Pakistan – Hedging Democracy with the Generals

This article was originally published on on 21 January 2012. Co-wrote with Hira Siddiqui.


In the latest development in a series of political upheavals, the so-called democratic government of Pakistan has opted for a head-on collision with its strong military leadership. The ties between the two power houses began with the Memogate scandal in which the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani reportedly sent a memo to the White House on behalf of President Zardari to request the US to keep the Pakistani army at bay.

As the Supreme Court of Pakistan dealt with the Memogate case and demanded responses from both civilian and military leaders, a clash of opinions surfaced. The prime minister accused the military of submitting responses to the Supreme Court against its approval. As a result, the military has responded of harsh consequences to the extent that the country finds itself on the brink of yet another military coup. However, the tension might recede given the generals already held meetings with the prime minister and the president of Pakistan.

Trailing back from this recent development to the countless previous ones, it only confirms that Pakistan is a drama that never stops short of entertaining the world media. The storyline usually evolves around nationalistic pride with an ever complicated relationship with a big brother. The story also includes a romantic sense of having an enemy neighbour and a backyard turf in Afghanistan for a spectacle of espionage mastery. Once in a while, the show gets its cyclical climax with a few general’s showdown in the name of saving the sacred country. It is a tale never to end with a happy ending, at least as it appears from the last 60 years. The only problem is that it’s a drama in reality, its victims are real lives and the loss is a whole country’s unrealised potentials. It is a drama where the big shots have been skilfully deceiving its people, who are supposed to be the main actors instead.

Anecdotes and analogies aside, a careful look at Pakistan’s external and domestic actors can reveal that everyone is playing along with a vested interest in mind that has nothing to do with Pakistan’s own good. Firstly, there is its ‘complicated relationship’ with the US. Despite all the short honeymoons, Pakistan very well understands that the US has always been taking advantage of their mutual relationship to its own end. From the cold war period to the current Afghan war, the relationship only gets rosy when Pakistan defers to their strategic interests.

Then there is Pakistan’s domestic politics, which is nothing more than an unsavoury tale of moral bankruptcy. It does not matter whether it is Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) or Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), Pakistan has been forced to marry the choice between these two, who are equally corrupt, incompetent and weak with a facade of democracy. For a ruling party, it is more important to keep the generals happy than making sure the people were satisfied. After all, in Pakistan, an unhappy military changes the government, not an unhappy population. When the carrot doesn’t work well, the governments are deft at using the US as a stick in the name of democracy. Perhaps, the Memogate scandal sounds relevant here.

The US themselves are more than happy to sponsor either party depending whichever works best in their interest. No wonder that Pakistan became a ‘front-line ally’ against the communists under General Zia-ul-Haq and a ‘strong ally’ against the War on Terror under General Musharraf and during Zardari’s period.

However, isn’t it normal for a country to be rational to engage in foreign affairs for its own strategic gain? It also appears conventional for political parties to do whatever in their means to remain in power. After all, unstable, illiberal democracies are not rare among developing countries. So why is Pakistan’s an attractive story?

Part of it because, Pakistan is situated in a conflict prone region. But it is mostly because the military generals in Pakistan hold all the aces, and they play it very well either by deploying their toys on the streets of Islamabad or rather being discreet in their drawing room politics. Accustomed to being coaxed by the US and the ruling political parties, they have become fashionably obdurate with an egotistic sense of patriotism. Also, their right arm, the ISI and its clandestine murky activities appeared as an overshoot of its own credo, ‘faith, unity and discipline.’ Together they have become an added burden in Pakistan’s own good.

However, Pakistan military’s popularity has been at its lowest ebb since the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and the death of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Nonetheless, the country’s fate is unequivocally tied with the generals’ discreet approval. It has never been so conspicuous until recently with the US’ struggle with the Talibans. It is little wonder that Admiral Mike Mullen spent so much time with General Kayani the past four years. However, relentless events from Operation Neptune Spear in Abbottabad to the ISI’s double play between the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban,’ a sense of suspicion, anger and betrayal overshadowed the US-Pakistan strategic allegiance. The complicated relationship has reached its tipping point with NATO’s air strike recently on Pakistan military.

