Democracy in Pakistan Might Bring Tension With Washington

Newly elected politicians want to end extremism, not use it as bait for US funding

BOSTON: The decision by the opposition parties that won Pakistan’s February 18 parliamentary election to work together offers the hope of bringing democratic stability to a dysfunctional nuclear state. The army has dominated Pakistan’s politics for most of its 60-year existence as an independent country. In the past, coup-making generals, like President Pervez Musharraf, have taken advantage of differences among politicians instead of allowing politicians with popular support to negotiate compromises and run the country according to its constitution.

The priority of Pakistan’s military rulers has been to create a centralized state, focused on the perceived threat from India, with the help of the United States. US assistance is obtained by allying with Washington’s strategic concern of the day, which in turn has led to over-engagement by the military on several fronts.

Many of Pakistan’s problems, such as the influence of jihadi extremists and difficult relations with Afghanistan and India can be traced to the ascendancy of strategic military doctrine at the expense of domestic stability and democratic decision-making. All that could now change if the army stays its new course of disengagement from politics and the politicians can work together rather than against each other.

In a clear signal that Pakistan’s military recognizes its over-engagement as part of the country’s dysfunction, the new commander of the Pakistan army General Ashfaq Kayani ordered his officers to stand aside in the election process. The army’s refusal to stuff ballot boxes in favor of Musharraf’s political allies led to the two major opposition parties – the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – emerging as the two largest parties in the new parliament.

The Islamist parties were swept aside in a resurgence of the secular center, including the re-emergence of the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) as the major political force in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan border.

Even after the humiliating defeat of his political allies, whom he supported in every fair or foul way possible until Election Day, Musharraf refuses to step down as president. The opposition, on the other hand, has agreed on a common minimum platform that aims at restoring the Pakistani constitution, rehabilitating its judiciary and moving towards national reconciliation.

Pakistan is a nation in need of healing. The last year has highlighted the many fissures that have festered below the surface for years. Musharraf’s rule, and the constant machinations of Pakistan’s security services in every aspect of the nation’s life, has proved to be divisive. For example, opinion polls show that a clear majority of Pakistanis suspects the security services or Musharraf’s political allies, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. An elected government that functions in a transparent manner could help lessen widespread mistrust between Pakistan’s state and society.

In the recent elections, Pakistan’s politicians scored a major victory against what is euphemistically called “the establishment” in Pakistan. But the battle between “the establishment” and the politicians is far from over. “The establishment,” made up of politicized generals, intelligence officials and Pakistan’s managerial class – bankers, civil servants, some overseas businessmen, beneficiaries of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – will not give up easily. Soon there could be rumors of corruption and mismanagement to discredit the elected leadership and a concerted effort to create rifts among them.

A future government of national unity led by elected politicians would almost certainly try and end the political role of intelligence services. For too long, an all-powerful intelligence community has run – and most observers would agree, ruined – Pakistan by fixing elections, dividing parties and buying off politicians.

If the politicians prevail, the war against terrorism would be fought to eliminate out-of-control jihadi groups previously nurtured or tolerated by the Pakistani state, not to secure additional funding from the US. Zardari and Sharif have different levels of commitment to eliminating the jihadis. Having lost his wife to terrorism, Zardari understands that terrorism is a threat to Pakistan whereas Sharif still considers the war against terrorism as an American project. But no one in Pakistan’s new political center wants to continue running the risk of calibrating extremist groups for the sake of enhancing the country’s global strategic significance, as Musharraf has continuously done since 9/11.

An elected Pakistani government might be less amenable, say, to requests for rendition of Pakistani citizens. But it would almost certainly be interested in rooting out Al Qaeda and stopping cross-border Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan. The civilians would also seek a clearer strategy against militant Talibanization within Pakistan, particularly because they have a popular mandate in the form of electoral rejection of Islamists.

The PPP’s Zardari has repeatedly stated in interviews that he considers normalization of relations with India a priority because “Pakistan cannot move on without normal ties with India.” As prime minister, Sharif had initiated the peace process with India after both countries’ nuclear tests in 1998, yet that came to an abrupt halt when army commander Musharraf started the Kargil war over Jammu and Kashmir. After initial confrontation, Musharraf as president has come around to managing a relatively quiet relationship with Pakistan’s larger South Asian neighbor.

During the run-up to the recent elections, none of the major political parties highlighted Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir. That raises expectations of a political consensus on developing normal relations with India without insisting on prior resolution of the Kashmir issue. In the past, any politician seeking friendly ties with India has faced criticism from rivals seeking to tap into anti-India sentiment within Pakistan.

The need of the hour in Pakistan is a “grand national compromise” that brings to an end the vilification and demonization of some politicians, restores the military’s prestige and ends its political role, limits the intelligence agencies to external security functions and results in a government that unites the Pakistani nation against terrorism and disintegration. Pakistan’s foreign policy also needs to be re-oriented towards friendlier relations with Pakistan immediate neighbors instead of being centered merely on scoring points in distant major world capitals. For this to happen, politicians and the permanent state apparatus must become partners, bringing to an end the subordinate relationship that Musharraf had created with handpicked politicians.

If the anti-Musharraf parties can work together and the army’s neutrality keeps Musharraf from rocking the boat by undermining the system again, Pakistan could be run according to its constitution. An independent judiciary and a free media would then become the guardians against abuse of power by elected officials. Corruption would probably continue as it has for years, but would be dealt with by the courts and the voters, not by coups d’état. Musharraf has a few days to decide whether he wants to become part of the Grand National Compromise, salvage some respect, and voluntarily give up power. Or he could remain the major wound that must be dealt with before the healing of Pakistan can begin.

Husain Haqqani, director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, is co-chair of the Hudson Institute’s Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book “Pakistan Between Mosque and Military” (2005) and served as an adviser to former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

This article by Husain Haqqani originally appeared in Yale Global on February 22, 2008.