Trusting the masses: US tiptoes into democracy in Pakistan

October 20, 2011

In his book “Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination“, an edited collection of his Chapati Mystery blog, historian Manan Ahmed complained about the United States’ past support for former president Pervez Musharraf, and its refusal, at the time to trust Pakistan with democracy.  In an entry written in 2007, he described Pakistan as the “the not yet nation” - a country for which democracy might be a good thing in the long run, but  was in American eyes not yet ready.

“We fear the multitudes on two fronts. One is that we conceive of them as masses without politics – forever hostage to gross religious and ideological provocations. Masses which do not constitute a body politic or act with an interest in self-preservation or self-growth. Faced with that absence of reason, we are forced to support native royals to do the job (from Egypt to Pakistan). We justify it by stressing that we may not like these dictators but we know that if we did not have them, the masses would instantly betray us to the very forces of extremism that we seek to destroy,” he wrote.

“Second is that these masses are Muslim. This fear grounded in our history can, at best, be understood as the fear of the “Other” and, at worst, as the Lewis/Huntington model of civilizational clash. Either case, it is borne out of our inherent belief in ‘difference’. They are not like us. They do not possess reason, etc.”

That U.S. attitude has been changing slowly over the past few years, underpinned by the Arab spring, and in the case of Pakistan, Washington’s increasingly difficult relationship with the Pakistan Army over its alleged support for, or tolerance of, Islamist militants based in Pakistan. 

Democracy has become the new mantra, expressed most recently by former White House adviser Bruce Riedel in an op-ed in the New York Times.

“America needs a new policy for dealing with Pakistan. First, we must recognize that the two countries’ strategic interests are in conflict, not harmony, and will remain that way as long as Pakistan’s army controls Pakistan’s strategic policies. We must contain the Pakistani Army’s ambitions until real civilian rule returns and Pakistanis set a new direction for their foreign policy,” he said.

Somewhat more diplomatically, President Barack Obama made a point of saying that the United States’ argument was  not with the people of Pakistan but with the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), agency.

Asked if he would be willing to cut off aid to Pakistan, hit this summer by a second year of flooding, Obama hesitated, the New York Times reported.  The United States has a “great desire to help the Pakistani people strengthen their own society and their own government,” it quoted him as saying.  “And so, you know, I’d be hesitant to punish flood victims in Pakistan because of poor decisions by their intelligence services.”

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flying into Pakistan to push for greater cooperation on Afghanistan, one of the more interesting, but less obvious, themes of her visit will be how she navigates her way around the country’s civilian-military imbalance.  

The arguments, from a U.S. point of view, for supporting democracy and civilian rule are many.  In the short-run, the United States wants to weaken Islamist militants – including the Afghan Taliban as well as India-focused groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba which it says still enjoy support from elements within Pakistan’s security services – an allegation the army denies. By weakening the grip of the army on the country’s security policy, it would — in theory – dislodge support for militants.

 Tentative steps taken by the civilian government to change the way the country is governed – including through greater provincial autonomy – would provide a means for Pakistan’s different ethnic groups to try to negotiate their differences without taking up arms. But they would also undercut the centralising authority of the military, as would an ambitious but politically fraught proposal to split in two Pakistan’s dominant Punjab province, a major recruiting ground for the army.

And civilian governments have always tended to be more in favour of peace with India than the army, which once nurtured Islamist militant proxies to offset what it saw an existential threat from Pakistan’s much bigger neighbour.

Yet to consider how this might look on the other side of the table, read this column by retired army officer Ikram Sehgal who wrote in response to Riedel’s op-ed that the real aim of the United States was the “Balkanisation of Pakistan”.  By supporting civilian rule, he argued, the United States aimed merely to serve its own agenda given what he called ”atrocious (civilian) leadership that excels in nepotism and corruption of the worst kind”.

“The majority in Pakistan sees the army and the ISI as Pakistan’s front line of defence and do not approve of the US thus tarring and feathering them,” he wrote.  “Propping up corrupt leaders in Pakistan allows the U.S.  to pursue its core national interest even if it is detrimental to ours, eg impose Indian hegemony on us and … the US sees the Pakistan Army and the ISI as roadblocks in pursuing their own core national interests.”

In other words, an army which sees itself as the guarantor of Pakistan’s territorial integrity is unlikely to hand over power over foreign and security policy any time soon to the country’s civilian politicians.  As it is, the army barely disguises its impatience with the civilian government over what it sees as its failure to provide the governance necessary to underpin its own military campaigns against Islamist militants inside Pakistan.

And the country’s politicians themselves have been unable to expand the space available to them to assert their influence over foreign and security policy.  Barring a few politicians who questioned Pakistan’s policies — among them former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – an All Parties Conference held last month largely rubber-stamped the army’s response to American pressure to “do more” against Islamist militants. While one of three parliamentary committees due to be briefed by the army week refused to go to army headquarters – saying the military should  come to parliament, two others did so.  And as columnist Ejaz Haider has argued, the civilian government has yet to draw up a national security strategy which might allow it to examine military strategy through a different prism – as happens elsewhere when military leaders are called to testify before parliamentary committees. 

 So the question is this: Does the United States have the patience to nurture civilian rule in Pakistan when it is looking for a way out of the 10-year-old Afghan war? Only the Pakistan Army can either help deliver parts of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network into an Afghan political settlement, or raise pressure on them enough to weaken them significantly and allow the Kabul government to hold its own as U.S. troops begin to withdraw.

The United States has always dealt with the army, even after Musharraf – who took power in a military coup in 1999 – was forced to quit in 2008. It was Musharraf’s successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani,  who was feted in Washington rather than its president or prime minister. Even after the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who killed Osama bin Laden, Washington appears to have  given the details to the military first, thereby depriving the civilian government of the power of information and leaving it floundering in its response.

In an article in Foreign Affairs,  C. Christine Fair at Georgetown University argues that the United States needs to change this approach, following the same rules that it applies for other countries when it deals with their militaries.

“For one, the United States should follow its standard protocol for high-level exchanges. The Pakistani chief of army staff should meet and communicate with his American counterpart, not with the secretary of state or the president, as he does now. Rather than consult on political issues, the two countries’ military leadership should focus on security matters, such as the war in Afghanistan, continued joint training, and foreign military sales — preferably all geared toward supporting Pakistan’s counterterrorism and insurgency capabilities. It is worth remembering that the U.S. secretary of state meets with the military leadership of virtually no other country. Meanwhile, flagrant disregard for diplomatic protocol in almost every high-level exchange between Pakistan and the United States, is frustrating for even ordinary Pakistanis who are exhausted with U.S. pandering to their men on horseback, even if Americans are oblivious to it,” she writes. “Alongside diminished contact with the military, the United States should engage Pakistan’s civilian centers of power, including the parliament, the judiciary, educational institutions, and the economy.”

And while she acknowledges that greater civilian engagement will not transform Pakistan ”over any useful time horizon — if ever”, this was not a reason for giving up, she says. ”Although democratization efforts may take a long time to bear fruit, if they ever do, one thing is clear: the most likely path toward a stable country involves empowering Pakistan’s civilians to exert control over security and foreign policy. U.S. assistance to help Pakistanis do so is a high-stakes gamble worth taking.”

But that is long-term thinking from someone who has followed Pakistan closely for years. What about an administration facing a jittery political environment, the instant demands of 24/7 television news, and a desire at home for early results on Afghanistan? What about that nagging worry that Manan Ahmed captured in his book?  What if you support democracy and end up with a government you don’t like? The way Clinton and the U.S. administration finds its way through this particular minefield may end up telling us as much about the current state of ”the American imagination” as it does about Pakistan itself.

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