By Aqil Shah

How Aiding the Army Undermines Democracy

The United States has a major stake in Pakistan's stability, given the country's central role in the U.S.-led effort to, in U.S. President Barack Obama's words, "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" al Qaeda; its war-prone rivalry with India over Kashmir; and its nuclear arsenal. As a result, U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been dominated by concerns for its stability -- providing the reasoning for Washington's backing of the Pakistani military's frequent interventions in domestic politics -- at the expense of its democratic institutions. But as the recent eruption of protests in the Middle East against U.S.-backed tyrants has shown, authoritarian stability is not always a winning bet.

Despite U.S. efforts to promote it, stability is hardly Pakistan's distinguishing feature. Indeed, many observers fear that Pakistan could become the world's first nuclear-armed failed state. Their worry is not without reason. More than 63 years after independence, Pakistan is faced with a crumbling economy and a pernicious Taliban insurgency radiating from its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the semiautonomous seven districts and six smaller regions along its border with Afghanistan. It is still struggling to meet its population's basic needs. More than half its population faces severe poverty, which fuels resentment against the government and feeds political instability.

According to the World Bank, the Pakistani state's effectiveness has actually been in steady decline for the last two decades. In 2010, Foreign Policy even ranked Pakistan as number ten on its Failed States Index, placing it in the "critical" category with such other failed or failing states as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. The consequences of its failure would no doubt be catastrophic, if for no other reason than al Qaeda and its affiliates could possibly get control of the country's atomic weapons. The Pakistani Taliban's dramatic incursions into Pakistan's northwestern Buner District (just 65 miles from the capital) in 2009 raised the specter of such a takeover.

Pakistan is, of course, a weak state with serious political, economic, and security challenges. But it is not on the fast track to failure, ready to be overturned by warlords, militants, or militias. It has an incredibly resilient civil society, which has proved itself capable of resisting both state and nonstate repression. Its numerous universities, assertive professional associations, vocal human rights groups, and free (if often irresponsible and hypernationalist) media sharply distinguish Pakistan from the likes of Afghanistan or Somalia. And its bureaucratic, judicial, and coercive branches still have plenty of fight left in them. The country's political parties are popular, and parliamentary democracy is the default system of government. The Pakistani military, moreover, is a highly disciplined and cohesive force and is unlikely to let the country slide into chaos or let its prized nuclear weapons fall into the hands of Islamists.

But although Pakistan's army is professional, it has no respect for the political system. It has not mattered whether the army is under the command of a reckless figure, such as General Pervez Musharraf, or a more prudent one, such as the current chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. As an institution, it deeply distrusts politicians and sees itself as the only force standing between stability and anarchy, intervening in politics whenever it decides that the politicians are not governing effectively. These repeated interventions have weakened Pakistan's civilian institutional capacity, undermined the growth of representative institutions, and fomented deep divisions in the country.

Pakistan is unlikely to collapse, but the imbalance of power between its civilian and military branches needs to be addressed if it is to become a normal modern state that is capable of effectively governing its territory. For its part, the United States must resist using the generals as shortcuts to stability, demonstrate patience with Pakistan's civilian authorities, and help them consolidate their hold on power.


The Pakistani military's political power is a historical legacy of the country's birth. The immediate onset of conflict over Kashmir in 1947-48 with a militarily and politically stronger India made the military central to the state's survival and placed it above civilian scrutiny. Today, after four wars with India, the military filters every internal and external development through the lens of Pakistan's rivalry with India. Civilian governments, such as the current one, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and those headed by Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have typically operated in the military's lurking shadow.

The military has frequently co-opted Islamists to advance its domestic and regional agendas. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the generals, especially the U.S.-funded military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, used Islamism to gain political legitimacy. Zia suppressed secular political rivals, such as the PPP, by jailing and torturing opposition leaders, banning political parties, and enacting harsh Islamic laws to appease allies in Islamist parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. Zia also armed Sunni sectarian groups in order to balance the country's Shiite minority, which had been emboldened by the recent Iranian Revolution. State patronage of violent extremism deepened sectarian rifts, militarized the society, and empowered radical Islamists, all of which in turn eroded the state's own writ and authority.

Flush with U.S. cash, the generals also fomented militancy in Kashmir to keep India bleeding and sponsored fundamentalism in Afghanistan to give Pakistan strategic depth against its archrival. Yet faced with U.S. President George W. Bush's famous ultimatum after 9/11 to either cut the military's ties to Afghan militants or prepare for war, Pakistani President Musharraf ostensibly jettisoned the generals' black-turbaned allies. He granted the United States access to Pakistani air bases, expanded Pakistan's intelligence cooperation, provided logistical support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and helped the United States with its primary objective -- killing or capturing members of al Qaeda. The United States was content with this level of cooperation and did not press Pakistan to help stabilize Afghanistan or target the Afghan Taliban, who had fled to Pakistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion.

Yet by 2004, the Taliban threatened to undermine the Afghan regime from their stronghold in Pakistan, and the Bush administration demanded that Pakistan address the problem, "the sooner, the better" in the words of Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. ambassador to Kabul. Since then, the Pakistani military has targeted militant groups in several parts of FATA and in the Malakand region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province).

But the military has a pick-and-choose approach to counterterrorism, even though terrorism poses a grave threat to Pakistan's internal security and stability. It has targeted members of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan and other administrative agencies in FATA, for example, but has persistently refused to take action in North Waziristan, which is the headquarters of the Haqqani network, an al Qaeda-affiliated Afghan militant group that leads the cross-border insurgency in eastern Afghanistan. It also continues to allow top members of the former Afghan Taliban regime to operate from Pakistan's major cities, especially Quetta and Karachi. Although Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that carries out attacks in India and Indian Kashmir, is formally banned in Pakistan, it continues to operate through proxies and aliases, recruiting operatives, organizing rallies, collecting funds for its "charitable" activities, and publishing proselytizing jihadist materials in plain sight of Pakistani intelligence authorities.

Although ending the insurgency in Afghanistan will require more than just eliminating militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, the Pakistani military's reluctance to target Afghan militants in North Waziristan has been a particularly sore point in its relationship with the United States. U.S. officials believe that the lawlessness of North Waziristan hampers the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, since insurgents can easily escape to safety on the Pakistani side of the border. For its part, the Pakistani military denies sheltering the Afghan Taliban anywhere in the country and claims that it cannot expand its operations into North Waziristan because it is stretched thin by its existing deployments and is short of critical military hardware, such as attack and transport helicopters.

Several U.S. and Pakistani observers agree with this assessment. Writing on March 23, 2010, in The New York Times, the Brookings fellow Michael O'Hanlon argued that Pakistan "simply does not have the military capacity to make major moves against the Afghan fundamentalists." Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly believes that Pakistan needs more armaments to successfully fight insurgents on its border with Afghanistan. And Maleeha Lodhi, former editor of The News International and former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, similarly contends that pushing the military to fight on multiple fronts is likely to strain its capacity and undermine its existing missions.

Yet even if capacity is a genuine issue, it is not the reason that counterrorism in Pakistan has failed. It is a pretext for inaction, rhetorically implying that the military has undergone a strategic paradigm shift, seeing militancy as a threat to national security rather than as a useful tool of foreign policy. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical. First, the Pakistani military has shown that it does indeed have the tools it needs to fight terrorism in several tribal areas simultaneously when it wants to. Besides, it already receives enough U.S. security assistance -- roughly $300 million since 2002 in foreign military financing and around $1.1 billion since 2008 for increasing its counterinsurgency capabilities, to be followed by $1.2 billion more next year -- to acquire the capacity it claims to so desperately need. In contrast, in 2010, U.S. aid for Pakistan's poorly paid, undertrained, and underresourced police forces, which are crucial to fighting insurgencies, totaled a paltry $66 million.

Second, it is unlikely that the Pakistani military has truly changed its calculation of the strategic value of militant groups. Before it moved into South Waziristan in October of 2009, the military cited similar shortages in resources yet was able to conduct a full and relatively successful mission there, clearing the area, capturing or killing many militants, and dismantling their bases and training camps. Indeed, the military seems to confront only those militants who threaten and attack the army itself. When the Pakistani government requested that the military go into South Waziristan, for example, it dragged its feet for months and was spurred into action only after militants carried out a deadly attack on its heavily guarded headquarters in the northern city of Rawalpindi. At the same time, it holds those groups that do not threaten it, including the Haqqani network, as reserve assets for the endgame in Afghanistan, when U.S. troops start pulling out this July and eventually leave by 2014. In fact, Pakistan's intelligence service has reportedly permitted Haqqani fighters to flee U.S. drone attacks in North Waziristan and relocate to bases in the nearby Kurram region.

