Review Essay: Pakistan and the Army- A Way of Life

ISSSP Reflections No. 24, January 9, 2015

Author: Ms. Ramya PS


Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, Harvard University Press, 2014

C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Oxford University Press, 2014

Slide1The prominent image of partition, the strength wielded by the Pakistan Army and the impending ‘instability’ caused by extremist militia- these  remain the dominant images that come to mind when one reflects on Pakistan. This probably explains why most of the academic literature on Pakistan tends to focus on historical oscillation between military and civilian rule, forecasts on a shift towards a ‘democratic’ setup and the larger implications of the powerful Army’s control over national security. Several insightful books have been written on the political environment of Pakistan and the internal workings of the powerful Pakistan Army.

In the contemporary context, with the onset of the Global War on Terror, Pakistan found itself becoming a frontline state. This coupled with the much discussed first civilian transition of power in 2013 led many to contemplate that Pakistan was probably headed towards a civilian-led phase which would strengthen its democratic roots. Despite these significant changes, the larger fabric of Pakistan’s strategic milieu and the power retained by the Army remains critical. The tendency of the Pakistan Army to retain its power vis-à-vis the civilian leaders forms the core areas of research in order to obtain a holistic understanding of this nation-state. Two recent books, namely The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan by Aqil Shah and Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War by C. Christine Fair deals with the crucial theme of concentration of power with the Pakistan Army and its institutional culture.

Pakistan Army and Democracy

The broad theme of Shah’s book The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, revolves around the crucial civil-military relations in Pakistan and the future of democracy in the nation-state. Literature on this aspect of Pakistan has been plenty such as Brian Cloughley’s A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections or the popular The Idea of Pakistan by Stephen Cohen. Furthermore, books such Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror by Hassan Abbas provide several useful insights into the workings of the civilian leadership with the Army and nature of power dynamics that ensue within Pakistan. Ayesha Siddiqa’s book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy provides an insight into the influence and stakes the Army has within the economy of Pakistan apart from the defence industry. Siddiqa applies the concept of ‘milbus’ to depict the inroads made by the Army into the national economy thereby indicating the overarching presence of the institution within Pakistan. Analysing the Army’s power through the concept of milbus, Siddiqa provides another dimension to the stakes and influence the Army has created for itself within Pakistan and the ensuing impact on the overall political fabric of Pakistan. Therefore, the literature available on the nature and power of the Pakistan Army is wide and covers several aspects.

Shah’s book uses a theoretical framework of civil-military relations and seeks to situate the case of Pakistan within this framework. Unlike Hassan Abbas or for that matter even Stephen Cohen’s book, which draw upon recent history to analyse and assess the power dynamics, Shah uses the historical narrative coupled with a theoretical model on civil-military.

In the backdrop of the theory on civil-military relations, Shah explains the case of the Pakistan Army and further points out the lacuna in the theory in explaining certain aspects of the concentration of power with the military institution. He stresses how most civil-military literature focuses on Latin America and draws a corollary where it is possible with Pakistan. Through the course of the book, Shah builds a case of how the Army has become an all-pervasive institution within Pakistan and how it shapes the political discourse. He provides a plethora of facts and analysis accumulated through personal interviews with Army personnel coupled with literature produced by the Army in journals and books depicting the impact military organisations have on civilian institutions.

Aqil Shah makes an interesting analysis of how the bureaucracy within Pakistan has been influenced by the Army. The book clearly explains the larger thinking of the Pakistan Army which sees itself as the only organised institution capable of attending to the needs of Pakistan unlike the civilian political class which is marred by allegations of corruption and lack of cohesion and stability. Shah further links this thinking of the Army to the training the Army seeks to provide to the civilian bureaucracy on administrative skills and proficiency. Therefore, a case is built on how the Army not only influences the bureaucracy which forms the bridge between civilian authority and the larger political culture. He also indicates how the bureaucratic thinking is actively shaped by the Army due the training the latter provides to the former. This crucial analysis by Shah throws much light on the deep roots the Army has created for itself within Pakistan which further expands its power and influence making it all-pervasive.

Shah traces the Pakistan Army’s critical outlook towards the ineptitude of civilian politicians to the first war on Kashmir in 1947 and the early professionalism of the Army that underwent a change during the crucial formative years of Pakistan. Shah maintains towards the end of the book that ‘civilian institutional measures to keep the military at bay failed in part because military organisational choices are more decisively shaped by the extent to which the military believes in the legitimacy of democratic institutions, including the constitution.’ With regard to current debate on the future of democracy within Pakistan, Shah states that the ‘Pakistan Army is unaccustomed to the norm of civilian supremacy and has yet to unconditionally consider democracy the only game in town’.

Pakistan Army and Strategic Culture

Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War by C. Christine Fair, makes for an interesting read especially given its focus on the crucial aspect of strategic culture of Pakistan. The book fills a crucial research gap in assessing the strategic culture of Pakistan, a topic that has been sparingly dealt by Hasan Askari Rizvi in ‘Pakistan’s Strategic Culture’ in South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliance and Peter Lavoy “Pakistan’s Strategic Culture: A Theoretical Excursion” in the Strategic Insights journal. Fair adopts a straightforward approach to assess the strategic culture of the complex nation-state of Pakistan by reducing it to the culture of the Army. Fair justifies this reduction maintaining that the very control this powerful institution wields on the foreign and domestic policy of Pakistan warrants the extrapolation of the Army’s culture to the overall strategic culture of the state. Fair points out that ‘the strategic culture of the Pakistan Army encompasses the collectivity of its corporate beliefs, values, and norms as well as the accumulating weight of its historical experiences…taken together the Army’s strategic culture serves as a lens through which Pakistan Army understands its security environments…’.

In dealing with the strategic culture of the Pakistan Army, Fair delves into the aspect of revisionism. In context to the book, Fair advocates a broad based definition of revisionism which is not restricted to territorial status-quo but also reflects a state’s desire to ‘not only change borders but also to alter political order’. Through the course of the book, a case is built as to how the ‘revisionist’ behaviour of the Pakistan Army is not limited to only the Kashmir issue and how this behaviour continues despite losing wars to India. Fair contends that ‘Pakistan’s apprehensions about India are more ideological than security driven’ and therefore, appeasing Pakistan through territorial concessions on Kashmir may ‘encourage Pakistan’s anti-status quo policies rather than temper them’. This argument is analysed in context to data gathered from studying literature produced by the Army and through the course of interviews with military officers. Fair puts forth an interesting analysis of the ‘persistence of revisionism’ by the Army in face of repeated defeats to India and analyses how this impacts the strategic culture of the nation-state.

Fair analyses the strategic culture of Pakistan by tracing the history of the state and using the partition as a key starting point to comprehend the contemporary thinking and culture of the nation-state. The significance of the idea of Islam in the functioning and outlook of the Army is given ample attention by Fair. Although, most literature such as by Talbot, Abbas and Rizvi outline that the role of Islam in the culture of the Army, the focus is set mainly during the period of Zia-ul Haq. However, Fair contends that the Army was ideological from the beginning and instrumentalised Islam for a number of its domestic and foreign policies. This forms an interesting aspect of the book as it seeks to tie up the idea behind the creation of the nation-state of Pakistan to its contemporary culture and ideology as represented by the Army.

Fair tries to analyse the role of nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s strategic culture and understand how the nuclear policy in turn has enabled the use of Islamist militants against India and Afghanistan. The risk-taking behaviour of the Pakistan Army has been encouraged by its nuclear umbrella and Fair states that since, Pakistan ‘cannot be defined using the terms of game theory’ because defeat is defined in terms of yielding to India, making the presence of nuclear weapons more destabilising in the region.

Fair concludes on a note of cynicism and uncertainty with regard to a possible change in the outlook of the Army and strengthens her argument by maintaining that any change in the strategic culture of the Army would imply its agreement to the two-state theory which is anti-foundational. Fair ends in agreement of Glasner’s concept of a greedy state being applicable to Pakistan and justifies it with Ziont’s concept of ‘unreasonable revisionism’.

Convergences and Divergences

Army as a Unit of Analysis: Both Aqil Shah and Christine Fair use the Pakistan Army as a crucial unit of analysis. The two books provide significant insight into how the Pakistan Army developed over the years, the policies followed and the reasons for doing so. Shah and Fair both find traction in using history to make a trend analysis and fill research gap by placing their analysis into the respective theoretical frameworks of civil-military relations and strategic culture.

