What we learned from Pakistan’s recent political crisis
By Dan Twining Pakistan’s political crisis of last weekend was precipitated by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s pledge to march on Islamabad in support of freedom of the judiciary after both Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz, who had been chief minister of Punjab province, were disqualified by Musharraf-era Supreme Court justices from holding elected office. Using ...
By Dan Twining
By Dan Twining
Pakistan’s political crisis of last weekend was precipitated by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s pledge to march on Islamabad in support of freedom of the judiciary after both Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz, who had been chief minister of Punjab province, were disqualified by Musharraf-era Supreme Court justices from holding elected office. Using the vast powers of the presidency accumulated under General Musharraf, President Zardari ordered Nawaz held under house arrest following the latter’s call for "revolution" in Pakistan and ensuing mass protests — only to have the Punjab police facilitate Nawaz’s escape from confinement.
As Nawaz and an army of lawyers and party workers marched toward Islamabad, Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Kayani warned a frantic Zardari that the military would not intervene, while U.S. officials pressed for a political solution that would not put at risk a forthcoming major U.S. assistance package or broader U.S. goals in the region. This forced Zardari to agree to restore deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and have the Pakistani government petition the court to have the decisions barring the Sharifs from politics overturned.
So what have we learned?
1. Once again, Pakistan’s civic majority, led by the lawyers’ movement, has proven that it will not be an accessory to permanent strongman rule. While Western commentators bemoan Pakistan’s political instability, and some not-so-secretly long for the restoration to the presidency of a "good general" (as many once thought Musharraf was), the United States should welcome the role of a vibrant civil society in Pakistan that advocates the same goals — freedom of the judiciary, freedom of speech, and checks and balances on political power, which characterize all constitutional democracies. U.S. policy toward Pakistan, including assistance programs, should focus on strengthening Pakistan’s civic institutions, particularly the educational and judicial systems, to empower the country’s moderate majority. It constitutes a better bulwark against Talibanization than any officer with stars on his shoulders.
2. Plaudits for the moderating role the Pakistani military played in this crisis are overstated. The Pakistani officer corps has cultivated a mythology of itself as "defender of the nation" in order to ensure its institutional dominance within the Pakistani state, secure a vast internal economic empire that both enriches and corrupts, and justify the militarization of Pakistani society with reference to largely imagined threats from India and, yes, the United States.
General Kayani’s decision to keep the military from intervening to restore public order last weekend was certainly helpful. But his calculus was based on what was best for the Army — avoiding a scenario in which armed troops in the streets were all that stood between civilian protestors and the presidential palace, leading to the possibility of a Pakistani Tiananmen. Based on a prudential logic of cost and benefit, there are easily imaginable scenarios in which Pakistan’s senior officers make the opposite calculation. One reason Pakistan’s friends abroad should be so focused on strengthening the country’s civilian institutions is to minimize the Pakistani military’s temptation to succumb to a different calculus in the next political crisis.
3. The Obama administration passed its first real test in Pakistan, but harder calls are yet to come. Secretary Clinton, Special Representative Holbrooke, Ambassador Anne Patterson, and other U.S. officials played a valuable role in helping to defuse the crisis. But they are now confronted with a situation in which, 1) an unpopular President Zardari has grave liabilities, a fractured political coalition, and an emboldened opposition; 2) restored Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhry, whose investigation into the Musharraf government’s undisclosed detention of terrorism suspects led to his own fall from power, may reopen investigations into corruption by Zardari in ways that further weaken his presidency; 3) a collapsing Pakistani economy inflames political conflict and produces further mass unrest; 4) the country’s most popular politician, Nawaz Sharif, newly empowered by Zardari’s creation of a scenario in which Nawaz could only emerge the winner, holds no elected office and remains outside the political system, creating great incentives for mischief; and 5) Nawaz, if and when he assumes high office, will need to reconcile his support for flawed sanctuary agreements with Islamic militants and his political alliances with Islamist parties with the urgent requirement to defeat the internal militancy that threatens the very foundations of the Pakistani state.
Just as conspiracy-minded Pakistanis assume that Washington is calling all the shots in Islamabad (it’s not, and it can’t), senior Obama administration officials have for too long blamed the Bush administration for the hand they were dealt in Pakistan as in Afghanistan. The reality is that both countries face intractable internal conflicts as a result of tough insurgencies, the penetration of al Qaeda into the ranks of domestic militants, the inability of the state to control its territory, weak political institutions, and lack of economic opportunity. Those of us not in government can only wish the Obama administration luck in dealing with these grave challenges.
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