Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The Pakistan Army has been getting a lot of flak over the past week or so for its alleged failure to take a tough line against Taliban militants expanding their reach across Pakistan’s north-west. And although Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued a statement promising to fight the militants and security forces began a new offensive, doubts remain about the military’s willingness to take on Islamist groups that it once nurtured as part of its rivalry with India.
Among a spate of articles about Pakistan’s powerful military, Newsweek ran a piece headlined “Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Army”. It argued that far from serving as a bulwark against chaos, the military had helped destabilise Pakistan by undermining the development of a civilian democracy in the decades since the country was founded in 1947.
David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert, called during a Congressional hearing for “fundamental, root and branch reform of the Pakistani military, and bringing it firmly under the authority of civilian elected officials”. Arguing that U.S. aid should be channelled into building up the police rather than the military, he said this ”would protect the Pakistani people, improve counterinsurgency performance, enhance the rule of law and weaken the stranglehold of the army over the civilian leadership of Pakistan.”
The arguments in favour of civilian democracy were well rehearsed when President Pervez Musharraf was forced out of office last year, and then endorsed by the administration of President Barack Obama. Kayani himself has so far stressed his commitment to civilian democracy. So to some extent the latest talk about the role of the Pakistan Army is a rehash of old news.
Colonel Harish Puri says it is incredible that the Pakistan Army allowed something as reprehensible as the public flogging of a teenage girl in the Swat Valley without lifting a finger, even though it coudn’t have happened very far from an army checkpoint.
Two years after Iftikhar Chaudhry was first sacked by then President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan government officials said he would be reinstated as Chief Justice after a nationwide protest led by Pakistan’s lawyers.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. After he was removed by Musharraf, Chaudhry was reinstated only to be sacked again and placed under house arrest along with many other lawyers when the former general declared emergency rule in November 2007. At the time, Pakistani lawyer/politician Aitzaz Ahsan wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the leaders of the lawyers movement ”will neither be silent nor still”. But he also fretted that the lawyers’ movement would be ignored by the United States and overlooked by the forthcoming election.
Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is much talked about these days as the one national figure who could lean on Pakistan’s warring politicians to back down from a confrontation threatening the stability of the country. The question is over how he would intervene while maintaining a commitment to keep the army out of politics.
Most analysts have ruled out a coup for now and in an interview with PBS Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed Kayani was committed to a civilian government.
Maybe this always happens at times of national upheaval. But there is a surprising disconnect between the immediacy of the crisis facing Pakistan as expressed by Pakistani bloggers and the more slow-moving debate taking place in the outside world over the right strategy to adopt towards both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Reading Pakistani blogs since confrontation between the country’s two main political parties exploded and comparing them to international commentaries is a bit like watching men shout that their house is on fire, and then panning over to the fire station where the folks in charge are debating which type of water hose works best.
In his book on the Pakistan Army, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen quotes a senior lieutenant-general as warning the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against using the military to control political opposition. “If you use a stick too often, the stick will take over,” Cohen quotes the general as saying. “This has always been the history of the stick.”
There’s no sign yet of the Pakistan Army reverting to its usual role of wielding the big stick. But with the police out in force to quell protests in Punjab over a Supreme Court ruling excluding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from office, the obvious question to ask is whether we are about to see a repeat of the old cycle in which security forces are called out to restore order and end up taking over altogether. Indeed, the Pakistan Army’s first involvement in politics is generally dated to the 1953 imposition of martial law in Lahore – where protests erupted on Thursday over the court ruling. Sharif has blamed President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, for the ruling.
The truce comes after nearly two years of fighting in which the Taliban have extended their control of the alpine region barely 130 km (80 km) northwest of Islamabad, destroyed the police force, established a shadow government and implemented an austere form of Islamic law.
In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, India’s response has been to look to the United States to lean on Pakistan, which it blames for spawning Islamist militancy across the region, rather than launching any military retaliation of its own. So after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s trip to India and Pakistan last week, have the Americans done enough for now?
According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Rice told Pakistan there was “irrefutable evidence” that elements within the country were involved in the Mumbai attacks. And it quotes unnamed sources as saying that behind-the-scenes she “pushed the Pakistani leaders to take care of the perpetrators, otherwise the U.S. will act”.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari says he would be ready to commit to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, in what would be a dramatic overturning of Pakistan’s nuclear policy. Pakistan has traditionally seen its nuclear weapons as neutralising Indian superiority in conventional warfare, and refused to follow India’s example of declaring a no first use policy after both countries conducted nuclear tests in 1998.
Zardari was speaking via satellite from Islamabad to a conference organised by the Hindustan Times when he was asked whether he was willing to make an assurance that Pakistan would not be the first to use nuclear weapons.
In his new book about the Pakistan Army, “War, Coups and Terror”, Brian Cloughley recounts how the British general, the Duke of Wellington, responded to democracy in his first cabinet meeting as prime minister: ”An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”
The story is told as part of an argument about why the Pakistan Army has never been particularly successful at running the country.