Rabia Chaudhry: “The Military as a Popular Development Actor and “Savior” of Pakistan”

Rabia Chaudhry is currently working as a junior researcher on governance issues in Pakistan at the Center for Development Research (ZEF).

What is your research all about?

RC: Core business of militaries worldwide is about defending their country from internal and external security threats. Modern day militaries in many countries, however, are expected to assist the state in labour intensive, non-defence related activities such as flood and earthquake relief. I am at looking how this impacts the balance of civil and military relations. Using Pakistan military as a case study, I am exploring the underlying mechanisms and methods through which militaries can use these additional or supplementary competencies to their own advantage. For instance how they challenge the accepted boundaries of civil-military relations. The military in Pakistan is very active in strictly developmental arenas like building infrastructure and higher education.

Why have you been working on this topic?

RC: Pakistan faced military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999. At the times in question public opinion was overwhelmingly inclined in favour of the military. But it is equally important to note that each time the military’s removal from power was a result of popular uprising and civic movements against it. The current situation is particularly intriguing. Despite having a ‘democratically elected civil government’ in Islamabad, de facto power resides with the military. And yet the public sympathy favours the military as opposed to the elected civil government. It was this very paradox which prompted me to select this topic.

To which results did your study lead?

RC: My study is still work in progress. Currently I am midway through the data analysis and it would be difficult at this point to share a definitive list of results of the study as such. That said, based on the data set I have gathered and analysed thus far there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that the military is very popular indeed in Pakistan. One of the ways it achieves this is by taking up developmental activities like road building, education, and housing which strictly speaking are responsibilities of the civilian state. The way it justifies this to itself and the public at large is by claiming that ‘defence’ is an umbrella term that includes an array of socio-economic activities concerning the running of the country. My sense of the matter is that this might not be as much of an overt attempt to destabilise the government as it seems on the face of it. Over the years the military has convinced both itself and the public that it is supposed to play this particular role in the country. The questions as to what kind of state are we then looking at then, the challenges it poses to the common understanding of militaries’ role and what are the long term implications thereof remain pending at the moment.

How will your findings impact the balance of political power in Pakistan?

RC: My study is not one that calls for implementation. It tries to expose certain ground realities of political power in Pakistan. Instead of offering neatly packaged solutions to the institutional and political imbalance in the country, my study takes a step back and tries to identify and understand factors that have led to the creation of the current state of affairs. The advantage of that is twofold; the study not only provides an orientation to anyone not familiar with the country and wanting to work in the development arena in Pakistan, but on a theoretical level opens new possibilities within which civil and military relations have been understood so far. Just because a situation exists in Pakistan does not mean there is not a possibility of it being replicated elsewhere. Therefore not only is this study an insight into the political climate of Pakistan but it challenges established boundaries of interaction between the state and is military.

Do you understand the trust that the Pakistani people give to the military to run their country?

RC: The Pakistan people’s trust in the military to deliver and whether or not they want the military to “run their country” are two entirely different questions. There is no doubt about the fact that at the moment military’s popularity amongst the mases is at its highest ever. There exist multiple polls which back this also. That said, public opinion is definitely not inclined in favour of an out and out military takeover as it were. While the public consciousness certainly perceives the military as the go-to solution to a vast array of its day to day problems (like anti-corruption drives against individuals as well as politicians or political unrest to internal security) it certainly does not support another coup. And it is this very paradox which makes the situation particularly fascinating for the researcher like me.

What are your recommendations to international institutions to better foster development in Pakistan?

RC: Development discourse operates with established civil and military binaries which international instructions and transnational development agencies subscribe to. My research on the other hand makes a case for the existence of dynamic interactions between the political, military and social sectors within a society. For instance a belief commonly held within the international development community is that development is the responsibility of the civil state which in turn represents the will of the people. My research turns attention to the possibility that in some countries the assumption that the people are truly represented by the political institutions might not hold true. Or at least might be far more complex than it initially seems. This in my opinion can be instrumental especially when developmental aid agencies seek to work in Pakistan and even other countries where militaries command public sympathy.

The interview was conducted by Mélanie Bailly.