Troublingly, the military's capacity alibi shifts the blame for the strength of Pakistan's violent extremists from the military -- which has nurtured and legitimized the influence of radical Islamists -- to civilian leaders and foreign patrons, who have supposedly neglected to provide the army with enough resources. Yet the extremists' growth and power in Pakistani society are a direct result of the military's pursuit of strategic depth against India. In fact, the military's permissive attitude toward radical Islamists has allowed them to infiltrate the lower echelons of Pakistan's security services. This worrying development was vividly demonstrated by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, by his own police guard on January 4 for opposing the blasphemy laws. Brazen terrorist attacks have battered the military itself, and suicide bombings in major Pakistani cities, including a spate of them in 2009 that claimed over 3,000 lives, have undermined citizens' confidence in the government's ability to provide them with security. Surprisingly, such attacks have not seemed to erode confidence in the military, especially after it provided quicker and more effective relief than the government after last year's devastating floods -- although trust in the military should not be confused with public support for military rule.


With all the resources in the world, the Pakistani military alone would be insufficient to conquer terrorism. So far, wherever it has tried to deal with militants, it has alternated between attempting to subdue them with brute force and, when that does not work, cutting its losses by appeasing them with peace deals. Both approaches have further fueled militancy. For instance, the military's use of artillery and aerial strikes to "soften targets" (sometimes without sufficient warning to civilian populations) and its collective punishment of tribes (under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, the colonial-era law under which FATA is still governed) have angered and alienated locals, reportedly facilitating militant recruitment. In exchange for a cease-fire, the peace agreements have ceded territory to the militants and given them the space to openly recruit, train, and arm themselves. The terms of the military's 2005 deal with Baitullah Mehsud, who was the leader of the Pakistani Taliban until his death in 2009, for example, stipulated that the military would release captured militants and vacate Mehsud's territory in return for a pledge that he would not harbor foreign fighters or attack Pakistani security forces. The military claims to have learned its lesson and has adopted a new strategy of counterinsurgency based on winning hearts and minds. But even in its recent campaigns, such as the 2009 offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, which were relatively more successful in terms of clearing militants and taking back territory, the military favored a heavy use of force and displaced millions of citizens. Moreover, it failed to capture or kill any significant number of senior Taliban leaders.

Militant extremism can be fought effectively only through serious governance reforms that ensure the rule of law and accountability. This will require a strong democracy, a viable economy, and well-balanced civil-military relations. In FATA, it will require abolishing the Frontier Crimes Regulation and integrating the region into the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province to end the Pakistani federal government's direct and oppressive rule, which the Pakistani Taliban have exploited to expand their influence, displace the already weakened tribal authority in the region, and establish parallel courts and policing systems in several FATA agencies, including North and South Waziristan. All of this seems daunting, but there is really no other long-term alternative. And despite its many failings and weaknesses, there are reasons to be optimistic about democracy in Pakistan.

If the "third wave" of democratization in the 1970s and 1980s had any lesson, it is that democracy does not necessarily require natural-born democrats or a mythically selfless political leadership. In fact, a strong democratic system can mitigate the baser instincts of politicians. If anything, the experience of countries such as Chile, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand in the last few decades shows that the strength and quality of democracy may be linked to the stability of the party system. This is good news for Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan's civilian politics is dominated by a few families, namely the Bhuttos, who control the PPP, and the Sharifs, who control the PML-N. In a perverse way, however, the hold of the Bhuttos and the Sharifs on their parties may be one of the main reasons that these parties have survived the military's divide-and-rule repression and may consolidate democracy in the future.

Already, the demands of governing seem to be putting some positive pressure on Pakistan's politicians. The most recent civilian government is only three years old, yet the much-derided political elite seems to have developed a consensus that democracy is the only game in town and has enacted constitutional reforms to curb outsized presidential powers -- an artifact of previous military regimes -- especially the power to dismiss democratically elected parliaments and prime ministers, which past military or military-backed presidents used to neuter parliament. The government has also created new parliamentary committees to appoint Supreme Court and provincial High Court judges and the country's top election officials, delegated some administrative and financial authority to the provinces, and raised the share of the federal revenue pool that the provinces receive.

