Book review: The Army and Democracy, by Aqil Shah

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 7:08pm

The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan
by Aqil Shah
Harvard University Press
3 stars

David Wilson

Pakistan is on shaky terms with democracy. Since the Muslim state won independence in 1947, only once has it spawned an elected government that finished its tenure and peacefully passed power to a successor - in May 2013.

Otherwise, Pakistan has largely been run by its coup-prone army, notes Harvard University foreign policy scholar Aqil Shah. His chronicle charts the army's rise on the heels of its British forerunner, which treated politics as beyond its scope. In contrast, exploiting the young state's weak solidarity, the Pakistan Army steered public policy, buoyed by pride that persists.

"Often in stark contrast to the facts, military officers exhibit a strong tendency to contrast allegedly successful military enterprises with corrupt and inefficient civilian public-sector corporations," Shah writes. The army reserves the right to ditch its declared political aloofness and meddle at will, he adds.

Yet the army's administrative record is poor. Its most obvious flaw: its insatiable appetite for coups.

Worse, Pakistan is incapable of besting its arch rival, India, judging by the fruitless spats it has had with its Hindu neighbour over Kashmir, among other issues. The army's nadir came in 1971 when it tried to quash its breakaway Bengali-dominated eastern part. India intervened. The resulting religion-themed war lasted just 13 days, but up to 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Indian Army. Humiliatingly, Pakistan lost the land, which became Bangladesh.

Another nightmare is the remote southwest province of Balochistan, where the army has been embroiled with nationalists. There, claims that the security forces deal in torture make Pakistan look like a villain conducting a dirty war.

Further damage was done to the Pakistan army's image in 2011 when American intelligence sources pinpointed al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden in the northeastern town of Abbottabad. Cue a successful US raid resulting in bin Laden's death. Cue pointed questions about how the Pakistani security forces overlooked him.

Sorely short on credibility, the army seems to be declining. In step, citizen influence is growing. Last year's first democratic electoral transfer of power, which returned former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, shows progress. "The first turnover is important in a symbolic sense," Shah writes. Now, he says, Pakistan needs a second successful transition; few would disagree.

One beef with Shah's analysis is that he says little about how having weapons-grade uranium shapes the military mindset. Another gripe: he can be wordy and his style is flat.

Shah is commendably balanced and thorough. His narrative taps archive material, military documents, and more than 100 interviews with Pakistani officers, politicians and civil servants: political science indeed. The Army and Democracy successfully conveys the Borgia-like high drama of traditional Islamabad politics, which makes Beijing's seem almost tame.


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