No one should be surprised to read that in Pakistan the army has taken charge, established military courts, derailed democracy, brought television and other media under military control. Nor should one be surprised to learn that foreign policy and national security were being directly run by the army. Many similar situations have occurred in Pakistan since 1958, when the army first came to power in a gradual coup, declared martial law, and ruled for a decade. The country has for years been under partial military rule, outright martial law, or military authority disguised as presidential rule.
But the arrangement that has evolved over the last six months is the strangest so far: the elected government remains in place but has few powers, and no longer rules the country. The media, opposition political parties, Parliament, and the intelligentsia are trying to resist the gradual military takeover but they are weak and ineffectual.
The single worst legacy of military rule since the 1970s, the time of the loss of East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—has been a ruinous foreign policy that has made enemies out of most of Pakistan’s neighbors owing to the safe havens that Islamic extremists from these countries have carved out in Pakistan. It is well known that such havens exist in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Balochistan, but they are also located in many other parts of the country, from Lahore near the Indian border to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
Because of its fear of India, Pakistan has been turned into a garrison state with a persisting paranoia about being surrounded by hostile countries and dominated by a demanding, belligerent United States. Yet the Pakistani army is the seventh-largest in the world with some 642,000 soldiers, 500,000 reserves, and an arsenal of 120 nuclear weapons.
Still, since September 11, 2001, the army has often been ineffectual. Pakistani extremists have killed up to 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 15,000 members of the Pakistan military. Pakistan is living in the midst of a partially self-created bloodbath of terrorism that is more comparable to Iraq and Nigeria than to India or Bangladesh.
That is one side of the picture. Another, equally true and supported by many, is that between periods of military rule Pakistan has generally declined under incompetent and corrupt elected governments whose politicians depend on patronage, bribes, and a backward feudal culture to retain their seats in Parliament while making sure that true democratic institutions never take root. Bereft of plausible leaders, the political class has for decades failed to articulate a vision for Pakistan; it has been unable to lift the country from its economic morass, wage…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.