Traditionally, religious, tribal, or ethnic rebellions in Pakistan’s northwest have been put down by military incursions. Today, however, Pakistan’s vaunted military is in crisis. Having taken heavy casualties over years of humiliatingly unsuccessful fighting against their own countrymen, Pakistan’s soldiers are beginning to desert or surrender to the Islamists in large numbers. Some commit suicide. Since the army was ordered to clear out the Islamist Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July, the jihadists have retaliated with a series of deadly terrorist bombings targeting elite military compounds, including General Musharraf’s own ultra-secure compound. Military morale is at its nadir. And although Pakistan has suffered defeats in war, there is no historical precedent for this sort of collapse of morale and discipline.
Military and More
To fully appreciate the “criticality” (Musharraf’s word) of the situation, we need to know something about the unique role of Pakistan’s military. (See “After Musharraf.”)
Unfortunately, the military is just about the only Pakistani state institution that actually works. A classic Muslim social pattern saw cohesive and heavily militarized tribes lead to weak central states, which weakness created a social vacuum that could only be filled by tribes. The modern version of this traditional causal circle features a powerful military bureaucracy, which weakens, and therefore gradually substitutes for, other state institutions.
The obvious example is the Pakistani military’s usurpation of political power. But that’s just the beginning. Pakistan’s military is an almost totally free-standing institution — a sort of state within a state. The military largely controls its own appointments, and even has independent sources of revenue which limit its reliance on public taxation — especially for its generous pensions and benefits system. At first, this amounted to, say, the Pakistani air force operating the nation’s air line industry. But under Musharraf, the military, both directly, and through its retired officers (who often leave service in their 40′s), now controls vast sections of Pakistan’s state apparatus and economy — everything from universities, to the post office, to companies that make cement, soap, and even breakfast cereal.
More than ten million Pakistanis directly or indirectly derive their incomes from this vast military-dominated apparatus. And while retired military officers may not know everything they ought to about running a business, in comparison to widespread civilian corruption and incompetence, Pakistan’s military is an efficiently-functioning meritocracy. Military education is extensive, serious, and liberal — teaching the classics of Western and Islamic philosophy and literature, and nowadays even incorporating classes in economics and business management. As members of the most disciplined, merit-based, and effective sector of society, military men have both esprit de corps and contempt for civilians. And again, in a vicious circle, the military increasingly replaces, and therefore further undercuts, poorly functioning sectors of the state, making added military expansion all the more necessary.
In one sense, much as in Turkey, Pakistan’s military is an outpost of secular and liberal modernity. Yet who can blame Pakistan’s civilian liberals for bemoaning this oddly militarized misfiring of the conventional democratic path? Even so, the army’s domination of Pakistan’s institutional life means that Musharraf’s rationale for imposing an emergency may be something more than smoke and mirrors.
Undoubtedly, Musharraf acted to head off a Supreme Court decision negating his election. And surely the military is selfishly worried that sharing power with Bhutto might put a halt to the expansion of its domestic economic empire. Yet, for that very reason, the power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto might have split the military into warring factions — at a moment when the military itself is on the verge of being broken by its conflict with the Taliban. And if Pakistan’s all-pervasive military actually did collapse from a combination of exhaustion, terror, and internal factional conflict, the way truly would be open to an Islamist takeover — or at least a chaotic civil war that would put control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal at risk.
Even if Musharraf’s declaration of an emergency headed off a potentially deadly split within the military over the power-sharing agreement with Bhutto, the danger remains grave. Why wouldn’t the jihadists take advantage of Musharraf’s weakness? After all, the civil war has already begun, not only in the Taliban’s ever-expanding zone of control in the northwest, but in an aggressive nation-wide campaign of terror attacks. With Musharraf’s legitimacy now in doubt, and with the army busy suppressing opposition rallies, this would be the logical moment for Osama and his allies to mount a vastly more aggressive series of terror attacks aimed at toppling the state. It’s hard to believe that the Islamist war on Pakistan’s army isn’t about to explode into a brand new phase. Yet if this doesn’t happen, that in itself would give a revealing glimpse into the limits of jihadist power.