Pakistan’s Protests Risk Another Military Coup

Pakistan’s fragile democracy, and the semblance of stability it brings to this troubled nuclear-armed Muslim country, is once again under threat. Protestors loyal to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based Sunni cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have paralyzed Islamabad for almost two weeks, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The protestors’ cult-like devotion to their leaders risks translating into violence, which could result in intervention by Pakistan’s powerful military.

Mr. Khan is known for his anti-Americanism and support of the Taliban. He claims that a tainted vote brought Mr. Sharif to power last year and demands fresh elections. Mr. Qadri, on the other hand, espouses Sufi Islam and is outspoken in condemning al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He says that Pakistan’s isn’t a real democracy, so it must be overthrown through a people’s revolution with him at the lead.

Such instability is the last thing the country needs. Mr. Sharif was elected barely 15 months ago, marking the first transition from one civilian leader to another in Pakistan’s 67-year history. His government promised to rejuvenate the economy with IMF-backed economic reforms, normalize relations with India and stop trying to impose Islamabad’s will on neighboring Afghanistan.

Yet Mr. Sharif dithered before launching military operations in June against Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and he has been indecisive in dealing with jihadist extremists, some of whom have ideological ties to members of his Pakistan Muslim League party.

The prime minister has also insisted on trying former military dictator Pervez Musharraf for treason over his suspension of the country’s constitution in 2007. That move smacks of personal vendetta, since Mr. Sharif’s last stint as prime minister ended in a 1999 military coup carried out by then-Gen. Musharraf.

The Musharraf trial has brought the prime minister in conflict with the Pakistani military, which has ruled the country on and off for 33 years and wields tremendous influence even when civilians lead the government. But the generals know that launching a military coup would risk the loss of much-needed international support.

Still, most Pakistanis believe the generals have given a wink and a nod to Messrs. Khan and Qadri in hopes that their televised demonstrations and threats of violence will sap the civilian government’s energies. The military—and its ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence arm—used a similar strategy against the previous civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Mr. Sharif is vulnerable partly because he governs more like a monarch than a democrat, putting family members and retainers in key government positions. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is the father-in-law of Mr. Sharif’s daughter, while the prime minister’s brother Shehbaz is chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Mr. Sharif also tends to encourage polarization by refusing to compromise with political opponents, a shortcoming that his predecessor Mr. Zardari avoided along the way to completing his full five-year term.

These flaws notwithstanding, Mr. Sharif’s premature removal from office would undermine Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. If a few thousand demonstrators are able to force out an elected leader or provoke another coup, no elected civilian government would be able to survive similar intrigue in the future.

Pakistan’s fragility should concern Americans and others who recognize the country as an epicenter of global terrorism. Islamabad’s preoccupation with corruption allegations and hyper-nationalist rhetoric distracts vital attention from the larger threats of rising extremism, increasing religious intolerance and widespread violence.

In the past, the United States has alternated between sanctioning Pakistan and showering it with economic and military aid to encourage civilian government and counterterror cooperation. But the main beneficiary of such aid has been Pakistan’s military, which remains unwilling to drop its strategic focus on permanent conflict with India and as a result has continued using jihadist militants as proxies for regional influence.

The Obama administration has by and large ignored the political turmoil in Pakistan as part of its general retreat from foreign affairs. In doing so, the U.S. runs the risk of facing future crises without viable policy options, much as it has with Egypt since 2011. Washington should put its weight behind Pakistani democracy, discourage Pakistan’s generals from manipulating protestors and nudge Prime Minister Sharif toward a more inclusive governing approach.

Pakistan, Obsessed Over India, Risks Anarchy

The elaborate diplomatic dance between India and Pakistan has been interrupted once again. The two sides remain far from a major breakthrough in their troubled relationship. As long as the Pakistani Army continues to view India as an existential threat and maintains its grip over security policy, the twain may never achieve permanent peace.

