Pakistan’s Entrenched Deep State

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Academic and policy analysts generally agree that Pakistan’s army and directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, exert a controlling influence over most of Pakistan’s core state policies. This entrenched, unelected, and opaque “deep state” is complemented by a near-permanent “establishment” comprised of a relatively small cadre of politicians, senior bureaucrats, and well-connected business families who have led, managed, and owned most of the country since its independence in 1947.

The ties between Pakistan’s elite civilians and generals are often mutually reinforcing, but ultimately the military has enjoyed a coercive upper hand. That dominance was temporarily broken, only after the army suffered a devastating defeat in its 1971 war with India, after which the civilian politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asserted control. Bhutto reshuffled Pakistan’s domestic political economy by nationalizing the holdings of some of Pakistan’s wealthiest families, yet even before he was removed from office and hanged by General Zia-ul-Haq, Bhutto had brought the army back into the fold, ostensibly to aid his own effort to consolidate his political hold over the nation. So to be clear, Pakistan has not been a simple story of “civilians versus the military,” but one of a shifting cast of elite civilians who have all been, at various times and in different ways, aligned with or co-opted by the military.

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