Methodology: The method of research adopted by both books also find semblance. Shah and Fair extensively study the syllabus, training modules and curriculum of major Army institutions such as the Command and Staff College, National Defense University etc. The authors simultaneously seek to comprehend the organisational culture of the Pakistan Army by analysing and assessing the research papers and strategic papers produced by military officers within the framework of these institutions. Both the authors further relied on publications by the Army such as the Pakistan Army Journal, Hilal, Margalla papers etc. This is indicative of how similar approaches to research have been applied to understand different dimensions of the Pakistan Army. For instance, Shah focuses on the domestic nature of the Pakistan Army’s power while, Fair using a similar approach extrapolates the research findings to understand the strategic culture of Pakistan.

Complementing ThemesThe two books seek to answer different questions wherein one focuses on civil-military relations in specific and Pakistan’s path toward democracy and the other focuses on the strategic culture of the Army and thereby seeks to understand the country’s strategic culture. Therefore, despite ultimately assessing the specific unit of analysis- the Army, the overall themes of the book vary. However, as both the books throw light on the functioning, organisational outlook and culture of the Army, they appear complimentary to each other. One finds semblance in the manner in which both Shah and Fair outline the historical ascendency of the Pakistan Army as an institution and how it will remain so in the coming years. While, Shah analyses the superiority of the Army in context to civil-military relations and therefore pays attention to the domestic politics, Fair on the other hand places the superiority of the Army which controls Pakistan and analyses its impact on the regional and international level assuming the baseline of a garrison state.

It is interesting to read the books together as they complement each other quite well. For instance, the lack of international context and repercussions of prolonged military control in Shah’s book is complemented by Fair’s extensive analysis of the Army’s control of Pakistan’s foreign policy.  Similarly, Fair does not extensively deal with the domestic politics and the power the Army exerts in this sphere of the nation-state. This is complemented by Shah’s assessment of the Army’s stronghold in the domestic context. For instance, Fair analyses how even the 1971 war defeat by Pakistan did not lead to the Army revising its policies with regard to India. Shah maintains that following the loss of 1971, the Army merely receded to the background but remained unaccountable and the civilian authority did not see the significance of making the Army responsible for its action. He adds that 1971 breakup of the two wings of Pakistan, which was seen as the doing of Zulfikar Bhutto and Muhjibur Rehman, with the Army not taking its fair share of blame. This domestic level analysis provides more insight to the larger ‘persistent revisionism’ that Fair discusses in her book. Similarly, Shah deals with US-Pakistan relations in a limited manner and does not discuss China-Pakistan relations. Since the Army dictates the significant contours of the foreign policy in Pakistan, its relations with US and China would throw light on the underpinnings of Army power over civilian authority. Fair pays heed to this aspect and provides an in-depth narrative of the Army’s views on relations with China and the US.


Shah’s The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan raises an important aspect of the Pakistan Army’s preference for presidential democracy over parliamentary democracy. However, he fails to comprehensively explain this preference. Although, the book indicates that the preference could be because of the centralised set-up of a presidential democracy as seen during the Ayub and Zia regimes which is in tune with the overall culture of the Army. Shah does not specifically make a case for such a preference. It would have been interesting if the book had dealt on this aspect at some more length.

Fair in her book seeks to link the concept of ‘persistent revisionism’ to various aspects of the Army’s culture and policies. The linkage Fair seeks to build between the policies of low intensity conflict and use of ‘jihad’ by the Army under the nuclear umbrella to the concept of ‘persistent revisionism’ becomes significant in understanding the overall strategic culture of the Army. However, the overall nuclear posture of the Army when understood from the ‘ideological’ basis as Fair describes it, fits into the concept of ‘persistent revisionism’ but, the security angle is not completely explained through the concept.

In context to the specific theme that Shah and Fair seek to analyse in their respective books, each provides a unique perspective on how the Army strengthened its power and on the culture of the institution. However, both agree on the over-arching presence of the Army within Pakistan and do not see its power receding in the near future.

The continued predominance of the Army within the political fabric of Pakistan is noted by both authors and seen as an agent of instability both internally for Pakistan as well as for the region. The two authors provide skeptical conclusions regarding the future stability of Pakistan in light of the prevailing shadow of the Army.

The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan and Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War provide useful insights into the contemporary political and strategic environment of Pakistan and more significantly contribute to the limited literature of using concrete theoretical and conceptual frameworks to analyse and assess the organisational culture and behaviour of the Pakistan Army.

About the Author

Ms. Ramya PS is a Junior Research Fellow at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at ramya[dot]panuganty[at]gmail[dot]com

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