The best way to further boost Pakistan's democracy will be to habituate the military to democratic norms and raise the costs of undermining democratic governance. The current parliament has already removed some constitutional loopholes that military leaders used in the past to avoid prosecution for coups. It has also proscribed the judiciary's frequent practice of legalizing military rule. But more direct attempts at exerting civilian control have backfired, including the government's short-lived July 2008 decision to bring Pakistan's secretive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -- which technically answers to the prime minister but in practice operates as the military's intelligence wing -- under the control of the Interior Ministry. The move was reversed during a midnight phone call between an angry Army Chief Kayani and the prime minister. And now, the ongoing ethnic violence in the southern port city of Karachi and the politically charged turf battles between the PPP government and the Supreme Court over the judiciary's encroachments on executive authority -- such as its sacking of top federal officials, its creation of judicial cells to monitor specific corruption cases, and its fixing of basic commodity prices -- could invite renewed military intervention.

But such setbacks are not uncommon in transitional democracies and should not prevent civilian politicians from continuing to take measured steps to establish civilian supremacy. For instance, instead of staying out of defense policy completely, the civilian government should call regular meetings of the cabinet's Defense Committee to discuss and make key national security decisions. Civilians should also try to exert more control over the Ministry of Defense, subject military expenditures to vigorous parliamentary debate, create a bipartisan parliamentary subcommittee for intelligence oversight, enact legislation to bring the ISI under civilian control, and appoint a special cabinet committee to approve top military promotions and appointments.


The other critical obstacle to democratization and stability in Pakistan is the country's weak economic performance. The civilian government inherited a cash-strapped, highly indebted economy from the Musharraf regime and had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a $7.6 billion bailout in 2008 to avoid default. Last summer's heavy floods, which displaced some 20 million people and caused considerable damage to Pakistan's civilian infrastructure, dealt a devastating blow to the prospects of economic resurgence. Perceptions of widespread government corruption and civilian authorities' apparent unwillingness to cut spending have not helped. Moreover, Pakistan has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world -- only two percent of the population pays any taxes at all -- yet the government has not been able to agree on critical tax reforms.

Pakistan must also reckon with the need to alleviate the economic hardships faced by its poor. Skyrocketing inflation of basic commodity prices, chronic power cuts, persistently high levels of unemployment, and general lawlessness are fueling public resentment of the current government. Some observers fear that the downward economic spiral could play into the hands of Islamists, but there is no automatic link between economic woes and the influence of Islamists in public life. In Pakistan, Islamist influence has been closely tied to state patronage, not popular support. Islamist parties continue to perform poorly at the polls, never garnering more than 10-12 percent of the vote, whereas the two main moderate parties -- the PPP and the PML-N -- typically claim about 60 percent of the vote and 70 percent of the seats in the national parliament.

Still, Pakistan's civilian government must stabilize the economy to bolster public confidence in democratic institutions. It must invest in Pakistan's long-term economic development and create opportunities for the country's rapidly growing population. It may even need a long-term, multibillion-dollar Marshall Plan to help build civilian institutional capacity, rebuild areas hit by last year's floods, invest in public-sector and infrastructure projects, and plug the energy shortages that have all but crippled the manufacturing sector, especially its top-exporting textile industry. Of course, such a plan should come with proper controls to fight corruption and waste.

It is worth noting that Pakistan's economic difficulties are the result not just of bad luck and poor management, and therefore they cannot be fixed with development aid alone. They are rooted in fundamental structural problems as well: military expenditures dwarf spending on development. Pakistan has one of the world's largest out-of-school populations, yet it spends seven times as much on the military every year as on education, an investment with a higher national security payoff in the long run. Thus, the country must find a way to rationalize its military expenditures.

Some progress toward a resolution of the Kashmir conflict could induce Pakistan to scale back its military behemoth. It could also potentially reduce the attractiveness of using militancy as an instrument of foreign policy. As Steve Coll chronicled in The New Yorker in 2009, Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were quite close to reaching a breakthrough accord on Kashmir in 2008, but it was aborted by the rapid erosion of Musharraf's authority in the face of domestic opposition to his dictatorial rule. The point is that only a strong, stable, and legitimate elected government will be able to mobilize the public opinion necessary to clinch a lasting peace with India. Both the PPP and the PML-N favor cooperation over confrontation in the region, and each has tried to mend fences with India, through high-level diplomacy as well as backdoor talks, only to be upbraided by the generals for compromising on national security. These parties need more room to pursue peace with India while holding the military at bay. This is something the United States can help provide, by firmly supporting democratic institutions in Pakistan even as it works with the military to fight al Qaeda.


