The Biden administration can stand in favour of democracy in Pakistan, the rule of law, and the supremacy of its constitution, all of which are under threat in this current crisis – and not with the United States’ usual and favoured partner in Pakistan, its military. This means the US should explicitly speak up in favour of free, fair and on-time elections in Pakistan this year, and against violations of the rule of law and the country’s constitution … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
The continuous erosion of democracy in Pakistan has largely been due to the machinations of the military, its political leaders and the gullible public. However, the Western powers, who are the champions of democracy and freedom, also share some blame.
Pakistan has been bailed out repeatedly from various perils be it economy or terrorism, by the same Western powers. A large Pakistan diaspora exists in Western countries, be it US, UK or other countries which repeatedly calls out for a functional democracy in their home country. In spite of all these factors the Western powers failed in assisting Pakistan achieve the desired democracy as envisioned by its creators.
Pakistan military played into the sentiments of radicalisation, internal and external threats, Afghanistan card and various other factors to its own advantage thereby completely hoodwinking the West.
The Pakistan army has ruled the state directly for 33 years and exercised influence from behind the scenes during the remaining period. It has shown resilience in recovering from periodic setbacks, including its crushing defeat in 1971, using strong-arm tactics and intimidation to enforce its will. The continual infringement of the Constitution has left a watermark of what should have been a robust democratic culture. Recurrent military regimes arrested the political process and have polluted political outfits that now, more often than not, collude with unelected elements to wrest power.
The Pakistan military, as an institution, remains materially and economically strong and capable of exerting the kind of influence despite the criticism from both political and civilian institutions, civil society, academia and the media. The military as an institution remains strong and the core reason for this is its material wealth. And the fact that there is no challenge. One of the key reasons why there have been coup like in 1999 or before or after that, is that some civilian actors tried to control power and that is what brought them into conflict with the military establishment, which resists these efforts by all means. For example, Nawaz Sharif, the three times PM of Pakistan and the military establishment became rivals in the 1990s. The key reason was that the Nawaz Sharif government tried to impose taxes on the military’s industries and economic wealth. This created a wedge between Nawaz Sharif and the military establishment and resultantly Nawaz Sharif’s government was overthrown by the same military establishment because of their growing differences.
A UNDP report of 2021 said that Pakistan’s various business elites, that include the military itself, received about USD 17.4 billion in subsidies and taxes concessions and exemptions from the state of Pakistan annually.
The US Role
The Biden administration can stand in favour of democracy in Pakistan, the rule of law, and the supremacy of its constitution, all of which are under threat in this current crisis – and not with the United States’ usual and favoured partner in Pakistan, its military. This means the US should explicitly speak up in favour of free, fair and on-time elections in Pakistan this year, and against violations of the rule of law and the country’s constitution.
Throughout much of this history, Pakistan has been led by military dictators. In return for helping the United States and West pursue its objectives, the Pakistan military obtained sizable economic and military aid and political support. However, the degree of Pakistan’s cooperation has been much less than claimed.
The Pakistani priorities reflect the specific institutional interests of the military and therefore cannot be fundamentally changed unless the army gradually cedes its political role to representative civilian leaders and limits itself to defending borders. In other words, the United States and other international actors vital to Pakistan’s future must stop taking the metaphorical bribe of partial Pakistani cooperation in fighting radicalisation, terrorism etc in return for propping up an unrepresentative, military government.
Conditionality of cooperation assistance applied by a large number of countries, not simply by the United States, should be applied to Pakistan’s leadership, in particular the military leadership, and should not affect the general population.
The first step towards this would be for the West to ensure that Pakistan’s old political guard under Nawaz Sharif as also the publicly popular Imran Khan, be strengthened to pursue a legal course against their own corrupt Army Generals, who have involved themselves in political machinations and are responsible for the country’s plight.
Nawaz Sharif is now back in Pakistan. The PML-N supremo does not seem in any mood to abandon his long-standing demand for the ‘strict accountability’ of general and judges – former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, ex-spymaster Faiz Hamid, and former chief justice Asif Khosa and Saqib Nisar – for their alleged involvement in a ‘conspiracy’ to oust him from power in 2017.
The international community has all the right to be concerned. Pakistan is a nuclear nation veering from its pluralistic, democratic course, its ethnic divisions, religious and political polarisation and deepening under the jackboot of shaky military rule, posing a threat to its neighbourhood as well as the capitals of its distance western allies whose hand-wringing and threat of sanctions has fooled no one, least of all Islamabad’s current powerbrokers.
The West will be told any formulation that sees the military take the back seat in the political process has the potential for a prolonged civil war, if the current unrest, brutally suppressed by the authorities, turns into a full- blown rebellion under self-serving politicians. After another failed attempt at political engineering, the military establishment must step back and allow the democratic process to evolve.
The political churning set off by the confrontational course adopted by the military against civil society will throw up forces that could sweep even the semblances of democracy that exists in Pakistan out of the window. The US must be willing to take a chance that after the initial upheaval, Pakistan will find its democratic feet. The politicians must be allowed to have a say in a new caretaker administration, and arrive at a representative, if untidy democracy.
Pakistan has long paid the price for the west’s myopic dependence on the military as the solution to all ills. This time, the West must have the courage to allow Pakistanis to winnow the democratic chaff from the military weed. Pakistan needs a new social contract that addresses injustice and inequalities.
The start point of this might well be instituting Constitutional amendments to bring the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) under civil leadership as is done in all democracies of the world.