Supporters of Pakistan's political and religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, hold posters and flags, during a protest in favour of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, during a rally in Karachi August 20, 2013.
Athar Hussain / Reuters

Central to the fight against al Qaeda and the stability of South and Central Asia, Pakistan is one of today's most important and complex countries. At the core of Pakistani politics lies a 600,000-strong, nuclear-armed military, an institution that has ruled this impoverished nation of 160 million directly or indirectly for more than half its existence. Much of the military's power derives from Pakistan's enduring rivalry with neighboring India over the disputed state of Kashmir, a struggle that has generated at least three wars since 1947. The soldiers have found it easy to intervene in politics on the pretext that corrupt civilian politicians undermine Pakistani stability and security, but they have been abject failures once in power themselves. In fact, military rule has typically stoked the country's ethnic and regional divisions, most violently expressed in the secession of East Pakistan to form the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971. The military's flirtation with Islamist militant groups today, meanwhile, threatens to destabilize Pakistan, its region, and the world at large.

The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. By Ayesha Jalal. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
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This meticulously researched book refutes conventional theories that the demand for an independent state of Pakistan was driven by immutable differences between Hindus and Muslims or British divide-and-rule strategies. Ayesha Jalal focuses on the role of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his strategic bargaining with the British and the Indian National Congress during the endgame of British rule. She shows that in the 1940s the Muslim League under Jinnah put forward a demand for "Pakistan" mainly as a strategic ploy to safeguard the interests of India's Muslims within a broader consociation of India. But the secular Congress' intransigence to concede to the League's communal demands helped precipitate the partition of India. While the strategic use of religion allowed Jinnah to position himself as the sole spokesman for the Muslim community in India, the political geography of the subcontinent allowed the British use his own "two nation" theory as a razor to slice the two main Muslim majority provinces, the Punjab and Bengal, along communal lines in order to protect their Sikh and Hindu minorities. As a result, what Jinnah got was a "moth-eaten Pakistan" composed of a divided Punjab and a remote, noncontiguous East Bengal. 

The Idea of Pakistan. By Stephen P. Cohen. Brookings Institution Press, 2004.
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In this book, Stephen P. Cohen, America's most seasoned expert on Pakistan, provides a necessary corrective to the popular, alarmist view that Pakistan is a state on the brink of collapse. Cohen's central argument is that the country's identity has always been contested, with visions ranging from Jinnah's relative secularism to radical Islamism. Impressive in its breadth and scope, the book spans such topics as the nature of the Pakistani state, its foreign policy, the army, domestic politics and parties, regional and ethnic conflict, the role of Islam, education, demographic trends, and the economy. Toward the end, Cohen sketches several possible futures for Pakistan: more of the same (military-dominated autocracy), genuine democracy, an Islamist state, a failed state, or a ruined post-bellum Pakistan (in the case of a war with India). He predicts that Pakistan is likely to remain suspended between weak democracy and "benevolent autocracy." The book concludes with thoughtful recommendations on U.S. policy options vis-à-vis Pakistan.

The Military and Politics in Pakistan: 1947-1997. By Hasan Askari Rizvi. Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2000.
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Originally published more than 30 years ago, Hasan Askari Rizvi's book was the first in-depth study of the military and politics in Pakistan. It skillfully traces the transformation of a professional "ex-colonial" army into a political one within the context of Pakistan's acute insecurity regarding India and its participation in U.S.-led Cold War alliances. Risvi sees political decay, not military failure, at the heart of Pakistan's praetorianism: weak political institutions, low levels of regime legitimacy, and civilian reliance on soldiers in civil administration, he argues, created an opening for the military to expand its role into civilian life. Over time, persistent military intervention and rule have aided and abetted the development and entrenchment of the army's expansive corporate interests in the state, society, and the economy.

Military Control in Pakistan: The Parallel State. By Mazhar Aziz. Routledge, 2009.
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In this more recent volume on the military and politics, Mazhar Aziz challenges the view that nonmilitary factors, such as political instability or ethnic divisions, explain military dominance in Pakistan. Instead, he argues, the answer lies in military institutional interests. The author skillfully weds history with theory to show that military control was spawned by elite policy decisions made during the formative years after independence, such as the co-optation and socialization of military officers in civilian governance and the move to ally with the United States. The institutional legacies of these choices generated military interests in creating a "parallel" state that has precluded any lasting transition to a democratic alternative.

Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. By Husain Haqqani. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.
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This timely book by the veteran Pakistani journalist Husain Haqqani -- who was recently appointed Pakistani ambassador to the United States -- offers insights into the often puzzling links between the military and the Islamists, exposing the supposed "khaki bulwark against extremism" as the actual facilitator and beneficiary of radical Islamism. Haqqani shows how the Pakistani state has played the Hindu, or India, card in order to unify a multiethnic polity around an Islamic national identity. In the process, the military has sponsored and supported Islamist proxies both to nullify demands for democratic representation and to balance regional threats emanating from India in the east and a traditionally irredentist Afghanistan in the west. This historically entrenched coalition between the mosque and military, Haqqani points out, continues to pose a serious threat to regional and international security. 

A Case of Exploding Mangoes. By Mohammed Hanif. Knopf, 2008.
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Journalist Mohammed Hanif's first novel is a punchy satire of the U.S.-allied military junta of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the self-appointed guardian of piety and virtue. The fictional story revolves around a factual incident, Zia's mysterious death in a plane crash in August 1988 that also killed the American ambassador and most of the top military leadership. The novel is narrated by a homosexual air force cadet with his own axe to grind against Zia, and the plot serves as a crafty reminder of the conspiracy theories that typically follow the assassinations and deaths of military and political figures in Pakistan. The motley crew of suspects includes Zia's intelligence chief; a Maoist secretary general of the Sweeper's Union; and even a crow haplessly (or not) sucked into the plane's engines. Laced with the characteristic buffoonery of military life, the novel takes the reader from the fortified presidential palace to the Inter Services Intelligence torture chambers. With the CIA-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan as its backdrop, the story penetrates deep into the shadowy world of crafty, paranoid, and two-faced army generals, doing so with an irreverent wit and aplomb.

  • AQIL SHAH is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University.
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