Map of Pakistan

*Perhaps the most famous anecdote in Pakistan is this: while most countries have an army*, in Pakistan the army has a country. Almost 60 years after its creation from the dying embers of British colonialism as a haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent – and a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir that garnered worldwide sympathy – Pakistan’s most prominent feature is the monopoly of the army over state affairs and, indeed, over much of public life.

It would be easy to suggest that the army’s domination is essentially a legacy of British rule, yet neighbouring India has never once been subject to military rule. More accurately, the Pakistani state has carefully bred a tale of imminent takeover by India to justify inordinate expenditures on the army, while the institution itself has been celebrated as Pakistan’s saviour. On the other hand, politicians have been slandered from the very start; a segment of the intelligentsia even propagates the view that Pakistan’s genius is not suited to democracy.

In more recent times the army has become the most powerful corporate entity in the land, with a stake in a host of sectors ranging from road construction and real estate to aviation and agriculture. It is unofficially estimated that the army accounts for up to 30 per cent of national output. It has also become the country’s largest landowner, capturing the most valuable agricultural and residential lands. For the most part the propertied classes, including the landed élite and industrial magnates, remain content with a junior role in the army-led dispensation, but amongst ordinary people resentment has increased markedly in recent times, eroding the army’s mythical role as the nation’s saviour.

Chris Stowers / Panos /

Ethnic tensions have run high since the country’s creation, with the army and most of the civilian bureaucracy hailing from the Punjab and migrant Urdu-speakers; ethnicity remains the primary political idiom. The state cultivated militant Islamic groups to wage covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the disputed province of Kashmir since, but the present military government claims to have clamped down upon its own protégés. Indeed Pakistan has been celebrated by the US and its allies as a frontline state in the War on Terror, much as it was during the Afghan War in the 1980s. The army’s domination of the country is in no small measure attributable to the support of the US at every critical juncture of the Cold War and, more recently, after 11 September 2001. Too much is at stake for this to be seriously endangered even when US missiles hit a Pakistani village as they did in January.

Despite the claims, little has changed. The religious Right even runs the North Western Frontier provincial government, while the Government’s promises to repeal oppressive laws against religious minorities and women have proved to be hollow. Under the guise of devolving power, the Government has resorted to the age-old practice of patronizing local élites in the interest of maintaining power, thereby reinforcing a host of regressive social practices that discriminate against workers, women, minorities and other traditionally vulnerable groups.

The Government also claims that it has rescued a sinking economy from impending collapse, and the international financial institutions (IFIs) back up this claim with stellar macroeconomic figures. However, much of the improvement is premised on huge inflows of aid, and standard IFI-backed adjustment policies have worsened the situation of ordinary Pakistanis. Inflation and unemployment are rife, while agriculture – the mainstay of 70 per cent of the population – continues to be subject to international market pressures and the tyranny of global agreements such as the WTO.

So for most Pakistanis it is more of the same. The army has succeeded in co-opting all mainstream political forces. Those who retain their principled opposition to the _status quo_ are still trying to generate the broad-based support necessary to challenge it.