The US hurts Pakistani democracy

Michael Kugelman

Nawaz Sharif is back in Washington after two years. Unfortunately, democracy in his country not only remains incomplete, but has also grown increasingly imperilled. In Pakistan, the idea of a civil-military balance is a sham, and the US policy, unfortunately, helps widen the divide.

In 2014, an anti-government movement led by opposition politician Imran Khan, and likely sponsored by the security establishment, weakened Sharif considerably. His portfolio was downsized dramatically, and his policy space shrank swiftly. The military swooped in to fill the vacuum. Ever since, Sharif has ruled more like a governor than a premier—he sets the agenda on domestic affairs, but defers to higher powers on foreign affairs.

Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in Pakistan’s India policy. Sharif’s government came to power hoping to improve relations with New Delhi. Such aspirations, however, have long since come crashing down. Pakistan’s civilian leaders have seemingly been reduced to parroting anti-India narratives harboured by a hardline military. This summer, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif declared that India’s intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was formed “to wipe Pakistan off the map.” Even Finance Minister Ishaq Dar got in on the act; he suggested that India was trying to sabotage the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Some may counter that Sharif offered a conciliatory speech in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, when he proposed the demilitarisation of Kashmir. Such a proposal, however, was likely prompted by a desire on the part of the Pakistani military to get the Kashmir issue on the front burner, and not by a genuine desire for peace.

The widening civil-military imbalance was crystallised on October 18, when Pakistani officials divulged that Khan Janjua, a general who had conveniently retired just a few days earlier, had been appointed as the new national security adviser. He is accompanying Sharif on his trip to the US.

This is not to dismiss Pakistan’s genuine democratic progress. Earlier this year, it issued a resolution that emphatically rejected Saudi requests to provide military support to Riyadh’s offensive against rebels in Yemen. Additionally, Pakistan passed a landmark right to information law in 2013, which provides the people access to public documents. Such assertions of civilian authority followed a major democratic triumph of the previous Pakistan People’s Party government; the 18th constitutional amendment, passed in 2010, weakened the power of the presidency and enhanced the authority of provincial officials.

GUEST COLUMN Illustration: Bhaskaran

And yet these encouraging developments have done little to ease the military’s tightening grip on power. Several days before Sharif came to the US, reports appeared in the Pakistani media alleging that R&AW was plotting to kill Sharif. In a previous era, the conspiratorially minded might have assumed that this meant a military coup would take place when Sharif left the country. Today, however, the Pakistani government is already operating in lockstep with the military, negating the need for a takeover. The military has another strong incentive not to seize power outright: Rawalpindi likely reckons that it’s best not to be saddled with Pakistan’s staggering domestic challenges.

Regardless, Sharif’s visit to Washington will do little to advance the cause of democracy in Pakistan. The US largely views Pakistan through the narrow lens of security. This entails a need to heavily engage and frequently charm Pakistani military officials, who rule the roost on security matters, and Washington pulls out all the stops during their visits to the US.

When Washington needs to get something done to serve its chief interests in Pakistan, one can assume it goes to the generals. This is incredibly ironic and misguided, given that the generals imperil US interests in the region with their sponsorship of non-state militants, but nonetheless a fact of life for US-Pakistan relations. This is why we shouldn’t expect many substantive outcomes from Obama’s meeting with Sharif.
Kugelman is senior programme associate, Wilson Center, Washington, DC.

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