At this critical juncture, what awaits depends on who plays what and how for Pakistan. The US is desperate for a stopgap in Afghanistan before their troops’ withdrawal in 2014. The Talibans are waiting with a clock ticking towards an opportunity for their resurgence. The various factions in Afghanistan are already making calculations and eyeing for a future through their warlord lens. Furthermore, the US is more concerned about Pakistan strategically, since its nukes are a matter of its headache. As such, who curves the fait accompli for Pakistan?

In an ideal world, it should be the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the shackles of sham democracy make this simpler said than done. The people have tested the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League who, despite a different façade each time, have yet to prove their worth. Both parties have been in office more than once but have little to boast of.

Right now, the tempting option is to take a bold step, choose a person who promises change and clearly enjoys massive support. But is Imran Khan the step in the right direction? Khan’s success story in Pakistani politics is nothing short of a fairytale. He did not only manage to gather an impressive crowd in Lahore, but the rally in Karachi proved that the man is different from the rest. He infiltrated into a territory that few have treaded before. Dismissing all sceptics that Karachi will let itself be controlled by no one but the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the city rose in all its glory.

The euphoria will, however, not last for long. Khan may take a bold stance against the US and publicly declare his assets, but when it comes to the military, he knows the generals must be kept pleased. The fingers are already pointing at him for kindling relations with the military, but he knows that if he stands any chance of success, he will need that discreet nod from the men in khakis. Despite the impending tsunami, it appears that Khan is unlikely to form a majority government on his own in the 2013 elections and may perhaps settle for a coalition. Politics, it seems, will only get murkier in the coming years.

Pakistan is in a delusional state where the military’s dominant position is denied and it is referred under the nickname of ‘security establishment’. Precisely because, the manufactured consent of India being an arch enemy sells very well. In such a state, the forthcoming elections give little hope for change. Even if it happens, the revolution will not be a clear one. Khan may manage to wake up the people to fight for the country, but it is going to be a long time before the military lets go.

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Pakistan: A state in crisis

This article was published on on 23rd July, 2011.


Pakistan as a sovereign state is a geographic reality dictated by its boundary, but its internal and external strategic policy indicates that it is no less than a state in serious crisis. Furthermore, the identity that Pakistan as a country enshrines since its conception has become contorted as much as it remains an unfinished and fragmented cause. Pakistan’s inept leaders successfully manufactured India as its existential threat and is complacent to be preoccupied by such idea. It helps to bolster their cause of being an Islamic state and keeps the army at bay, ignoring the fact it is virtually hijacked by its gigantic military establishment. The contemporary political Pakistan testifies enough that some extraordinary and painful works still needed to be done for the cause of its identity and its statehood. Furthermore, this has to be done accounting the strategic reality of Pakistan.

Since the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) by the US forces, Pakistan’s neighbour: Afghanistan’s condition has changed for better or for worse. At least, it had two parliamentary elections and has a functioning democracy albeit a very imperfect one. It is a country at war and the ISAF and the US forces are still struggling to fend off the Taliban, despite a surge in troops by Obama administration and the development of a ‘professional’ Afghan security sector. Pakistan has a strategic interest in its neighbour since Afghanistan has long been considered its ‘strategic depth’.

However, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan turns out to be rather ineffective, at least during the post-cold war era. Misguided by the historical proximity to Taliban, Pakistan takes Taliban as a safer bet for its stable sway over Afghanistan for the long run. Predicting that Taliban will ultimately survive the NATO and US onslaught, Pakistan’s covert proximity to Taliban is not beyond credible suspicion. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that as much as the geography of Pak-Afghan border appears to be difficult to scramble for uprooting the Taliban, complicity of Pakistan’s former or current intelligence commanders is equally a significant factor for the Taliban and other Islamic militant groups’ resilience.

