By Yanis Iqbal
Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, came in international limelight – again for awkward reasons. A viral video has resurfaced wherein he effectively sounds the death knell of his already anemic liberal image. Addressing Pakistan’s national assembly in June 2020, Khan is seen dubbing Osama Bin Laden a “martyr”. “I will never forget how we Pakistanis were embarrassed when the Americans came into Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden, martyred him,” he sympathetically recalls. In a half-hearted attempt at public relations damage control, Pakistan Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has said that the Prime Minister had a “slip of the tongue”. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, meanwhile, behaved strangely. “I will let that pass,” he muttered grimly, after a brief pause, when he was asked whether Bin Laden was a martyr.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, the government is desperate to get off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list and worried about international support to breathe life into its economy. This is why it is wooing USA, EU, and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, due to the structural limitations of Pakistan’s praetorian system, it is obliged to take an anti-West stance. These inherent restrictions faced by any civilian government can be traced to the genesis of the Pakistani state. Hamza Alavi – one of Pakistan’s foremost Marxist thinkers – argued that the post-colonial state is not the preserve of the dominant propertied class within the social formation. Instead the state apparatus itself, consisting of a civil bureaucracy and an army, inherits power from the departing colonial ruler, the latter having endowed this apparatus with the coercive means to subjugate all classes within the social formation, including the dominant ones.
In Alavi’s view, the colonial impact resulted in the emergence of three dominant classes – the indigenous bourgeoisie, metropolitan bourgeoisie and the landowning classes – none of which had indisputable control over the postcolonial state. Due to the “alien” nature of the colonial state and the weaknesses of the domestic propertied classes, the former takes on an “overdeveloped,” quasi-Bonapartist function in which “rival interests are mediated by the state.” As a result, the overdeveloped postcolonial state assumes a relative autonomy, as institutions and managers of the state, such as bureaucrats, the military, and so on, acquire the capacity to appropriate an increased share of the surplus, while acting to reproduce the disarticulated, peripheral capitalist social formation with its dependence on the metropolis.
However, the semi-independence of post-colonial state does not mean that it is not anchored in any class formation. The social basis of the state is provided by personnel drawn from the intermediate classes who use their positions of power in civil and military bureaucracies for a form of primitive accumulation commonly labeled as “corruption”. These class dynamics eventually result in a competition between the existing, weak bourgeoisie and the rising strata of the middle class on its way to becoming a distinct fraction of the propertied ruling class. In Pakistan, the military-bureaucratic oligarchy has dominated the state from its inception, mediating between the interests of the domestic propertied classes, while ensuring that its own interests reign supreme. The ideological basis of this military hegemony is provided by the over-arching narrative of “national security”.
The first India-Pakistan war of 1947 provided the foundations for this discourse, resulting in the consolidation of the military’s power. The government set its priority by allocating about 70% of the estimated federal budget for defense. As the military’s primacy in the socio-symbolic sphere increased, it appropriated even larger chunks of power. This dynamic culminated in the direct rule of army, with the first martial law administration of General Ayub Khan in 1958. Ayub Khan remained in power till 1969, first as a military ruler, and later as a military-turned-civilian ruler. General Yahya Khan replaced Ayub Khan in 1969 and governed till 1971. The 1970s saw the first uninterrupted civilian rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-77). The return to democracy was short-lived as Bhutto’s government was removed by military intervention in July 1977.
General Zia-ul-Haq remained in power until his death in 1988. A democratic interlude in the 1990s was followed, yet again, by a decade of military rule (1999-2008). In this entire time frame, Pakistan’s military has penetrated the overall economy by developing its own corporate interests. The armed forces operate in the formal, informal, and illegal economy. In agriculture, the military operates dairy and stud farms, and also distributes agricultural land to its personnel. In the service industry, it operates in several areas such as education, oil and gas, private security, banking, insurance, and airlines. In the manufacturing sector, the military owns companies that manufacture commodities such as fertilizers, cement, and cereals. The military has an unmistakable presence in corporate ventures through its subsidiaries as well as individual members of the military fraternity, whether serving or retired. The net worth of the military’s business empire, thus, runs into billions of dollars.
As the demand for Pakistan had been articulated in the name of the subcontinent’s Muslims and in the context of a state structure dominated by certain demographic groups (mainly from Punjab and Urdu-speaking migrants of India), Islam became a prominent ideological idiom for the military oligarchy’s undemocratic manoeuvres in the face of pressure from ethno-nationalist, workers’ and students’ movements. In “Elite Politics in an Ideological State: The Case of Pakistan”, Asaf Husain writes: “The military-state relation conceptualises a dialectical relationship between Islam, Pakistan and the military. Without Islam, Pakistan would not have been able to come into existence; without Pakistan the military would not be able to exist; and without the military, Islam and Pakistan would be threatened. In perpetuating such a state, the military was perpetuating Islam.” Hence, Islamic ideology became an engrained feature of the Pakistani power arrangement.
The military regime in Pakistan has been substantially propped up by external aid from the US. After the Partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan, the center of imperialism shifted from the bourgeoisie of the UK to that of the US, which sought to use Pakistan as a front-line state during the Cold War. However, US imperialism could not rely on Pakistani civilian politicians because of their weakness in relation to increasingly politicized masses and the latter’s struggles for a deeper democracy, and even socialism. Civilian regimes (1947–54) could not stop popular uprisings despite savage suppression involving the arrests of the Communist Party of Pakistan’s leadership in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951 and, in 1954, the banning of the party and its fronts, including the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Democratic Students Federation (DSF).
The ruling classes in Pakistan were concerned that the communists could mold these uprisings into a generalized and sustained movement against the architectures of exploitation. Therefore, as in many other newly independent countries, the nascent American empire began to rely upon and bolster the military, which became its mode of intervention through the coup of 1958. Field Marshal Khan built Pakistan’s economy on a US-inspired model of modernization, and cultivated close diplomatic ties with American leaders in the early years of his rule. USA’s penchant for the military was reflected again in the fall of Bhutto, a vocal supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement, who quickly became unpopular with the Americans. General Zia’s brutal military dictatorship received international legitimacy when USA decided he was an invaluable ally in its anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Finally, General Musharraf was also a beneficiary of imperialism; his military takeover from civilian rule in 1999 earned him international opprobrium (Pakistan was expelled from the Commonwealth) but became legitimized once again when US turned to him for assistance in its “war on terror.” For Pakistan’s Islamist military, the post-9/11 world did little to deter USA. In fact, it brought Americans – their aid, international backing, and military presence. It favored a military regime to the detriment of democratic rule. This apparently contradictory development is explained by the harmless nature of political Islam practiced by the Pakistani military. In the words of Samir Amin, “The local comprador bourgeoisies, the nouveaux riches, beneficiaries of current imperialist globalization, generously support political Islam.”
“The latter has renounced an anti-imperialist perspective and substituted for it an “anti-Western” (almost “anti-Christian”) position, which obviously only leads the societies concerned into an impasse and hence does not form an obstacle to the deployment of imperialist control over the world system.” With continued international backing for this pro-imperialist form of Islamism, the balance of forces within Pakistan has remained tilted toward the military. The current PTI administration initially tried to break the integument of praetorian Islamism by combining Pakistani nationalism with elements of anti-corruption campaigns, morality, and technocracy – part and parcel of the sociopolitical aspirations of the party’s middle-class interlocutors. However, the powerful military soon disciplined Khan, forcing him to adopt his present-day contorted and conservative rhetoric.