All Kayani’s Men: Why the army works

Published: August 2, 2010
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The Pakistan Army is a sort of giant kinship group which extracts patronage from the state and distributing it to its members

Voltaire remarked of Frederick the Great’s Prussia that “where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state.”

In view of the sheer size, effectiveness and wealth of the Pakistan military and associated institutions compared to the rest of the state, much the same could be said of Pakistan.

The Pakistani military is the only Pakistani state institution which works as it is officially meant to – which means that it repeatedly does something that it is not meant to, which is to overthrow what in Pakistan is called “democracy” and seize control of the state from other institutions. The military has therefore been perceived as extremely bad for Pakistan’s progress, at least if that progress is to be defined in standard Western notions of the term.

On the other hand, it has also always been true that without a strong military, Pakistan would most probably long since have disintegrated. That is more than ever true today, as the country faces the powerful insurgency of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies. The Taliban threat makes the unity and discipline of the Army of paramount importance to Pakistan and the world – all the more so because the deep unpopularity of US strategy among the vast majority of Pakistanis has made even the limited alliance between the Pakistani military and the US extremely unpopular in Pakistani society, and among many soldiers.

The Pakistani military owes its success as a modern institution to the fact that it has to a considerable extent separated itself from the political culture of the rest of the country, which revolves around kinship, factions, and patronage – which alas all too often crosses over into the realms of corruption and even kleptocracy. Of course, corruption does exist within the military, but it is nothing compared to the extent we see in other parts of society.

The military has been able to achieve this separation because of two deeply intertwined and mutually dependent factors: a collective ethos which promotes honest service to the military as an institution; and a great deal of money.

Without the resources to reward the soldiers adequately and provide them with decent services, the collective ethos of service, honesty and discipline could not be maintained. On the other hand, without this collective ethos, many of the resources given to the military would simply be stolen, as they are in the rest of the state.

To put it another way, the military’s success as an institution and its power over the state comes from its immunity to kinship interests and the corruption they bring with them; but it has only been able to achieve this immunity by turning itself into a sort of giant kinship group, extracting patronage from the state and distributing it to its members.

The scale of military spending has severely limited funds available for education, development, medical services and infrastructure. If continued, this imbalance risks eventually crippling the country and sending Pakistan the way of the Soviet Union – another country which got itself into a ruinous military race with a vastly richer power. On the other hand, the rewards of loyal military service have also helped prevent military mutinies and coups by junior officers – something that would plunge Pakistan overnight into chaos, and usher in civil war and possible Islamist revolt.

As a Lt Colonel fighting the Pakistani Taliban told me in July 2009,

The soldiers, like Pakistanis in general, see no difference between the American and the Russian presences in Afghanistan. They see both as illegal military occupations by aliens, and that the Afghan government are just pathetic puppets. Today also, they still see the Afghan Taleban as freedom-fighters who are fighting these occupiers just like the Mujahedin against the Russians. And the invasion of Iraq, and all the lies that Bush told, had a very bad effect – soldiers think that the US is trying to conquer or dominate the whole Muslim world. But as far as our own Taleban are concerned, things are changing.

Before, I must tell you frankly, there was a very widespread feeling in the Army that everything Pakistan was doing was in the interests of the West and that we were being forced to do it by America. But now, the militants have launched so many attacks on Pakistan and killed so many soldiers that this feeling is changing…

But to be very honest with you, we are brought up from our cradle to be ready to fight India and once we join the Army this feeling is multiplied. So we are always happy when we are sent to the LOC [the Line of Control dividing Pakistani and Indian Kashmir] or even to freeze on the Siachen. But we are not very happy to be sent here to fight other Pakistanis, though we obey as a matter of duty. No soldier likes to kill his own people. I talked to my wife on the phone yesterday. She said that you must be happy to have killed so many miscreants. I said to her, if our dog goes mad we would have to shoot it, but we would not be happy about having to do this.

Between 2004 and 2007 there were a number of instances of mass desertion and refusal to fight in units deployed to fight militants, though mostly in the Pathan-recruited Frontier Corps than in the regular Army. In these morally and psychologically testing circumstances, anything that helps maintain Pakistani military discipline cannot be altogether bad – given the immense scale of the stakes concerned, and the consequences if that discipline were to crack.

Fortunately, commitment to the Army, and to the unity and discipline of the Army, is drilled into every officer and soldier from the first hour of their joining the military. Together with the material rewards of loyal service, it constitutes a very powerful obstacle to any thought of a coup from below, which would by definition split the Army and would indeed very likely destroy it and the institution altogether. Every military coup in Pakistan has therefore been carried out by the Chief of Army Staff of the time, backed by a consensus of the Corps Commanders and the rest of the High Command. Any suggestion of Islamist conspiracies by junior officers against their superiors have been penetrated and smashed by Military Intelligence.

