The nuclear weapons programme should have marked the end of Pakistan’s praetorian state, but it has only entrenched it even further and emboldened it to pursue proxy-based warfare that has come back to hurt Pakistan

Pakistan is not a republic, nor is it a theocracy; rather it is a praetorian state. A praetorian state is one where political power is concentrated in the hands of a select elite within the military. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent analyst, writes: “Pakistan can be described as a praetorian state where the military has acquired the capability, will, and sufficient experience to dominate the core political institutions and processes. As the political forces are disparate and weak, the military’s disposition has a strong impact on the course of political change, including the transfer of power from one set of the elite to another. Such an expanded role is at variance with the traditions and temperament of the military at the time of independence in 1947.” Unprecedented scrutiny of the security establishment in recent months has raised perhaps the most important question in the history of Pakistan: what is the true role of the army?

In the US, the founding father James Madison was always suspicious of the prospect of a standing military to the extent he writes: “In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

For Madison a powerful and large military, which sees its interests in perpetuating conflict by capitalising on nationalist myths to consolidate economic influence, is a grave threat to liberal democracy. Madison is absolutely right when he says that militaries consolidate autocratic power by portraying and inventing a constant state of war. In Pakistan, the great obsession is with India, even though this is largely unfounded because war between nuclear-armed nations would be unprecedented.

Ejaz Hussain in the paper, ‘Pakistan — Politics in a Colonial State’, describes Pakistan as a “praetorian state which structurally inherited the pre-partition ‘praetorian oligarchy’. This praetorian oligarchy constructed ‘Hindu India’ as enemy to pursue politico-economic interests. The military, a part of praetorian oligarchy, emerges as a powerful political actor due to its coercive power. It seeks political power to pursue economic objectives independently.”

The real liberation of having an atomic weapons system should have been our military disengagement from India in the pursuit of robust civilian and diplomatic initiatives. The nuclear weapons programme for Pakistan’s security establishment has presented a deep dilemma, which is not being questioned by the Pakistani media. Why should we be concerned about India if we have a nuclear weapons programme and hence what is the justification for the institutions of the security establishment to expand their influence and power in Pakistani society? The nuclear weapons programme was trumpeted by the security establishment as an achievement, but unwittingly it will act as a catalyst for the dismantling of Pakistani praetorianism. Paradoxically, the nuclear weapons programme should have marked the end of Pakistan’s praetorian state, but it has only entrenched it even further and emboldened it to pursue proxy-based warfare that has come back to hurt Pakistan.

The ‘Ghairat Brigade’ (Honour Brigade) is being intellectually dishonest, morally irresponsible and in the process mutilating the concept of ‘honour’ by ignoring the real structural and institutional instabilities that Pakistan faces. The Ghairat Brigade has ignored the real causes of Pakistan’s situation and focused only on symptoms such as feudal leadership in political parties and religious extremism, which any person can point out with ease. The Ghairat Brigade only questions individual generals and officials of the army but does not question the wider institutional role of the security establishment in a democracy. The Ghairat Brigade is only unhappy about the policies of the praetorian state (and its relations with the west) and wants to take it over to use it to pursue their own fantastical policies. The Ghairat Brigade is hence not concerned about true civilian supremacy; it exhibits cheap populism at the expense of substance.

Asma Jahangir recently has been very vocal about civilian supremacy over the military. In order for such a possibility to materialise the judiciary has to play its role, but the problem is, historically speaking, the judiciary has been complacent and tacitly colluded with the praetorian tendencies.

Scholar Tayyab Mahmud writes in his excellent paper, ‘Praetorianism and Common Law in Post-Colonial Settings: Judicial Responses to Constitutional Breakdowns in Pakistan’ that “the judicial failure to challenge praetorian tendencies facilitated in a systematic erosion of constitutional governance and the rule of law. The result was the institutionalisation of the praetorian state, diminished power and prestige of the judiciary and the waning of judicial review.”

Mahmud ultimately suggests that the “continuity of constitutional frameworks promotes political stability, which is the best antidote for praetorian tendencies in any society”. But the real point that Mahmud makes is that “in new post-colonial states...(the) search for stable and democratic constitutional frameworks is repeatedly derailed by the military’s extra-constitutional usurpations of power”.

Even though there are voices like Asma Jahangir, the judiciary is still one of the most controversial institutions of the country, rivalling the police.

The fact is there is no other alternative viable centre of power that can redress the civilian-military relationship in favour of liberal democracy. The PPP had a chance but it has chosen to maintain the autocratic status quo. Zardari could have established civilian supremacy in the aftermath of the Abbottabad incident but chose to gain the favour of the security establishment to consolidate political power.

Both the PPP and the PML-N are tribal clans based on kinship and feudalism, exploiting ties of faith and ethnicity to establish a political oligarchy with the security establishment. Neither the PPP nor the PML-N have a democratic process within their own parties or have mechanisms for accountability or transparency within their party. It is foolish for liberals to pin hope on Nawaz Sharif because the PML-N is ‘opposing’ the army only because he is in the opposition.

Pakistan needs a new brand of civilian politics and a more consistent judiciary, which can maintain independence and integrity across the board rather than having just a few exceptionally brave voices.

Pakistan’s praetorian state has managed to survive because it has been supported by a corrupt political system (and a much wider political elite comprising feudalism, the civil service and other powerful stakeholders), a historically weak judiciary and morally bankrupt politicians like Zardari.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at