Wings of wax

Salar Rashid
Friday, Jun 02, 2023

In a country where the state is weak, corrupt, and unable to fulfil its fundamental obligations, ordinary citizens are often left to fend for themselves against the predations of those with power. The compact between citizen and state has been displaced, and at times entirely replaced, with kinship networks – be it in the context of the clan, the tribe, or one’s ethnicity.Whereas a policeman or a judge is not expected to be compassionate or understanding, kinsmen can be relied upon to shield you from aggression, offer patronage to conduct business freely, and even lie in court to help you evade the punishing hand of the law.

Walk by a school in the morning and you’ll hear students yelling out thanks to the ‘Uncle-jee’ driving the bus. Stand in line at the tandoor and your ears will be filled with shouts for ‘bhai-sahib’ to note down their order. Young boys at a dhaaba will hound ‘baray-bhai’ for a cigarette until he relents.These interactions are a base reflection of society at large, where invoking the bond of kinship can open doors, grant favours, and expedite the process of acquiring state services. In return, your patrons expect that ultimate loyalty be paid to them – not to some institution, the state, or even the law.

The military is intimately familiar with the danger this dynamic poses to its internal cohesion. What is more noteworthy is that the military’s success in usurping the role customarily played by kinship networks has not been replicated elsewhere in Pakistan. This, at its most fundamental, is the result of three features wholly unique to the military: its highly regimented structure, internal ideology, and system of incentives.

The military has framed its overarching objective not as mere territorial defence, but more fundamentally the protection of its ideological frontiers: Islam and the Muslim way of life. They have had great success – until recently – in convincing both the ordinary populace and its own officer corps that the military is locked in a battle for Islamic civilization, and that the sacrifices of its jawans protect a weak, pliable society rife with factionalism. The failures of other state institutions, often brought about by military intervention in the first place, is pointed to as evidence of the moral decay that has seeped into the civilian-led state apparatus. This institutional form of othering, where civilians cannot be trusted to lead, is reinforced with more tangible benefits.

Officers are rewarded for their leal service with subsidized healthcare, education for their children, and various other ‘perks of the job’. At the end of their long careers, officers can expect the institution to protect their interests through ‘end-of-service’ benefits, allotment of valuable plots, and lucrative positions in state-run institutions and private companies alike.Militaries wielding less coercive power in countries with similar economic and social conditions have been shown time and again to be highly fractious – junior officers have launched coups (Turkey), become warlords unto themselves (Central African Republic), and disintegrated entirely in the face of armed opposition (Afghan National Army). The Pakistan military has largely avoided such a fate.

Enter Imran Khan, cricket-star-turned-politician. Buffeted by vast media coverage of his decade-long crusade against the ‘corrupt’ and cult-like faith in his heroism, Khan tapped into bipartisan discontentment with the establishment and, for the first time in recent memory, forced the military to compete with a politician on his field.For thirteen months, Khan launched an unceasing barrage of broadsides at the army, accusing it variously of being America’s puppet, in bed with corrupt politicians, and afraid of civilian supremacy. The ailing economy only helped him foster disillusionment with the state, and for a time, it seemed possible that the military might return to the barracks.

This was wishful thinking on his part. The acts of ‘disobedience’ by active or retired service members were not indicative of a broader desire to surrender authority and power, and indeed, were framed in the context of replacing leadership, not the military’s far-reaching might.For Khan to overcome the deeply ingrained institutional loyalty within the armed services, he would have to simultaneously convince officers that their leadership was committing acts repugnant to Islam and to their duty to Pakistan, that he would keep the military’s autonomy intact if he were allowed to return to power, and that he would manage to maintain the internal system of incentives with something equally versatile and comprehensive.Making such promises, let alone convincing anyone of their sincerity, would be impossible when his party leadership was castigating the security establishment for being corrupt and ineffective, decrying the ‘vast perks’ enjoyed by its officer corps, and claiming that the PTI would usher in a new era of ‘civilian supremacy’.

The events of May 9, and the PTI’s victorious celebrations afterwards, were the final nail in the coffin. Khan finally flew too close to the sun, and like Icarus in myth, found his wings had burnt away.Whether the protesters were coordinated by party officials or ‘bussed in’ by external agents, as some have suggested, their actions have led those otherwise content to sit on the sidelines to believe that the PTI is a militantly anti-army party, inimical to their way of life. Rather than pull the military into the PTI’s sphere of influence through overwhelming pressure, May 9 has instead forced officers to conclude that the shot-callers were right all along – Khan is the Untrustworthy Other, and they must, above all, be loyal to the institution.

The writer is a student of law at King’s College London. He can be reached at: