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The Pakistani Deep State..


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Given the military’s pre-eminent control over the Pakistani state, the country will have to live with the deep state and compromise on its democracy, independence of judiciary, freedom of media and civil society.

When non-political forces take advantage of a fragile democracy and control the instruments of power, it leads to the emergence of a deep state. One can quote various models of the deep state, where the military establishment, intelligence agencies, high level bureaucracy, judiciary form strategic alliances among these key state institutions, and co-opt a segment of the clergy, politicians, media, academia, civil society and business community to run a state in order to deprive their country of pluralism and political participation. The deep state is not only present in the developing world; in so-called democracies like the United States and India, it has a strong hold over power.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a deep state means, “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines deep state as “organizations such as the military, police or political groups that are said to work secretly in order to protect particular interests and to rule a country without being elected.”

A classic example which is presented to explain deep state in the historical context is Turkey, where for a long period of time, the nexus between military and bureaucracy ruled the country denying democracy and political pluralism. The most dangerous shape of deep state is when the military establishment, through its influence and incompetence of its civilian counterparts in assemblies is able to deny press freedom, independence of judiciary, activism of civil society and augments its role under the name of national security.

Since early 1950s till today, the characteristics of a deep state are to be found in Pakistan where the nexus of the military and bureaucracy has weakened the political process. When non-elected instruments of power became so strong that they effectively marginalized political parties, free media, independent judiciary and a vibrant civil society, Pakistan became a classic example of a functional deep state. Even during phases of so-called civilian rule, non-political forces prevailed over elected representatives and defined certain no-go areas in foreign policy, where elected governments followed policies dictated by those representing the deep state. No-go areas like the nuclear issue, India, United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Afghanistan were not to be controlled by the civilian government. Likewise, in domestic affairs pertaining to who should form the government, how elections should be held and who should lead major political parties – these were firmly under the domain of the deep state. 

Pakistan, as a deep state since its formative phase till today, presents a stark reality which must not be denied. Since Pakistan is still a feudal, tribal country and facing the existential threat of religious extremism, corruption, nepotism, absence of rule of law, bad governance and lack of accountability, it is bound to be under the control of non-political forces. The feudal-tribal culture of the western part of Pakistan with a meager tolerance for non-conformism enabled military and bureaucratic elites to take over state structures and impose the first martial law in 1958. Even before the military’s take over, the fragility of the political process and failure of political parties to strengthen their hold over modes of governance provided ample opportunities to non-political forces to assert their position. Otherwise, why was General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Commander in Chief of Pakistan army included in the federal cabinet as a defense minister? 

When the deep state became a reality with the imposition of the first martial law, a sense of deprivation in erstwhile East Pakistan got an impetus because Bengalese, who happened to be in a majority population, had meager representation in the military and bureaucracy, the two pillars of the state. It was the continuation of a deep state, which ultimately led to the breakup of the country in December 1971. It was the culture of Punjabi domination, which reflected the power ambitions of the military and bureaucracy, in connivance with the clergy and feudal elites which gave acceptance to the role of non-political forces in politics and governance. Despite the dismemberment of Pakistan because of the deep state’s denial to accept the electoral triumph of the Awami League in December 1970 general elections, no lessons were learned in post-1971 Pakistan. 

East Pakistan, which was politically conscious, democratic and moderate in religious terms was a major impediment to military’s role in politics. But, with the emergence of Bangladesh, West Pakistan which became a successor state of Pakistan, failed to transform its culture by not promoting democracy, political pluralism, rule of law, accountability and tolerance for dissent. 

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who took reins of power after the breakup of Pakistan, failed to control the power ambitions of the military. With an intolerant and a feudal mindset, he gave space to the military, which was discredited following surrender to the joint command of Indian Army and Mukti Bahani forces on December 16, 1971 in race course ground Dhaka, but regained its power and imposed a third martial law on July 5, 1977. 

Late Stephen P. Cohen, an authority on Pakistan Army in his book The Idea of Pakistan (Lahore: Vanguard, 2005) wrote: “elevating the martial races theory to the level of an absolute truth had domestic implications for Pakistani politics and contributed to the neglect of other aspects of security, including technological innovation and inter service cooperation. The army’s intoxication with its own mythology contributed to the country’s permanent strategic inferiority, making it increasingly dependent upon other states even as these grew more unreliable.” He further stated that, “the outstanding characteristics of those who joined the Pakistan army in the post-Bangladesh years was that they were the most purely “Pakistani” of all. They were the more representative of the wider society in class origin, had less exposure to American professional influence, and believed the United States had let Pakistan down. They joined army when its reputation and prestige had plummeted and their professional careers and world outlook were shaped by the 1971 debacle.”  

Backed by a ‘superiority complex’ vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts, the military deliberately pursued a policy to weaken political parties, create new parties and divide their rank and file in order to maintain their edge in the corridors of power. As a result, in each major political party, the army’s influence became a reality as the agencies worked overtime to make sure that no political party with any popularity should be led by a leadership challenging its own hold over power. The post-1971 Pakistan hardened the control of the military establishment over civilian affairs and political parties, as they were not threatened anymore from Bengali assertion against the Punjabi domination in statecraft. 

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