More than 200 years ago, Alexis De Tocqueville warned that a large standing army in any country was a threat to democracy, that democracy and a large standing army were incompatible. Ever since the French Revolution all modern governments have faced the problem of relations between civilian governments and military. Most of them have feared a potential military takeover from time to time. Napoleon Bonaparte provided the first modern example of this phenomenon and, for a very long time, its characteristic brand-name, Bonapartism.

Now virtually all modern states have taken the view, at least since Napoleon, that the ideal relation between civilian government and the military is the subordination of the latter to the former. As the debates of the 1920s in Soviet Union bear witness, Lenin was extremely sensitive to the possible danger of Bonapartism. His determination that army must be subservient to the party was unqualified. Until now, communist regimes, including, the former Soviet Union, Cuba and China have been remarkably successful in maintaining civilian supremacy, as even acknowledged national heroes like Marshal Zhukov were to discover.

General De Gaulle freed himself of the military conspirators who brought him to power as soon as he could and subordinated the army to civilian control. In France, attempts by the French army to coerce the politicians were, on the whole, remarkably unsuccessful. During the Third Republic, whenever army confronted civilian rulers, as during the Boulanger and Dreyfus crises, the civilians invariably won. The revolt of the Generals against Hitler was a total disaster. The outcome was clear. The army stood by the Fuhrer until the bitter end.

What was Mr. Jinnah’s concept of the role of the military in the affairs of independent Pakistan? And how has this role changed during the last more than 67 years of its existence?

On the day of Pakistan’s independence, August 14, 1947, Mr. Jinnah, who had just become Governor General, scolded one young Pakistani officer. The officer, according to Asghar Khan, had complained that: “instead of giving us the opportunity to serve our country in positions where our natural talents and native genius could be used to the greatest advantage, important posts are being entrusted, as had been done in the past, to foreigners. British officers have been appointed to head the three fighting services, and a number of other foreigners are in key senior appointments. This was not our understanding of how Pakistan should be run”.

Mr. Jinnah was deliberate in his answer. He warned the officer concerned: “not to forget that the armed forces were the servants of the people and you do not make national policy; its is we, the civilians, who decide these issues and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted”.

Years later, General Zia, while addressing a press conference in Tehran, said, “What is the Constitution? It is a booklet with ten or twelve pages. I can tear them up and say that tomorrow we shall live under a different system”.

On October 8, 1958, taking advantage of the weakness of the political institutions, President Iskandar Mirza in collusion with General Ayub Khan, declared Martial Law, abrogated the 1956 Constitution, and dismissed the central and provincial assemblies. The myth that General Ayub was not the co-author and co-sponsor of the coup was quickly dispelled when Mirza was dismissed on October 24, and Ayub Khan appointed himself as President in his place.

Ayub set a bad precedent. Others merely followed his example. He knew if the army once got drawn into political life, it could not withdraw itself from the situation. He opened the way for future usurpers to capture political power with the help of the army of Pakistan. The history of Pakistan can be summed up “as the sound of heavy boots ascending the stairs and the rustle of satin slippers coming down”. After 67 years, Pakistan’s fake democracy still operates at gunpoint.

The point that is central to this analysis is that, like it or not, in the final analysis, political sovereignty in Pakistan resides neither in the electorate, nor the parliament, nor the judiciary, nor even the constitution which has superiority over all the institutions its creates. It resides where the coercive power resides.

When the history of Pakistan comes to be written, the verdict of history will be that periodic intervention by the army in the politics of Pakistan destroyed Pakistan. The military has contributed, directly or indirectly, to our generation’s anguish and sense of betrayal, to our loss of confidence in our rulers, in our country, in our future, in ourselves and bears a heavy responsibility for the mess it has left behind. We have a horrible past, a troubled present, and an uncertain future but we don’t have to succumb to doomsday prophecies. Unfortunately, nobody can undo the past. We can’t go back in time and fix the tragic mistakes of the past, but we can make sure that we don’t repeat them in the future. One thing is clear, army rule is not the answer to the nation’s problems. This has been demonstrated time and again. Einstein once said that to keep trying the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different result is the definition of insanity.

America is the greatest threat to democracy in the third world countries. The tragedy of the third world in the 1950s and 1960s was, and continues to be, that the United States, when it came to the point, preferred ‘Khaki to ‘democracy’ – Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Tse-tung – Mobutu to Lumumba, Ky or Thieu to Ho–Chi–Minh, Ayub Khan to Feroze Khan Noon, Zia ul Haq to Bhutto, Musharraf to Nawaz Sharif and any Latin General to Fidel Castro.

Without American interference in the politics of Pakistan, the history of Pakistan would have been different. Today, nuclear Pakistan has lost its independence on General Musharraf’s watch. It is now virtually an American satellite sans its manhood, its honor, its dignity, and self-respect. If you want to know what happens to an ill-led and ill-governed small country which attached itself to a powerful country like the United States, visit Pakistan. Unfortunately, our civilian rulers behave as if Pakistan is still a Sovereign, independent, democratic country. This is the malady Pakistan is suffering from.

Military intervention in politics is a symptom of political or economic failure. The lesson of history is that the only defence against a military coup in any country is strong political institutions – rule of law, an independent judiciary, free, fair and impartial election, a strong, vigilant parliament and independent media, a strong, neutral civil service, and last but not least, a corruption-free government answerable to parliament – and nothing else. A democratic government can be given to any people, but not every people can maintain it. If people refuse to face reality, if they are not prepared to defend democratic institutions; if they are not prepared to make any sacrifice for their sake, democracy will not hold the field, as has happened in Pakistan, time after time, and can be snuffed out by the army any time it likes. We lost half the country when we drifted away from the democratic path in October 1958. We risk losing the residual half if we do not learn from history.

The writer is a retired civil servant and senior political analyst.