Numerous sources underscores that Pakistan’s ISI personnel directly or indirectly provide supports to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, Hizbul Mujahedeen and Haqqani Network. Recent uproar in Pakistan’s journalist society after the murder of Saleem Shahzad further testifies the extent of the ISI’s complicity in maintaining active contacts with the militants. Besides Saleem Shahzad, there were numerous others who disappeared, murdered or forced to shut their mouth whenever the ISI was under the attack of investigative journalism. In fact, in addition to the ISI complicity, Pakistan’s military was suspected of being infiltrated by the Islamic extremist ideology which raised significant question for the safety of its nuclear arsenals.

Furthermore, Pakistani commander’s parallel role of fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in one front in the name of counter-terrorism and its simultaneous support of various Islamic militant groups on the other, have caused critical lack of trust between the military and the militants. These militant groups’ link either with the Taliban or with the al-Qaeda has enabled both not only to withstand the war waged by the US and the current Afghan government but also to get reinforced and to retaliate from Pakistan’s rear.

Moreover, it is the frontline Pakistani soldiers and the poor civilians, whose eventual karma is to be an IDP, pay the price of Pakistan government’s pretentious war. The irony is that the same philosophy of these groups that Pakistan exploits as a proxy drive against its arch enemy India for the cause of Kashmir, can and will be eventually a bitter pill to swallow for itself. If Afghanistan as an institutional democracy and an Islamic republic by constitution falls short of being a Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam), Pakistan too will not be spared when time is ripe for these militant groups vying to establish their control over Pakistan. As such, Pakistan’s relationship with the US as well as with its neighbours fails to cement durable and meaningful trust.

Somewhere back in the history, Pakistan also lost the cause of its national interest in its people. When the struggle to improve the lot of its own people should be the raison d’Etat of Pakistan as a state, its national interest became over occupied by its animosity towards India. Its revered military who often gets the blank cheque from its people is either preoccupied playing war games with India or too eager to rule the country whenever it deems necessary.

However, it is not only the military that is responsible but also the political parties and their inept leadership for over 60 years. The reason Pakistan as a state is an unfinished task is because it still has a vast area under FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) which is ruled under the FCA (Frontier Crime Regulation) act of 1901 that denies fundamental rights to the tribal population with opaque governance mechanism run by the Pakistani bureaucrats. Discriminating jirga-justice based on customary laws fails to ensure any form of democratic rights to its residents. They are victims of both the militants as well as the whimsical rule by the government Pakistani Agents (PA). When justice is denied and the state fails to establish democratic rights, 60 years are enough for its residents to lose any sense of affiliation with the Pakistani cause.

It is not indifferent either when Pakistan is also taken as a fragmented identity taking into account of Baluchistan, where provincial and federal government rely more on military solution rather than a political one for quelling the Baluch cause. The number of insurgents there may have declined after decades of Pakistani military’s brutal operation but the face and nature of the insurgents transformed too. The new insurgents with leaders such as Allah Nazar of BLF (Baloch Liberation Front) and their sympathizers are now from the educated class, who has a more critical reason for their struggle against Pakistan. They are the result of the oppression by the Pakistani military establishments. Even the Sindh province is not immune from communal crisis where party politics are still run along the ethnic cleavage, where whether one is Muhajir or not is more important. Deadly riot as recent as the one in July is a proof of that.

Provided all these complex internal crisis and Pakistan’s geopolitic nightmare, it can still thrive to be a strong nation only when as a state, it cares less to develop short range missiles with tactical nuclear warhead and cares more to improve its governance. Pakistan has to prove still worthy of being a state which invests into its people’s welfare instead of prioritizing military aid. It also has to take a foreign policy that is multilateral instead of either aligning with the US or China only.

Finally, Pakistan should take the new opportunity of settling unresolved issues with India and not jeopardize the bilateral peace effort by its ISI’s covert support to militant groups against India. It is never too late for its leaders to think hard how to rein in its belligerent intelligence establishment.