The Star--Crossed Crescents

Essay by Michael Fisher

Written just weeks before the failed 2016 coup against the Erdogan government, the prevailing thought was that relative stability had left direct military direction in the past.

What can be learned from comparing the political roles that the military have played in Pakistan and Turkey?

Relationships between military groups, political organisations and the demos of states are fraught with complexities. Historical events, vested interests and regional loyalties compound the struggle these interdependent entities endure to achieve their goals. As the world is replete with examples of such propinquity, researchers may find fertile ground for comparison and contrast between states that have to account for a politically active military. Pakistan and Turkey are two such states and whilst sharing some striking similarities and a kinship of sorts, some salient differences are revealed by their juxtaposition. It is these states that this essay will examine in order to answer the titular question and gain greater understanding of the relevance of military actors in the field of politics. Firstly, attention will be given to the history and significance of military organisations in those respective states before the political roles and actions of the relative groups and the consequences of their involvement are approached. Finally moving from the historical perspective to the modern, the current condition of Turkey and Pakistan will be looked at with a view to gaining a holistic cognizance of the ramifications of military political involvement in the states.

In the aftermath of World War Two, Britain had become acutely aware that its time as a colonial empire was drawing to an end in Southeast Asia. India had begun a concerted push for independence and in doing so a great deal of apprehension was engendered within the Islamic and Sikh minorities of the traditionally Hindu nation. With rising violence perhaps giving impetus, and a seemingly good chance of a more peaceable, secular secession under the guidance of Muslim figurehead Muhammad Ali Jinna, The House of Commons announced that two separate states would be established in India, to be known as India and Pakistan on the 15th of August 1947. Due to the rushed and nascent nature of the newly arrived state of Pakistan a vacuum of sorts was apparent. The ruling party ‘The Muslim League’ was comprised of a relatively inexperienced political elite, and they were faced with numerous problems such as mass two-way migration and high expectations with limited resources. Remnants of the region’s colonial past however were able to maintain, expand and consolidate their power. Government officials, the civil service and the military, comprised of organised and well experienced bureaucracies largely supplanted Pakistan’s civilian government in the postcolonial era.

Much like Pakistan, Turkey had previously gained independence from an empire in decline when the Ottoman Empire fell after the First World War. Former General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established a secular modern republic in 1923 after rejecting The Sèvres Treaty, with which the Entente forces sought to impose severe terms on the region. Much like Pakistan’s military, the Turkish armed forces were highly influenced by European models. It can be surmised then that both these states were formed as a result of the World Wars and were important enough for the large empires that occupied them, to invest in a home grown military to defend them and their interests. Of great importance is the fact that both states were created by charismatic leaders at the helm, Jinna and Ataturk, who both espoused the concept of secularism. Both perhaps protecting the future cohesion of their states by promoting modernity and avoiding ethnic and religious partisanship in integral organisations.

In comparing the formation of Turkey and Pakistan, values of modernity relative to the time period, efficiency and secularism are seen to be imbued in the military organisations of both states. Representing something of a microcosm to the mixture of traditional colonial past and a dynamic rush towards a nation-state that defined the actual formation of both states. Differences are evident however, in considerations as to how much power the military should wield. Ataturk for example, despite being a highly decorated soldier, vowed never to wear a military uniform as a politician, stating that the salvation of Turkey would be in economic development and education. Implicit is at least a modicum of restraint on military power from a figure respected in the military hierarchy. There appears to be no evidence of such checks and balances in terms of Pakistan’s military, however for a time the Pakistani military did act much like the kamelist Turkish authority. This divergence seems to have had serious implications in the fortunes of the two states, Pakistan later becoming widely regarded as a failed state. Both militaries however, apparently enjoyed great public support. In Turkey the army was directly responsible for the heroic liberation of the Turkish from foreign occupation. The Pakistani army played no such part in gaining independence, however palpable existential threat in the form of a hostile India ensured and continues to ensure support for a strong military. Elucidating a large reason for the traditionally politically reserved Pakistani army’s move towards political activity. So strong was the fear of destruction it was justified in taking more roles to the point of having de facto veto powers in a garrison state.

Actual roles played by both military institutions soon moved from traditional defence against external threats to protection of public interest against threats emanating from within. Though with different raisons d’ètre, the Turkish army viewing itself and being viewed by the public as protectors of Ataturk’s ideology, whereas Pakistan’s army stood as defenders against very tangible threats of weakness against physical destruction. Within a few decades both Pakistan and Turkey saw their militaries stage coups against numerous governments, at times holding power and at times allowing democratically elected leaders to take place. It is not untrue to submit that at times the juntas did have the good of their nations at heart, diverting the fate of them from political, social and economic chaos and enacting martial law where pertinent, however it would be naïve to believe a doctrine of necessity was not drummed up in an effort to afford army officials elite status.

