VIEW: A middle-class army? —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Daily Times, October 8, 2007
The military elite was always part of the ruling elite. In fact, the officer cadre was essentially elitist or from the upper middle class until the mid-1950s when the pattern of recruitment began to change
As Pakistan struggles through the current political crisis, the issue remains: how can the army, the strongest institution of the state, be tamed? Its members, both serving and retired, believe that the institution is the only thing that stands between the survival and disaster of the Pakistani state. This perception has systematically been communicated to the public which helps create the perception in some segments of the population that the institution is comparatively better than the political class.
Surely, politicians are equally responsible for the current state of affairs. But it is no longer a matter of apportioning blame. The real question is: how does one convince the army to leave power and revert to the role it was given in the constitution? Or would persuasion work at all in a situation where the generals are looking out for their own interests?
Given that the army has accorded to itself the role of defending the ideology of the state, there is no way it could withdraw from power or allow other forces to strengthen. It is actually a simple two-plus-two formulation. Acquiring greater responsibility gives greater control which gives greater power, and then why would individuals and an institution give this up?
However, some do not find the equation to be so simple. They believe that the military’s social, professional and ideological makeup allows it to be a harbinger of change. It not only represents the professional middle class but is largely secular as well. Its obsession with nationalism, which is a product of civilian political leadership, is driven by its sense of professionalism. Given these three factors, the institution will one day understand the significance of economic growth and will connect with neighbouring India in a more productive and positive relationship. It is also then that the institution will change domestically.
Let’s consider the social basis of the military, the myth of its secularism, and whether these two factors can bring about the much-needed internal change.
Before embarking on that discussion, it needs to be pointed out that this nationalism is not just the product of the politicians but was a by-product of the combined interests of the ruling elite of the Indian Subcontinent. In fact, politicians such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto adapted to this peculiar brand of nationalism to win the institution’s favour which he later planned to use as a tool for his personal and national power. A powerful military would make Pakistan the leader of the Muslim world and propel Bhutto to a significant role as well.
More important, the military elite was always part of the ruling elite. In fact, the officer cadre was essentially elitist or from the upper middle class until the mid-1950s when the pattern of recruitment began to change. Later, like the civil bureaucracy, the military became a launching pad for the lower-middle class and the middle-class to attain horizontal and vertical social mobility. Once at the top, the generals can become as elitist as any other ruling elite. So, where decision-making matters at the top the officers do not necessarily represent the interests of the middle class.
The argument that the institution is representative of the middle class and can be motivated to change its strategic thinking for socio-economic development is fallacious. The organisation is certainly a ladder for upward movement of the lower-middle and middle classes, but its social mobility is insulated and becomes an end in itself. It does not necessarily provoke an overall social change. This argument is made despite the understanding that a bureaucracy, especially which is exposed to development paradigms, is a driver of socio-economic change.
The civil and military bureaucracy attains social mobility due to organisational power. This means that they have an interest in maintaining conditions which strengthens the institution. This makes a certain brand of nationalism, especially that which empowers the bureaucracy, essential. So, relations with India will improve not due to the bureaucracy’s economic sense, but because it has found other methods of sustaining its psychological and intellectual hold on society or due to some necessary changes in the military-strategic script.
Is it logical, then, to conclude that this is a secular institution? According to author Shuja Nawaz’s formulation, the army is a secular and professional institution which could adopt the ideology of its top management. So, General Zia made it Islamist and Musharraf made it ‘moderately enlightened’. This means that the outside world needn’t worry about religious zealots taking over the nuclear-armed military. It can remain professional despite that the society of which it is a part has grown more religious and conservative.
It is a fact that the army still benefits from the protective shield of professionalism. Soldiers and officers generally obey their orders. We do not hear of successful coups by colonels and majors. But then this is a British-trained colonial army of a post-colonial state. Why is it expected to behave like the revolutionary armed forces of Latin America where the military’s receptivity to social norms is far more difficult to hide?
The presence of this protective shield does not mean that it will not wear off. In fact, as Leon Trotsky said, “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature.”
The issue here is that Islamism, especially as long as it is part of some covert grand strategy, will have an impact on a professional army in a more hidden and sophisticated way than a revolutionary army. The perception of faith, particularly when it is part of the national ideology, is bound to affect an organisation which is the protector of that ideology. In any case, it is not just about the Islamic ideology but also about the conservative social norms of the society. We must not forget that more than 20 percent of the military is Pashtun. Given the protracted warfare in Waziristan, how long does one expect the protective shield not to wear off? The risk of soldiers surrendering because they are sympathetic to the views of the other side remains high.
One wonders if the top management understands the threat to the institution at all. A military’s institutional professionalism will be threatened if it loses the ability to introspect and the top leadership continues to ride the high horse of its confidence. A bigger threat could be the disconnection between the top and the bottom. The moderately enlightened officers could then run the risk of commanding a highly conservative work force which could randomly surrender to some other ideology.
Shuja Nawaz has also raised another and more important issue about the military being Indonesian-like, which I will discuss next week. The more important issue is that the assumptions about its socio-cultural orientation do not acknowledge the fact that the institution can be affected by the environment it operates in. The ambitious goals of the top leadership have probably driven the institution in a direction where its socio-cultural leanings do not determine the role it will play in domestic and regional power politics.
The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy