, it is the same actors, both civil and military, that have created these crises in the first place and they are the ones trying to resolve these crises by themselves. And nothing is going to change in a meaningful, fundamental way because there is no capacity and there is no institutional will to do that. Why? Because the change requires fundamental changes that actually affect these very political actors themselves. There is no will in them to make those changes that will inevitably reduce their hold on political and economic power. So that cycle will continue to spin in one direction and that leads to a crisis and further deterioration.

HSA: Thank you and I think that really has resonance across the region. So many other countries are going through economic crises right now. Often there is this tendency to categorise things as purely political and economic, so I think that's a really important point. We also saw a protest in Gwadar as well, during this time. Could you unpack the context of that movement and what that symbolises?

SRS: The movement in Gwadar is still ongoing, it has not diminished. It is still very much there, although the mainstream media in Pakistan does not give that much coverage, because of factors, again, to do with the way politics in Pakistan works.

The Gwadar movement is fundamentally about or is directly linked with the position of Balochistan within Pakistan's federal setup. Balochistan, although it is the largest province, it accounts for 44 percent of Pakistan's territory. It is one of the richest provinces in terms of natural resources that it has.

So, Gwadar in Balochistan holds immense strategic significance for Pakistan and for Balochistan itself. Ever since the beginning of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project in Pakistan – and Gwadar is part of the CPEC project – local people have faced increasing levels of marginalisation in their own lands. Their protest, their basic demand is, they are resisting their marginalisation at the hands of the Pakistan government, which is directly represented not by civilian governments in Balochistan but by the military itself.

They are facing this marginalisation because of the way the CPEC is being implemented in Gwadar, specifically in Balochistan and Pakistan generally. The local business actors and local people are losing space for traditional businesses and that affects their livelihood, which entirely depends upon the fisheries business that they have been doing in Gwadar for as far back as we can think.

The Pakistan state is not responding to their demands, and the response has been repressive as usual. For instance, it was about two weeks ago when the military commander based in Balochistan categorically said that if more protests happen, they will simply put everyone in prison. That is how the Pakistan state, since 1948, has controlled Balochistan, as an ethnic periphery that has no substantial meaningful say in the larger political and economic sectors of the Pakistan state. They are marginalised within the Pakistan state and they are increasingly marginalised within their own provinces, within their own localities.

So, that movement is basically protesting against this increasing level of marginalisation within Balochistan, within Gwadar and that broadly integrates with the way Balochistan, the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan has happened since 1948.

It is not disconnected from other movements going on in Balochistan including a militant separatist insurgency led by various militant groups, such as the Balochistan liberation front BLF) and other groups. Its demand is not a territorial independence of Balochistan but its demand resonates with a very old demand in Balochistan, that the local people of Balochistan must have primacy and control over their own resources. And that includes the strategic part of Gwadar that Pakistan has given to the Chinese on a 40-year lease. That means that the local Baloch people do not have rights and control over their own resources anymore.

HSA: You briefly mentioned the increasing security threats. And in your pieces for us, you've often talked about military creep and the kind of hybrid martial law regime of the Pakistan state. So, what factors would you say are allowing this interplay between politics and the military to continue?

SRS: If we go back to history, one of the key reasons why the military is politically involved in Pakistan is colonialism. And military's involvement in Pakistan can very easily be traced back to the way the British-Indian government established the military forces for primarily internal security purposes. After Partition in 1947, the Indian and the Pakistan states inherited that system. But in India, the military was unable to play any direct political role because of one single fact – that the Indian National Congress, the main party and the movement behind India's independence, was way too strong for the military to fill the vacuum. But in Pakistan, the Muslim League, which spearheaded the Pakistan movement, was too weak. There was a large vacuum for the military to take politics into its own hands. So the military has been involved in Pakistani politics since 1948.

In Balochistan, the military was a directly involved player in securing Balochistan's accession in 1948. Ever since then, the military has been a major player in Balochistan and it continues to be. Why this has not changed or why it has expanded is due to the vast business empire that it has developed over the past few decades. That immense wealth is the material of the military's involvement in politics. The reason why it repeatedly intervenes is not necessarily political, it is economical in the sense that, in so far as the military's primary motivation is to be in a political position to make decisions that suit its own economic interests. That wealth is not really undocumented, but it is beyond the reach of accountability. And that is something that lies at the very heart of major political and economic problems and instability.

If we go back to history, one of the key reasons why there have been coups like in 1999 or before or after that, is that some civilian actors tried to control power and that is what brought them into conflict with the military establishment, which resists these efforts by all means.

One of the key reasons, for example, why Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi politician, and the military establishment became rivals in the 1990s, was that the Nawaz Sharif government tried to impose taxes on the military's industries and economic wealth. And that created a wedge between Nawaz Sharif and the military establishment. Nawaz Sharif happens to be a leader who was actually brought into politics by General Zia-ul-Haq himself. But then, 10 years later, Nawaz Sharif's government was overthrown by the same military establishment because of their growing differences.

And now these leaders, whether from Punjab or from any other province have never tried to bring the military's wealth or control the military's wealth or bring it under state direct state control. And that means that the military as an institution remains materially strong, economically strong, and capable of exerting the kind of influence that it continues to do despite the criticism that we have seen coming from both political and civilian institutions, civil society, academia and the media. The military as an institution remains strong and the core reason for this is its material wealth. And the fact that there is no challenge.

HSA: You've also said that Pakistan definitely needs reform to tackle some of these issues mentioned in the article. And specifically, you've said that it needs to revisit the 2010 reforms via the 18th amendment. What did that reform process achieve and where do you think it felt short, if at all?

SRS: The 18th amendment happened in 2010 and it was just a year after a lawyers' movement successfully toppled the military regime of Pervez Musharraf. Now one of the key demands of that movement was to demilitarise politics and restore the 1973 Constitution. When it comes to defining what demilitarisation meant, there was no clear idea in 2007 and 2008 or even in 2009. It broadly meant an end of the military regime of Pervez Musharraf and nothing beyond that. So that is why when the reform process started in April 2009 and ended in May 2010, no meaningful constitutional changes were made to demilitarise the polity. The only thing that the 18th amendment process did was to amend Article 6 of the 1973 Constitution which made it constitutionally impossible for the military to take over power. Secondly, it did that by depriving Pakistan's higher judiciary, that is the Supreme Court and high courts, of any power whatsoever to legitimise military coups as they did in the past. Ever since then, no military coup has taken place in Pakistan but that is not necessarily good news because the military has found another way to influence and shape politics in Pakistan and that is hybrid involvement in the political sphere.

Where the 18th amendment process fell short was in targeting the very material basis of the military's involvement in politics. The change in Article 6 has not really ended the involvement of the military in politics because the root cause of that involvement remains intact. What Article 6 did, was shut the door on the military for direct coups, it did nothing about indirect involvement and control of politics. They have been able to improvise since 2010, to do politics, to have changed their tactics, but the objective remains the same.

HSA: Do you think legislation alone, as you've suggested in the article, is enough to bring about political reform or do you think this is just a first step?

SRS: Legislation is not necessarily the first step. There is no legislation in Pakistan, specifically, constitutional amendments that could bring the military's wealth to the civilian government. The prerequisite for legislation is a political consensus between the relevant political parties. There is a lot to learn, and there is a lot for these political actors to learn from. 

For example, in Indonesia where a political consensus on the military's involvement in politics and its business empire did develop after the Suharto regime was overthrown in 1998. That consensus was translated into legislation in 2004 when the TNI law was passed, which specifically, depoliticised the Indonesian military's territorial structure, which, during the Suharto regime was a dual role political and military role. They had a parallel bureaucratic structure called the Indonesian Army Territorial Forces Command. It was depoliticised through that law. The military's vast business empire was, at least legally, brought under the control of the civilian establishment. 