The Pakistani military therefore, more even than most militaries, sees itself as a breed apart, and devotes great effort to inculcating in new recruits the feeling that they belong to a military family different from (and vastly superior to) Pakistani civilian society. The mainly middle-class composition of the officer corps increases contempt for the “feudal” political class. The Army sees itself as both morally superior to this class, and far more modern, progressive and better-educated.

This belief is also widely present in Pakistani society as a whole, and has become dominant at regular intervals. It is sadly true that whatever the feelings of the population later, every military coup in Pakistan when it happened was popular with most Pakistanis, including the Pakistani media, and was subsequently legitimized by the Pakistani judiciary. As analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi writes:

“The imposition of martial law was not contested by any civilian group and the military had no problem assuming and consolidating power.”

It is possible that developments since 2001 have changed this pattern, above all because of the new importance of the independent judiciary and media, and the way that the military’s role both in government and in the unpopular war with the Pakistani Taleban has tarnished their image with many Pakistanis.

However, this change is not proven yet, and depends critically on how Pakistani civilian governments perform in future. On that score, by the summer of 2009, only a year after Musharraf’s resignation, many Pakistanis of my acquaintance, especially in the business classes, were once again calling for the military to step in to oust the civilian administration of President Zardari – not necessarily to take over themselves, but to purge the most corrupt politicians and create a government of national unity or a caretaker government of technocrats.

Military loathing for the politicians is strengthened by the fact that Pakistani politics is dominated by wealth and inherited status, whereas the officer corps has become increasingly socially egalitarian, and provides opportunities for social mobility which the Pakistani economy cannot, and a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and big farmers across Punjab and the NWFP. This allows the military to pick the very best recruits, and increases their sense of belonging to an elite. In the last years of British rule and the first years of Pakistan, most officers were recruited from the landed gentry and upper middle classes. These are still represented by figures like former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, but a much more typical figure is the present COAS (as of 2010), General Ashfaq Kayani, son of an NCO. This social change reflects partly the withdrawal of the upper middle classes to more comfortable professions, but also the immense increase in the numbers of officers required.

Meanwhile, the political parties continue to be dominated by “feudal” landowners and wealthy urban bosses, many of them not just corrupt but barely educated. This increases the sense of superiority to the politicians in the officer corps – something that I have heard from many officers. I have also been told by a number of officers and members of military families that “the officers’ mess is the most democratic institution in Pakistan, because its members are superior and junior during the day, but in the evening are comrades. That is something we have inherited from the British”.

This may seem like a ludicrous statement, until one remembers that in Pakistan, saying that something is the most spiritually democratic institution isn’t saying very much. Pakistani society is permeated by a culture of deference to superiors, starting with elders within the family and kinship group.

Pakistan’s dynastically-ruled “democratic” political parties exemplify this deference to inheritance and wealth; while in the Army, as an officer told me,

“You rise on merit – well, mostly – not by inheritance, and you salute the military rank and not the sardar or pir who has inherited his position from his father, or the businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the sons of havildars [NCOs]. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they are generals.”

The social change in the officer corps over the decades has led to longstanding Western fears that it is becoming “Islamized”, leading to the danger that either the Army as a whole might support Islamist revolution, or that there might be a mutiny by Islamist junior officers against the high command.

These dangers do exist, but in my view only a direct and massive attack on Pakistan by the US could bring them to fruition. It is obviously true that as the officer corps becomes lower middle class, so its members become less westernized and more religious – after all, the vast majority of Pakistan’s population are conservative Muslims. However, there are many different kinds of conservative Muslim, and this is also true of the officer corps.

On the whole, by far the most important aspect of a Pakistani officer’s identity is that he (or sometimes she) is an officer. The Pakistani military is a profoundly shaping influence as far as its members are concerned. This can be seen amongst other things from the social origins and personal cultures of its chiefs of staff and military rulers over the years. It would be hard to find a more different set of men than Generals Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Musharraf, Beg, Karamat and Kayani in terms of their social origins, personal characters and attitudes to religion. Yet all have been first and foremost military men.

This means in turn that their ideology was first and foremost Pakistani nationalist. The military is tied to Pakistan, not the universal Muslim ummah of the radical Islamists’ dreams; tied not only by sentiment and ideology, but also by the reality of what supports the Army. If it is true, as so many officers have told me, that “No Army, no Pakistan”, it is equally true that “No Pakistan, no Army”.

End of Part one. To be continued…

anatol.lieven

Anatol Lieven

A professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. His next book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, is to be published in 2011.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.