The South Asia Channel

Washington Doesn’t Help Pakistani Democracy

U.S. policy toward Islamabad exacerbates Pakistan’s widening civil-military imbalance.


Back in October 2013, I argued in an op-ed that President Obama should use a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to bolster the Pakistani government’s role relative to the military. The imbalance in civil-military relations, I contended at the time, was indicative of an incomplete democracy. I called on Washington to help strengthen civilian institutions such as Parliament and the police. “In a true democracy,” I wrote, “no institution, no matter how essential, should enjoy such unchecked power.”

Two years later, Sharif is back in Washington. Unfortunately, democracy in his country not only remains incomplete, but has also grown increasingly imperiled. In Pakistan, the idea of any semblance of a civil-military balance is a sham — and U.S. policy, unfortunately, helps widen the divide.

In the summer of 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 shrunk 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. For a country with a deep legacy of heavy military influence over statecraft, this is sadly nothing new. The old normal has become the new normal.

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 harbored by a hardline military. This summer, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif declared that India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was formed “to wipe Pakistan off the map.” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan insisted that India wants to destabilize Pakistan and keep it “backward and underdeveloped.” 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 United Nations General Assembly, when he proposed the demilitarization 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 crystallized on Oct. 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 United States.

This is not to dismiss Pakistan’s genuine democratic progress. Parliament rallied behind Sharif during Imran Khan’s anti-government movement. 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.

And yet these encouraging developments have done little to ease the military’s tightening grip on power.

Several days before Sharif came to the United States, reports appeared in the Pakistani media alleging that RAW 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. By “revealing” this plot, one might have argued, the military could have been serving up a useful pretext for an intervention to save Pakistan from the latest predations of India.

In the present era, 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 and arguably unprecedented domestic challenges. These range from energy and education crises to multiple public health epidemics.

Regardless, Sharif’s visit to Washington will do little to advance the cause of democracy in Pakistan. The United States largely views Pakistan through the narrow lens of security, and its chief interests in Pakistan are therefore security in nature. This entails a need to heavily engage and frequently charm Pakistani military officials, who rule the roost on security matters. Washington pulls out all the stops during their visits to the United States, which tend to be quite long and sometimes involve awarding them prestigious honors.

At the end of the day, when Washington needs to get something done to serve its chief interests in Pakistan, one can assume it goes to the generals, not the civilians. This is incredibly ironic and misguided — given that the generals imperil U.S. interests in the region with their sponsorship of non-state militants — but nonetheless a fact of life for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

This is why we shouldn’t expect many substantive outcomes from Obama’s meeting with Sharif. The key agenda items — counterterrorism cooperation, nuclear security, the Afghanistan peace process with the Taliban — are matters over which the military, not the premier, hold sway and have the final say.

To that end, there is another Obama-Sharif meeting that is much more consequential than the one happening this week — a summit between the U.S. president and Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, which is scheduled to take place next month (incidentally, Prime Minister Sharif’s visit was immediately preceded by one from Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, who heads the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency).

This is not to say that Washington does not help advance — or at least attempt to advance — the cause of democracy in Pakistan. The U.S. government disbursed nearly $400 million in democracy and governance assistance for the country between 2009 and 2014. Recent U.S. aid to Pakistan has included support for the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services, a research and training center for the national legislature. A chief aim of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) bill, which authorized a total of $7.5 billion in development assistance between 2009 and 2014, was meant to strengthen a civilian administration emerging from nearly a decade of military rule.

Though KLB expired last year, a few billion dollars still have yet to be spent. In his meeting with Prime Minister Sharif, Obama would be wise to announce some new initiatives using those remaining KLB monies.

Ultimately, however, this week’s visit, like most high-level official visits involving the United States and Pakistan, will be about security. And that means more engagement with — and a further bolstering of — the Pakistani military.

In so doing, U.S. policy, despite its best efforts to strengthen democracy, invariably helps ensure that there will continue to be an essential institution in Pakistan that enjoys unchecked power.


Michael Kugelman writes Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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