Nothing of that sort has happened in Pakistan. So, that definitely is the starting point, a consensus between these parties is a starting point. And this consensus is not impossible to achieve. The 18th amendment is a landmark, not only because it transferred powers from the centre to the provinces in Pakistan, but also because it is perhaps the only amendment in Pakistan that was passed unanimously. There was not even a single vote against this amendment and it happened in 2010. So achieving that consensus is not impossible, but when this consensus will happen is the key question. In 2010, that consensus became possible because of a very popular mass movement against the military regime. Currently, we do not have anything like that in Pakistan. Even though the extent of economic deterioration should push people out of their homes onto the streets. But nothing of that sort is happening at that moment. That is why I'm not sure how that consensus will happen.

Another reason why this consensus may be difficult at the moment is because the military is directly involved in politics. There is no direct pressure on the military itself that could squeeze its space to manoeuvre politics or manipulate politics. In 2008 and 2009, that movement existed. And it exerted a lot of pressure on the military establishment which made it impossible for the military to scuttle the 18th amendment process. But today, the situation is very different. There is no direct political pressure on the military. Even though Imran Khan has targeted the military establishment, the nature of that criticism is not really targeting the military's involvement in politics. He is only targeting the military establishment because it withdrew from the PTI government itself. And he continues to favor a so-called constructive relationship with the military establishment, which means that the lines of the military's involvement in politics remain open in Pakistan.

HSA: You spoke about several parallels, which kind of reminded me of the Sri Lankan situation as well, specifically in terms of the economy. But another thing that is common to both contexts is, in your piece as well, you talk about the vast empire of the military and the need to cut defense spending, but it's also somewhat politically unpopular. So do you think there is a will to tackle this in Pakistan? Are there parallels there as well?

SRS: No civilian government actors have spoken about cutting down non-development or defense budgets to divert more resources toward development. The reason why they do not target these financial interests is because they think that this will disturb their alliance with the military establishment. They think that ultimately they are going to need a friendly relationship with the military establishment to either stay in power or come into power. For Imran Khan, it was necessary to limit his criticism of the military establishment's involvement in politics and remain within what he might think are tolerable limits. 

For the current PDM government, appeasing the military establishment is necessary to stay in power. When they came into power in April 2022, despite massive economic problems, the PDM government increased the military budget for the fiscal year 2022-2023 by 11 percent. The PDM government was able to come into power because the military decided to withdraw its support for the PTI government, and they do not want that to happen to them as well. They want to stay in power, they want to continue to stay in power and they want to win the next election, which is due at the end of 2023. And the only way they think they can stay in power beyond 2023 is through the military establishment. That is why they do not like to target military spending. All they have been doing is transferring the burden of economic reforms and taxation to the public. 

It is not just the military defense expenditures that need to be cut down. A UNDP report of 2021 said that Pakistan's various business elites, that include the military itself, received about USD 17.4 billion in subsidies and taxes concessions and exemptions from the state of Pakistan annually. The UNDP pushed the PTI government to do reforms so that this money that the Pakistan state just gives away can be brought back for development. But no political government is going to take steps to do reforms that do not transfer the burden of economic degeneration to the people. The reason why they are not going to act upon the UNDP report is because most of these elites are part of the wider political establishment including the military, civilian establishments, industrialists, landowners, bankers, etc. They are part of a wider political establishment, they are part of the Parliament, and they are unlikely to make decisions that directly hurt their own interests. So cutting down on military spending should happen, it must happen and it's important for so many reasons. But for a meaningful shift in Pakistan's economic landscape, Pakistan needs to do reforms highlighted in the UNDP report, that's a very incisive, very well-investigated report. But it has failed to trigger any policy change in Pakistan.


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Himal Southasian