While ties between the elected civilian government and the armed forces have frayed recently, Sharif’s removal itself did not tilt the balance any further toward the army. That’s because the army was already in its strongest position since the military-backed rule of President Pervez Musharraf. Rather than a shift, recent events illustrate the extent of the military’s dominant role.
Any assessment of civil-military relations in Pakistan must acknowledge two fundamental realities. First, the armed forces command substantial access to state resources with limited civilian control. Pakistan’s per capita defense spending has risen nearly consistently since 2001, with military expenditures even growing as a share of total federal spending since 2013. More importantly, until 2008 the military’s allocations were never line-itemed on the official budget, and it has also consistently financed its activities off the books. Both trends have hampered civilian oversight of defense spending.
Second, the civilian sector remains perennially dependent on the military for disaster response and even municipal relief projects. That elevates the military’s prestige, while making their civilian counterparts appear at best weak and at worst useless.
Beyond these imbalances in civil-military relations, over the past decade Pakistan’s generals have beaten back attempts by democratically elected governments to control its activities or set national security and foreign policy.
In 2008, they swiftly fended off an attempt by the Pakistan People’s Party-led government to place the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI—the powerful national spy agency—under the Interior Ministry. The army forced the government to reverse the decision within a day. A 2009 attempt by the U.S. to condition aid to Pakistan on civilian control of the armed forced failed when the army chief pushed back publicly, despite strong support for the measure from then-President Asif Ali Zardari.
Sharif had a turbulent relationship with the military brass from the beginning of his latest term as prime minister. He wanted to try Musharraf for high treason, negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, end support to Afghan militants, and pursue better relations with India—all policies the generals opposed. The political crisis of 2014, when street protests against Sharif turned violent, forced the beleaguered prime minister to trade staying in power for letting the military run national security and foreign policy.
The armed forces have unilaterally implemented security policies since then. The absence of parliamentary briefings kept elected officials uninvolved in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the army’s devastating counterinsurgency operation in northwest Pakistan, while suspected terrorists were prosecuted in military courts, bypassing the judicial system. In Karachi, civilian institutions have even lost power, with the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary border security force, taking on a policing role and conducting operations, including high-profile arrests, without the chief minister’s knowledge.
The military has pushed a more aggressive stance against India in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to isolate Pakistan and his hard-line posturing on Kashmir. Attempts by Sharif’s government to end the military’s backing of militant groups, to stave off potential international isolation, also failed.
The military encroaching on civilian turf—not a coup d’état—remains the main risk for elected governments in Pakistan.
Aside from all these setbacks, there has been progress in civil-military relations. The armed forces’ focus on greater professionalization has included removing soldiers from the civil administration, dismantling ISI’s political wing—which was notorious for political meddling—and firing corrupt officers. Moreover, civilian oversight of the defense budget has expanded since 2008, and now the ISI is to include more civilians in senior positions. In its rhetoric at least, the military has also adopted the language of democracy, with Gen. Bajwa underscoring his belief in civilian supremacy and opposition to military interventions.
Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court, though, has been interpreted by some as a soft or judicial coup, even part of the military’s broader plan to consolidate its power by co-opting supposedly democratic institutions. But Sharif’s ouster was self-inflicted, resulting from a lousy defense and cover-up, which included submitting forged documents to the court.
The military’s behind-the-scenes role here seems to be of a guarantor, promising Supreme Court judges they would stand behind the decision to dismiss Sharif. Rather than an orchestrated removal, this was the generals capitalizing on an opportunity to ensure a long-term adversary was expelled from power permanently. In the context of civil-military relations, it was an illustration of the military’s existing dominance, not a power grab.
But now the generals may seek a larger portfolio. A looming currency crisis has made them nervous, and they reportedlywant influence over the economy, too.
Pakistan’s current account deficit has been rising this year, driven by growing trade imbalances and debt servicing. Foreign currency reserves have depleted. There is a serious chance Pakistan will need another bailout from the International Monetary Fund within a year. Not surprisingly, the economy has become a priority during National Security Council meetings, according to Bajwa.
Given the decline in U.S. aid since 2011, and the especially sharp fall in Coalition Support Funds since 2014—which reimburses Pakistan for costs incurred in supporting the U.S.-led counterterror war—security expenditures have increasingly fallen on Pakistan’s Finance Ministry. Last month, a worried Bajwa had a public message for it: “Security has once again become the foremost business and task of the state,” and the government had to grow the economy to allocate more resources to it.
The military encroaching on civilian turf—not a coup d’état—remains the main risk for elected governments, which are left fighting for control over national security, foreign affairs and the economy.
The military is unlikely to let civilians drive national security policy any time soon. It has monopolized control over counterinsurgency and counterterrorism policies and will dictate their direction, including transferring control to civilian law enforcement agencies in places like Karachi. Security will continue to involve a tussle for influence regardless of next year’s election results.
The generals may also exert more influence on foreign policy, leaving civilians increasingly responsible for implementing, not formulating, policy. With the Trump administration opting for a more military-focused and “regional” solution in Afghanistan, along with Modi’s muscular approach to Kashmir, letting civilians control foreign affairs will still be anathema to Pakistan’s military.
The growing security needs of the development projects that make up the vaunted, $62-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as the major contracts awarded to military-run businesses, mean the army has a robust role to play with China, with Beijing’s blessing.
The only wild card in the near term is how soon Bajwa consolidates his position within the brass and whether other officers view him as a convincing advocate of the military’s interests. Bajwa was promoted to army chief over four more senior generals.
Sharif’s ouster has put the tense relationship between Pakistan’s military and civilian institutions in sharp focus, and the stage appears set for still more friction.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Global Policy. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. Originally published in World Politics Review.