Despite two rounds of democratic elections in Pakistan, it is the military that wields the real power in the country, particularly on core matters of defence, national security and foreign policy, a top American think-tank expert has said.
“Despite two rounds of democratic elections and eight years of civilian government, the military remains Pakistan’s most dominant national political institution, the primary decision-maker on core matters of defence and foreign policy, and the chief steward of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal,” Daniel Markey from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a Congressional hearing.
“Decisions about how to manage the state’s relationships with violent extremist organisations depend on Pakistan’s military, and within it, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI),” he said.
In addition, the military has jealously guarded its perks and resources that insulate uniformed personnel from many of the economic hardships suffered by their countrymen, he said.
“If Pakistan is ever to enjoy a more effective, consolidated democratic rule, the generals will need to loosen their hold and submit to civilian authority,” he added.
Observing that Pakistan is a high-stakes game for the US, Markey said Washington would be wise to steer clear of risky policy moves, including threats to curtail assistance and reimbursements, unless they hold the realistic promise of significant gains.
“This is not an unqualified argument against cutting Pakistan’s aid, but only for thinking carefully and acting with purpose. Pakistan is a frustrating partner, but that does not reduce the value of its partnership to zero,” he said.
“Pakistan permits and at times has enabled the US to wage a counterterror drone campaign over parts of its territory and, even at times of deep bilateral discord, to continue flying personnel and arms across Pakistani airspace into Afghanistan. Neither side has been eager to publicise these areas of cooperation, but even American skeptics must admit their utility,” he said.
“Air corridors are readily closed and drones are easy to shoot down, so if Pakistan had really wanted to end what in 2009, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta called the “only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership,” or to further complicate the US war effort in Afghanistan, it could have done so without breaking much of a sweat. It still could,” Markey said.
He said in order to justify major policy shifts like eliminating aid, labelling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, or enacting sanctions, US policymakers should be able to explain how such actions would make America’s strategic predicament easier.
In the process, they would need to consider the possibility that US attempts at coercion could backfire, raising tensions and weakening Pakistan in ways that only make Islamabad less willing or able to advance any constructive agenda.
In his testimony, Markey said during the past several years, Pakistan’s army has on multiple occasions reasserted its dominance over civilian politicians.
“At least some of Pakistan’s top brass are reportedly unsatisfied with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, blaming his government for ineffective rule or labelling him unfit for a variety of other reasons,” he said.
Over the past six months, there has been media speculation that the prime minister might step down because of his failing health or because his family was implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, or that the current army chief, General Raheel Sharif, might be granted an extension rather than handing over his baton in November as scheduled, he said.
“Simultaneously, political opposition parties are once again campaigning for Nawaz Sharif’s ouster. In short, it is difficult to predict precisely who will be running Pakistan when America’s next president takes office,” he said.
Under similar conditions in decades past, Pakistan might be ripe for a coup, he noted.
Now the military is playing a savvier game, pulling the nation’s strings from behind a curtain so as to avoid the taint of dictatorship and, perhaps more importantly, to shirk its responsibility for improving the quality of governance.
“But this puppet show may not be so easily sustained. Political turmoil has considerable disruptive potential in the short run. More worrisome, a sham democracy will have dangerous vulnerabilities over the long run, depriving the state of popular legitimacy in the midst of an existential confrontation with Islamist insurgency,” Markey said.