COLOMBO: The Pakistan army is different from armies in other countries in as much as it manages to be in power even without being in the seat of power.

This extraordinary saga began way back in 1953, within six years of the country’s independence, when the first Pakistani Commander-in Chief, Gen.Ayub Khan, was invited to be Defense and Home Minister to end political chaos. In 1958, Ayub seized absolute power in a military coup, the first of several coups in Pakistan’s 71 year history.

But even when out of the seat of power, the Pakistan army has exercised power, decisive power at that, especially when, in its view, the “national interest” demanded it.

As to how this remarkable feat is achieved is explained by a recent study conducted by Paul Staniland, Adnan Naseemmullah and Ahsan Butt.

In a recent paper entitled 'Pakistan’s Military Elite', Staniland and his colleagues describe the Pakistan army as “a highly professional army in some respects, and remarkably unprofessional in yet others. The very same individuals perform both its military – technical and political – interventionist activities.”

This, they say, is achieved by the fusion of internal bureaucratic discipline with placement of recently retired military elites in positions of civilian power.

The accent here is on “recently retired” military elites because their ties with the military are the closest. Such elites can be counted on to promote the army’s interest in the civilian institutions they are working in.

The Pakistan army is thus different from armies of many other countries, especially the Western democracies, where the army is not only under tight civilian control but is in no way involved in exercising any civilian authority.

Bureaucratic Set Up And Its Uses

Staniland and his colleagues say that there is “strong evidence of high levels of bureaucratic institutionalization and professionalism within the Pakistan Army.”

“The rules within the organization seem to be generally followed, with limited factionalism and consistent promotion pathways. There is a stark contrast between this cohesive, rational–bureaucratic organization and other political militaries racked by internal fratricide, plagued by factional rivalries, or vulnerable to divide-and-rule strategies by ruling elites, like those in 1960s Nigeria, 1970s Bangladesh, or 1990s Indonesia.”

The Pakistan army’s image as a well organized, internally consistent and stable force is one of the sources of its political credibility and strength.

In the midst of almost endemic political chaos, infighting and corruption in Pakistan, the army stands out as a unique institution, a model which other institutions will do well to follow.

This gives the army moral authority among Pakistanis. Though the people have, from time to time, rejected military regimes and struggled for civilian democratic rule, they have also not been averse to letting the army set the national house in order in times of political chaos.

Collective Responsibility: The Corps Commanders

The Corps Commanders, headed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), constitute the core of the Pakistan army. It is this body which makes all the key decisions, both military and political. Its membership is not based on the Army Chief’s personal fancies or prejudices but on bureaucratic principles.

The path to the post of Corps Commander is well laid out and traversed consistently as in a bureaucracy. The qualifications have changed with changing needs but the path to it is well set and predictable at any given time.

As a social group too, the Corps Commanders are well fairly homogeneous and unchanging. In Staniland’s study, 55% were from Punjab and 21% from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Only 3% were from Sindh, 3% from Kashmir, and 2% from Balochistan. Age-wise too, the Corps Commanders were a homogenous group largely between 54 and 58. They would also retire more or less at the same time.

“The general clustering of the retirement age suggests an institutionalized organization. In personalized or factionalized militaries, we would expect much higher variance, with favored officers – the son-in-law of the dictator, members of the dominant faction – being promoted early and often,” Staniland points out.

The Corps Commanders have more or less the same service background. 66% are from the infantry, 15% from armor, 14 % from artillery, and less than 5 % from engineering or from air defense. This blend has not dramatically changed over time.

And the Pakistan army is basically an infantry army. Eight of ten army chiefs came from the infantry. This reflects the composition of the Pakistan military as whole as 21 of the 25 Divisions are infantry Divisions.

Role of Retirement Benefits

A key reason for the stability of the army as an institution at the top level is the assurance of good retirement benefits, the researchers say.

Retired Generals and other senior officers are seamlessly accommodated in government institutions and in the many “Fauji” or army owned commercial enterprises such as Mari Gas, Fauji Fertilizer, Fauji Cement, Askari Cement and Askari Bank.

Over 60% of Corps Commanders worked for the government immediately after retiring. Personnel in these positions change roughly every three years, providing opportunities for the newly retired.

The Fauji enterprises are owned by the Army Welfare Trust administered by the GHQ. But they are public limited companies listed in the stock exchange. Thus, they are as much part of the army structure as they are part of the civilian structure, and represent the military-civilian linkage in the strongest and the most enduring form.

Close and continuous involvement with civilian activities contributes to the army’s influence over civilian life.

“The placement of retired (military) elites has not shifted much across periods of military and civilian rule since the late 1980s: even when back in the barracks, the army has deep reach into the economy and bureaucracy,” the authors point out.

Land and Housing

The Pakistan army is involved in acquisition of land both to provide retiring officers with residential property and to participate in the lucrative property market in Pakistan, the researchers say.

“Retired officers often own more than one property; the pyramidal structure of the Army is operative when it comes to land perks. After 15 years of service, officers are entitled to one residential plot, after 25 a second, after 28 a third, and after 32 a fourth.”

“Thus, selling or renting housing to civilians is a common practice, and military officers and civilians commingle in most of the ostensibly military housing companies, which have become some of the most elite locations in urban Pakistan."

The stability the military system and its consistent and lucrative links with civilian Pakistan through commercial activities obviate the need for entering politics to make a living after retirement, the authors contend.


Pakistan army lays great emphasis on the education of its officer cadre. Corps Commanders are either graduates or post graduates from the military academies. Commandants of the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) and the Command and Staff College often become Corps Commanders. And this is increasingly so because the modern army needs leaders with skills other than those acquired on the battle field.

“Of the 54 officers who left service in or prior to 2000 about whom we have prior command data, 35% held a General Head Quarters (GHQ) staff position; 33% held a combat formation command, and 15% commanded an army school. By contrast, of the 96 retirees after 2000, GHQ positions accounted for 48% of pre-corps positions, heads of army schools for 16%, and a combat formation command for only 11%,” the paper says.

The data show the increasing importance being given to academic attainments after 2000.

The other reason for education is to be able to take post-retirement top jobs in the Fauji companies. These need qualifications as the companies are commercial enterprises and answerable to shareholders.

Inter-Services Intelligence

Even the “shadowy” Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main intelligence arm of the Pakistani State, is as bureaucratically organized as the rest of the military and is inextricably linked with the army structure.

It is not a rogue institution which has license to do anything it thinks fit. It is firmly controlled by the army hierarchy. It is not closed or autonomous unit because ISI officers enter from other units and exit to join combat or staff positions in other units. An intelligence background is not absolutely necessary to join the ISI. Its internal authority structure is as bureaucratically run as it is in the rest of the army which ensures continuity and predictability, the authors say.

Like the rest of the army, the ISI is also a Pashtun–Punjabi outfit. But the ISI’s commanding elite are more broadly spread across army units than the Corp Commanders: 41% are from the infantry, 23% from artillery, 18% from armor, and 18% from engineering or signals.