The Attrition strategy: a new normal in the politics of Pakistan?

Two legislations have successfully raised the costs of an old style coup, making the strategy of attrition a preferred mode for army led political interference.

As the dust settles in the protracted power struggle between the Pakistani army and the elected leadership, a comparison of the methods employed by the army in similar situations in the past explains the changing contours of Pakistan’s politics.


For a start, the army did not employ the old-style coup that it has perfected through practice on several occasions in the past. Traditionally, such a military coup has followed minor variants of the standard military takeover algorithm: In the first stage, the army takes control of the government citing serious threats to internal or external security. The political leadership is demonised as a self-serving class, incapable of serving the nation. In the second stage, the takeover is validated by the judiciary through the now well ensconced doctrine of necessity. This term was first used in 1954 to validate the then Governor General Ghulam Mohammed’s dismissal of the constituent assembly on the grounds that the assembly did not represent the people of Pakistan. The Chief Court of Pakistan in its landmark judgment invoked the thirteenth century jurist Henry Bretton’s conception of state control which said “that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity”. And thus was born the doctrine of necessity which was also used to give judicial validity to the coups led by Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. In the third and final stage of the takeover, the parliament itself is made to relinquish its power through amendments (example: the eighth and the seventeenth amendments), thus establishing the army as the supreme decision making body.

There are two reasons that the army had to forgo its favorite overthrow strategy outlined above and opt for a softer version of the coup instead. Interestingly, both the reasons are related to breakthroughs made by the previous Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government.

First, it is the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution (passed in April, 2010) that has made an old-style coup difficult. Before this amendment, the Article 6 of the constitution interpreted any attempt to “abrogate or subvert” the constitution as an act of high treason. It said nothing of “holding the constitution in abeyance”, a loophole that was conjured by Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf to undermine the constitutional democracy. The eighteenth amendment now explicitly makes “holding the constitution in abeyance” an act on high treason that cannot be validated by any court, including the Supreme Court. This legislation can, by no means, prevent an overly eager army from subverting civilian rule, but it has definitely raised the game one notch higher. It is now particularly tough to get the judiciary to execute the second stage of the algorithm with the eighteenth amendment in place. Several more steps will now need to be taken to undermine the political process to preclude it from being labelled as an act of “high treason” by the courts. This partly explains the army’s adoption of an attrition strategy which was executed by means of orchestrated protests from two fringe political players on the streets of Islamabad.

Second, the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman (KLB) Act (2010) which authorises US aid to Pakistan has also played a role in dissuading the army from affecting a checkmate. The act has, inter alia made security assistance to Pakistan preconditioned on the army’s role as a non-player in the country’s polity. Seen from a rational-bureaucratic perspective, the army would face a severe backlash from within if it has to settle for a reduced inflow of funds as a consequence of a coup at a time when it is engaged on several fronts across the country. It has hence been forced to adopt a strategy of attrition that does not prima facie implicate it. The KLB Act, then is one example of a successful exogenous intervention that has served its purpose in this scenario.

The two reasons above, have possibly altered the modus operandi for an army takeover for the foreseeable future by raising the costs of such a likelihood. Legislations and peaceful exogenous interventions can achieve only as much in a country where the dominant narrative has been shaped by the military for several decades. And by no means, is this achievement a small one. It has a significant number of positive externalities. The government has managed to survive with unanimous support from the parliament. Parties across the political spectrum came together in support of democracy.  Even though some compromises would have been unavoidable, it will live on to tell the tale of resisting the powerful army’s influence. It has proved that the army’s political actions are no longer unchallengeable. The civil-military tensions over the past several months are indicative of the fact that the civilian leadership backed by a strong majority is not ready to acquiesce to the military. This bodes well for the fragile democracy in Pakistan.

Given that no government can substantially increase its capacity in the near term, there will be many more soft coup attempts by the military seeking to exploit the ineffectiveness of a civilian government. The only alternative open to the democratic forces is to counter the army with their own attrition strategy. Legislations, like the ones inked by the previous government that raised the costs for an army takeover while cementing civilian authority can be one such move. Meaningful engagements of the civilian government with all the major external players – Saudi Arabia, US, China and India will help accelerate the process of civilian supremacy. Over the long term, the government will have to expose the ill effects of a military rule to change the dominant narrative. Finally, in this game of power against a dominant force, the civilian government must devise its own the strategy of attrition.

Photo: Asad Durrani