Though no longer in service, I was told that there was a big sigh of relief down the ranks when India mobilised its forces in 2002. They could now move to their battle locations and make up for the time lost in collecting cooked-up tax refunds. Similarly, the debacle in South Waziristan and the lessons learnt from operations in Swat also provided the army with the much-needed pretext to start training for, and fight­ing, what was now called “fourth-generation warfare”.

It has been tough going ever since, with an increasing number of troops getting sucked into the war against the internal enemy. The upside is that the army not only learnt on the job, but its image too was restored in the eyes of a grateful nation. In the process, Kayani’s suc­cessor, Raheel Sharif, was applauded as the saviour of the nation. And I have reasons to believe that organisations like the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) and the National Logistics Cell (NLC) that had fallen on bad times have been rejuvenated. The former may well be in the forefront to make the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an ambitious development project) a dream come true.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the military’s role in Pakistan is that every time it assumed political power, even though it adminis­tered better, delivered on the economic front and made the right impact abroad, it soon started losing traction and on its exit was replaced by the same forces that it had tried to keep out. After lording over the country for 13 years, the Ayub/Yahya combine had to cede the reins to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had fallen out with his military god­father (Ayub Khan). Zia’s exit made way for the triumphal return of the Bhutto clan, whose head he had hanged. And Musharraf’s departure promptly brought back the two political forces that he considered to be the most evil.

It is for political or social scientists to explain this enigma in its entirety. I can only think of a few tendencies common to our military rulers, though each was of a different make and took over in different circumstances, that might have helped their antagonists to bounce back with a vengeance.

Like Napoleon, our Bonapartes were obsessed with legitimacy. One of the first to be consulted after a putsch would be a legal wizard who could recommend a prescription to make the Supreme Court endorse the military takeover.

That made Sharif-ud-Din Pirzada, the magician, and the Doctrine of Necessity, the mantra, household names in our political lexicon. The same quest for legitimacy led our men on horse­back to create a political base. Since mainstream parties or individuals with grassroots support were often reluctant to soil their democratic credentials (some of them in any case were ousted by the coup), those who jumped on the military’s bandwagon were usually the ones who needed a prop to get elected.

It did work in the beginning. The new environment, generally favourable to the military regime, and some arm-twisting, helped this miscellany of fortune seekers to power. The problem arose when their military patrons, now more or less fitting into the traditional political mould, failed to sustain the momentum and lost their sheen. The King’s Party, on the other hand, still needed their support to remain in power. The rulers in khaki too did not need much persuasion to be convinced that their mission, which in the meantime had acquired a life of its own, was not yet fulfilled. So they recycled some of the old ruses, like coercing the higher judiciary to extend its cover, and invented new ruses, like referenda, to legitimise the perpetuation of their power.

All our military rulers and their camp followers thus kept digging themselves deeper into a hole and obviously did not come out looking good.

Ayub Khan may have led the country to a phenomenal rate of growth, but was replaced by his deputy. Yahya Khan presided over a lost war and is therefore destined to be condemned by history. Zia might have been saved an ignominious end by the hand of God, but he did not receive credit for having rolled back a superpower from the country’s borders. Musharraf was, for a while, one of our most acclaimed heads of state, but is now disowned by his own constituency, the military, and is reviled by the media he unchained.

The Pakistan Army and its leadership, to be more precise, faces a seri­ous predicament. It enjoys a special status in the country’s polity but is also aware of its limitations, be it in direct political control or performing its assumed role from the sidelines. In both cases, it cannot act except like a military – inadequately, in other words. The problem is that it does not believe that any other institution could do better. The impasse gets compounded because people expect more from the army regardless of its role or its limitations. I recall meeting a worldly wise man during my stewardship of the ISI. He said he was happy that the country was under civilian rule but, if something were to happen to Pakistan, he would hold the army responsible. “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” may adequately explain this quandary, but I find an old Persian saying, “nowhere to go and no place to stay” more apt.

At the time of my writing this, at the end of 2017, the Army seems to be at its popular best. But not everyone is applauding – not, for example, the mainstream political parties.

Excerpted with permission from Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters, Asad Durrani, Westland.