Pakistan’s first coup occurred in 1958, Ayub Khan deposing President Iskandar Mirza and taking the role for himself. At the time there was a general consensus that, after four presidents in the space of two years, the parliamentary system was too weak to govern. He retained power until 1969 when martial law was enacted by General Yahya Khan. Following Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the army was thoroughly discredited and a new constitution was formulated, with the Pakistan People’s Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto rising to power. Arguably this was one of the countries’ longest forays into experimental democracy lasting until 1977 when widespread protests over the legitimacy of the elections once again led to martial law. General Zia-ul-Haq gained control for the next ten years, leaving an indelible mark on Pakistan that outlines the exacerbation of issues caused by overt and covert intervention not seen in Turkey. After 1988 a series of poorly performing governments instigated another successful military coup by Pervez Musharraf in 1999 which lasted another ten years. Under the shroud of this long period of turmoil, Inter-Services Intelligence more often referred to as the ISI, consolidated military power by way of infiltrating most every important institution. Tracking various conspiracies and promoting a hysterical approach towards India and later terroristic threats. The Turkish equivalent, the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, has not impacted politics in the same fashion, at least not in support of the army, being a largely unrelated organisation. It may be inferred that interference by intelligence services can just as easily hinder democratic process as it can nourish it.

Turkey has endured intervention at five points. The first in 1960 was brought about by young officers in order to restore a march towards a strong democracy when upheaval occurred, partly due to dwindling aid from the Marshall Plan. A purge of officials gave way to the reinstatement of democratic process, though the army loomed over politics until the mid-sixties. Süleyman Demirel gained the position of Prime Minister until 1971 when the military simply oversaw caretaker governments in a coup by memorandum. With good reason, political assassinations had reached astonishing levels and street protests were consistent, the political left and nationalistic elements verging on civil war. Partly invoked by fear of communism it was the more right-leaning factions of the senior army officers that established authoritarian rule. Another classical takeover took place in 1980 due to spiralling political violence, turnover was quick and indeed successful, with massive inflation being repaired shortly after intervention. In 1997 the Turkish military became more sophisticated, stimulating a reactive public to protest against the Islamic Welfare Party and issuing recommendations. In these coups we can see improvements not echoed in those of Pakistan.

It is reasonable to take into account the geopolitical positions of the two states. Both occupying large, strategically significant areas. Pakistan received large sums of aid from the United States as it sought to gain influence in Asia as the Cold War progressed, this proved have consequences for the young nation, the military being the primary benefactor of the superpower’s handouts. This was accelerated in a sense as what became a conceptual problem for America, namely the choice to fund both India and Pakistan, engendered a security dilemma based arms race between the antagonistic states. Culminating in both states arming themselves with nuclear weapons. It became obvious that in a regional climate of mutually assured destruction, hope for co-operation and thriving trade was unrealistic, along with any ideas of a base of democracy in Southeast Asia. There were further issues still when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan just to the north of Pakistan, coinciding with the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq as Chief Martial Law Administrator. A strict Islamist, ties with the mujahedeen and the ISI were fostered under his governance in order to combat the Russians and for other purposes. Like America, alliances with Islamist fighters have at times come back to haunt Pakistan. Popularly termed a “Kalashnikov culture”, proliferation of light armaments, training structures and fundamentalist beliefs combined to create an environment of uncertainty and conflict especially amongst Shia and Sunni communities. Turkey suffered no such pains, only recently has its military begun to be strongly influenced by Islamic ideals under Erdogan. Arguably it is improper to suggest they are even of the same nature as those that have sparked militant jihadist activity. Unlike Pakistan the stronger economy of Turkey has also been able to resist foreign backed sectarian madrassas taking root, as such Wahhabism and other hard-line forms of Islam have not taken hold. Turkey, in close proximity and with ambitions regain historical inclusion in Europe, has felt pressure to conform to European standards of reform and liberalization. With this comes to concept that a state must be ran by a civilian government that has some degree of control over the army, and a massive difference between the operation roles of the Pakistani and Turkish military.

Financially, the Pakistani army accounts for an astonishing amount of the state’s expenditure despite poor economic performance. Further still it is so ingrained that much of the production is controlled by the army, accounting for 7% of heavy industry, its cannot be challenged as pulling support would cause great instability. In Turkey proportional share of given resources is high however civilian requirements have brought such spending into question. Such considerations have led to a much better economic performance. In sociographical terms, despite both states imposing mass migration during their formation, Turkey, with shared language and uninterrupted land mass, has enjoyed a national unity which Pakistan has not. To exemplify the impact of societal and economic factors, the recruitment of officers and soldiers may be observed. In Turkey men from the lower echelons of society yet of fair ability could pursue a good career as an officer no matter what region they came from. In the modern day it has become harder to fill ranks as many more career opportunities present themselves in the strong economy. Contrasted with Pakistan the army is and always has been comprised of recruits from the Punjabi and Pashtun regions, causing consternation in other provinces, and is reminiscent of a shared past with India’s caste system that should have disappeared with the effort to wipe evidence of shared culture from the annals of history. With few paths to alternative careers the army has little trouble attracting recruits.

In conclusion it seems proper to regard the relative successes and failures of the respective militaries and their incursions into politics with their emergence into the modern world. Both having risen from old empires and the struggle for independent and effective democracies through no small amount of strife. Turkey’s military has indeed done Ataturk justice, nudging the state on course when needed and standing clear in a paternal and nurturing way. Pakistan’s army however has become a barely veiled vehicle for dictatorship through misfortune and a litany of mistakes. It is clear military involvement in politics can build or break down democracy. As both states were formed with aspirations of becoming healthy democracies, the most important thing to recognise in comparison is how Turkey can avoid Pakistan’s errors and how Pakistan can emulate Turkey’s best practices.


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