by Mehlaqa Samdani

The Death of Democracy in Pakistan

As news spread of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran's Khan's arrest by paramilitary forces, protests erupted across the country. As tens of thousands poured onto the streets, one particular protestor stood out. At a busy intersection in Lahore, a lone Pakistani woman marched across to a group of heavily-armed rangers and threw down her dupatta (scarf) in bold defiance. As people looked on in horror, the rangers viciously dragged her away by her hair. Within seconds, she had disappeared.

Those chilling moments exemplified the extraordinary courage that ordinary citizens have displayed time and again to resist tyranny, as well as the brutal tactics used by the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies to subjugate the Pakistani people.

At a time when tens of thousands of Pakistanis are agitating to end the military's decades-old stranglehold on Pakistan's political processes, the media, and civil society, the Biden administration must do more to support the struggle for democratic change in Pakistan.

The current crisis has been simmering for more than a year since Imran Khan was deposed through a parliamentary no-confidence vote. For Khan and millions of his followers, his ouster was orchestrated by Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence agencies, in collaboration with a coalition of opposition parties.

Things came to a head last month when the current political and military leadership arrested Khan on what many believe are trumped-up corruption charges (he currently has a record 150 cases filed against him) Even after the Supreme Court released Khan, deeming his arrest illegal, a large cross-section of civil society took to the streets (at times violently), and to social media, to demand the end of de facto military rule in Pakistan.

Over the past several weeks, thousands of protestors have been targeted, hounded, and detained. Journalists have disappeared without a trace, and court orders to recover them have gone unheeded. Women activists, in particular, have been subject to harassment and abuse. Senior opposition leaders have been arrested and their families threatened to the point where they have been forced to give up all associations to their party.

Furthermore, the military and current political leadership have sought to try civilians in military courts for their alleged attacks on military installations.

Although the military's current aggression appears especially severe, this is not the first time the Pakistani military leadership has targeted its own citizens -- until now, it had just been more effective at controlling the narrative surrounding its activities.

For decades, revisionist history textbooks ensured that generations of Pakistanis never learned of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Pakistani military against its own people in former East Pakistan. Censorship of the media and intimidation of journalists meant that the military's manipulation of Pakistani politics was never openly discussed. Pressure on compliant judges provided legal cover for the multiple coups orchestrated by the Pakistani military. Because of collusion with corrupt politicians, the military was never questioned for the torture and killings of hundreds of Baloch, Sindhi, and Pashtun nationalists. Through alliances with the U.S. government, the military and intelligence establishment got away with the enforced disappearances of thousands of Pakistani citizens, who were picked up as a result of the U.S. War on Terror and disappeared without charge or trial.

This time, however, the Pakistani people are calling for accountability. The popular outrage and mobilization against the military is unprecedented and historic.

Rather than seize this opportunity to publicly support pro-democracy activists in Pakistan and condemn the human rights violations taking place, the Biden administration has instead chosen to remain silent. In mid-May, even after 67 congressional representatives sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, citing grave concerns regarding the erosion of democratic norms and principles in the country, the response from the State Department remained tepid at best.

One reason might be the U.S. government's willingness to sacrifice democracy and human rights concerns on the altar of strategic interest. In July 2022, a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's leader. Since the killing, there had been speculation that the Pakistani military had once again allowed its airspace to be used for over-the-horizon attacks in Afghanistan. Two months later, the Biden administration notified Congress about a $450 million deal to Pakistan's military to maintain its fleet of F-16s.

For far too long, successive U.S. administrations have strengthened ties with Pakistan's military to pursue their Cold War and subsequent counterterrorism agendas. This has not only enriched and emboldened the Pakistani military but has undermined the rule of law and due process in the country. This relationship has also proven to be destabilizing for regional and domestic security.

Following Zawahiri's killing, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan ratcheted up, and Pakistan saw a marked increase in the number of Taliban attacks. The country is currently on the verge of economic collapse, with dwindling foreign exchange reserves, sky-rocketing inflation, and increasing unemployment. The political turmoil of the past few weeks has further exacerbated the situation.

It is not in the U.S. interest to see the fifth most populous country in the world with nuclear weapons experience further instability. It is time for U.S. taxpayers, legislators, human rights activists, and media outlets to question the Biden administration's deafening silence on the abysmal human rights situation in Pakistan and its ongoing support of the Pakistani military.

Congressional representatives should also keep in mind the Leahy amendment, which prohibits Congress from authorizing funds to foreign militaries that commit human rights violations.

This is a pivotal moment, not just for the people of Pakistan but also for the Biden administration's commitment to democratic rule. Unless it stands in solidarity with pro-democracy activists in Pakistan, its rhetoric around human rights and the rule of law will continue to ring hollow.

Courtesy Foreign Policy in Focus.


Available at

Hun Sen's Cambodia