The Obama administration came into office in 2009 with a solid commitment to supporting Pakistan's then year-old civilian democratic government as a hedge against militancy and terrorism. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which was passed into law as the Enhanced Partnership With Pakistan Act of 2009, authorized the U.S. Congress to triple civilian development assistance to Pakistan, raising it to $7.5 billion between 2010 and 2014. The aid package was designed to signal a new era in the United States' relationship with Pakistan, shifting the focus of U.S. aid from the military to civilian democratic governance and social development. Continued military aid was also tied to a yearly certification by the U.S. secretary of state that the Pakistani military has refrained from interfering in politics and is subject to civilian control over budgetary allocations, officer promotions, and strategic planning.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistani military balked at this affront even as the civilian government welcomed the aid. Joining with opposition parties, the military publicly decried the bill as a threat to Pakistani national security and mobilized right-wing sections of the media against U.S. meddling. In response, the bill's sponsors buckled and effectively defanged the conditionality measures. Even though the text of the law is intact, the United States meekly assured the Pakistani military that the intent of the conditions was misinterpreted and that the United States would keep its nose out of the generals' business. Indeed, most contact between the two countries still occurs behind closed doors between the two militaries or between the CIA and the ISI. The CIA's use of unmanned drones against militants in FATA, which are reportedly flown out of Pakistani bases, exemplifies this lack of transparency. The secrecy of the program allows both the United States and Pakistan to escape responsibility for civilian casualties.

The climb-down on the Enhanced Partnership Act indicated that even though the U.S. Congress recognizes the folly of building exclusive alliances with the Pakistani military, it still prefers engaging with Pakistan's military over its civilian leaders. This is partly pragmatism: the military is still the most powerful institution in Pakistan. But by continuing to treat the Pakistani military as a state above the state, the United States only reinforces the military's exaggerated sense of indispensability and further weakens civilian rule.

If the United States had stood its ground, the Pakistani military would have eventually backed down. It is dependent on the United States for military aid and high-tech armaments, including upgrading its aging fleet of F-16 fighters. And although the military has leverage over Washington since it controls U.S. supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan, its bargaining position has weakened over time.

Although Washington generally remains reluctant to pressure the Pakistani military, appropriately using sticks has not necessarily meant losing the generals' cooperation in fighting terrorism. For example, the U.S. Congress warned that it would cut off U.S. aid in response to Pakistan's detention of a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, who was arrested in January for fatally shooting two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore. In the end, Davis was released from jail in March -- the families of the victims agreed to pardon him after receiving compensation. His release would not have been possible without military complicity.

Such political and diplomatic pressure should be used to censure the military for political incursions. In this spirit, the United States should signal to the military that cracking down on terrorism is not a license for it to destabilize or overrun the government. The U.S. military should remind its Pakistani counterpart that interference in politics will not be tolerated and could have serious repercussions, including a downgrading of military ties, the suspension of nondevelopment aid, and broader diplomatic isolation.

Although the United States is confronted with an economic recession of its own, more civilian aid for (and trade with) Pakistan would cost relatively little compared to the money that the United States spends fighting Afghan and Pakistani extremists. And the potential dividends could be enormous: U.S. civilian aid could help secure civilian rule in Pakistan for the long haul and diminish anti-Americanism as well. To reduce the danger of moral hazard, this aid should be tightly linked to Pakistan's economic performance, progress in combating corruption, and transparency and responsiveness in government.

One relatively easy way for the United States to boost economic productivity in Pakistan would be to grant Pakistan emergency duty-free access to the U.S. market for textiles. This concession would face opposition from politically powerful U.S. textile interests, but the Obama administration should pursue this legislation on at least a temporary basis because it could crucially improve the economic stability of a vital ally by increasing the revenue it gets from this important industry.

Although a settlement of the Kashmir conflict is unlikely in the short term, Washington should continue to push both sides to achieve that goal. Of course, there are no guarantees that peace would be sufficient to reduce Pakistan's military expenditures or restrict the military to its proper constitutional sphere. But it is worth the effort because the international community has a stake in ending the nuclearized Indian-Pakistani rivalry, which not only endangers global security but also has spilled into Afghanistan.

With over a hundred nuclear weapons, a war-prone rivalry with India, and the presence of some of the world's most dangerous terrorists on its soil, Pakistan is too important to be left to the devices of its generals. For too long, the United States has sacrificed democracy for order. The results have been less than ideal, especially for the people of Pakistan. Pakistan urgently needs support from the international community to help stabilize its civilian democratic institutions and bolster its economy. Only such support will ensure its stability and reliability as a U.S. partner in the region.


AQIL SHAH is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Out of Control: The Pakistan Military and Politics in Historical and Regional Perspective


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