IN AN UNUSUAL MOVE, the Pakistani military on Wednesday publicly criticized the Kerry-Lugar Bill — a five-year, multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package recently approved by Congress and now awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature. The military’s motivation is simple: The aid package is designed to limit the Pakistani military’s role in governance. It stipulates that the aid is contingent upon the U.S. secretary of state’s certification that, among other things, a democratic government in Pakistan “exercises effective civilian control of the military, including a description of the extent to which civilian executive leaders and parliament exercise oversight and approval of military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration.”
Effectively, this means that, through the aid package, the Obama administration is trying to alter the nature of the Pakistani state — a very ambitious project to say the least. Encouraged by events in Pakistan during the final days of the Bush administration — as the military government of former President Pervez Musharraf weakened and eventually fell, paving the way for a civilian government — the Obama administration feels that the Pakistani state is ready to move toward an even more robust form of democratic rule. The administration’s thinking holds that the U.S. fight against militant Islamism in South Asia is best served by ensuring civilian primacy in Pakistan, given the military’s historical ties to militant non-state proxies. The Obama administration believes that aggressively pushing for a more democratic Pakistan will reset the imbalance in civilian-military relations.
“The administration’s thinking holds that the U.S. fight against militant Islamism in South Asia is best served by ensuring civilian primacy in Pakistan.”
But this view disregards the nature of the Pakistani state as it has evolved since its creation. The military has ruled the country directly — or indirectly dominated during brief periods of civilian rule — throughout its 62-year history. The current democratic arrangement is in its infancy, with disparate forces competing within civilian institutions: The presidency, parliament and judiciary all have been wracked by internal conflict. The need to rein in an assortment of jihadist non-state actors threatening national security is putting the nascent civilian state under even more pressure. In short, though weakened, the military remains the Pakistani institution best positioned to meet the first requirement of any nation-state: keeping the country together.
The U.S. move will exacerbate civilian-military tensions. This is already evident, as the Pakistani central command moves to counter the Kerry-Lugar Bill. It is extremely unlikely that it will go so far as to mount a coup — and face a domestic and international backlash — but the military has no intention of yielding without a struggle, which almost surely will result in increased instability.
While Washington’s actions can be explained as a mere misreading of the situation, the motives of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government for supporting the Kerry-Lugar Bill are less apparent. According to well-placed sources, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government is trying to follow the model of the ruling Justice & Development (AK) Party in Turkey, which over the last few years has successfully reined in the Turkish military establishment. After a successful collaboration with the military in mounting effective offensives against Taliban rebels, the Zardari government now feels that with U.S. financial and political support, it can consolidate greater civilian rule over time. But there are too many differences between the circumstances in Turkey and Pakistan to prevent the PPP from accomplishing in Pakistan what the AK Party has been able to do in Turkey.
For starters, unlike the AK Party government, which enjoys an overwhelming parliamentary majority, the PPP leads a fractious coalition government that became very unpopular shortly after coming to power in February 2008. Despite the fact that it is the country’s largest political force and a secular party, the PPP and its coalition are struggling to deal with Islamist radicalism. In Turkey, by contrast, the AK Party has maintained a decent equilibrium between the Islamist and secularist elements, despite its own Islamist roots. And the Turkish military — a staunchly secularist establishment — has established a working relationship with the government of the AK Party, while the Pakistani military leadership historically has been at odds with the PPP, despite their shared secular ideology.
That said, Pakistan is no longer a place where the military can simply dismiss civilian governments, let alone take over. At the same time, the country is also far from the point where civilians can exercise greater control over the military. Therefore, any radical move to alter the nature of the state could have serious repercussions for both the country and U.S. interests in the region — a serious matter, given that Washington already is struggling to craft a policy for Afghanistan.
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