India has called off the meeting between its Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh and her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Chaudhry scheduled for August 25 in Islamabad, after Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi met Kashmiri separatist leaders. This has ended the euphoria following Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s journey to New Delhi for the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last May. Pakistan’s decision to remind Indians of their dispute over Kashmir followed Modi’s comments about Pakistani support for terrorism during a recent visit to Kargil, where the two countries fought a war in 1999.

Both Sharif and Modi spoke of the need to bury the hatchet during their meeting on occasion of Modi’s inauguration. But the expressions of desire for normalization could not contain the more substantive problems in the India-Pakistan relationship. India remains unhappy over Pakistan’s failure to prosecute terrorists involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Sharif, on the other hand, must deal with hardliners in Pakistan’s military who insist on seeing India as their country’s permanent enemy – unwilling to look too closely at the terrorists involved in the attack.

For India, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks were as much a challenge as the 9/11 assault was for Americans. The 12 coordinated shootings and bombings carried out by ten Pakistani terrorists killed 164 people and terrorized India’s commercial capital for almost three days before commandos flushed them out of various buildings, including five-star hotels and a Jewish Community Center. The images of the attacks, telecast live into Indian homes, are seared in the memory of most Indians.

Although Pakistan arrested several individuals involved in planning and executing the Mumbai attacks, prosecution has been repeatedly delayed. Intelligence reports, including some from US sources, have indicated that the detained commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, enjoy amenities not available to prisoners. Some have been found passing instructions on the phone to operatives. Recently, their trial was once again postponed without recording evidence or other substantive proceedings.

LeT chief Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed remains free, appearing on television spouting venom against India, Israel and the United States from his massive headquarters near Lahore. Indian officials read Pakistan’s refusal to prosecute the 26/11 accused or clamp down on Hafiz Sayeed as a sign of reluctance in shutting down anti-India jihadi groups.

In July Pakistan’s military launched a military operation against terrorist safe havens along its border with Afghanistan, yet the Pakistani state is far from shutting down the jihadi infrastructure built since the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the subsequent militant uprising in Kashmir during the 1990s.

The Pakistani military continues to seek military advantage against India even though the possession of nuclear weapons by both countries should deter the prospect of war. Jihadis offer a sub-conventional deterrent to Pakistan against India’s overwhelming advantage in conventional military capability. Most Pakistani civilian politicians recognize the dangers of reliance on terrorism as an element of Pakistan’s strategic planning, but the military retains tight control over foreign and national security policy despite return to civilian rule in 2008.

Like his civilian predecessor Asif Ali Zardari, Sharif has declared normalization of relations with India as a priority. Zardari’s government tried to open travel and trade and, in 2011, agreed to Most Favored Nation status for India. Despite completion of legal formalities, the status has not yet been granted, demonstrating behind-the-scenes military influence.

After his election last year, Sharif renewed talk of normalizing relations with India, with special emphasis on trade. India and Pakistan have a combined population of 1.4 billion, share a 2,000-mile border and a common history until 1947. Their languages are mutually understandable, and parts of their populations have overlapping ethnicity. There is also significant complementarity in the two neighbors’ economies. Still, trade between them amounted to only $2.6 billion last year, less than 0.5 percent of India’s total commerce. As a businessman, Sharif says he understands the benefit of freer trade between the two countries.

Rhetoric and expressions of desire for more trade notwithstanding, security remains the overarching consideration in India-Pakistan ties.

Sharif’s participation in Modi’s inauguration was billed as the first time a Pakistani prime minister had attended such celebrations in India – an opportunity for laying foundations of a new relationship between India and Pakistan. The prospect of a new beginning, however, was soon undermined by incidents of firing along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. The two countries have fought for the control of Kashmir since 1947.

According to Indian officials, Pakistan has violated the ceasefire in the disputed territory 54 times this year through July 16 and 19 times since the Modi government took office May 26. Defense Minister Arun Jaitley told parliament recently that Pakistan violated the ceasefire agreement 199 times last year. Pakistan flatly denies reports of these incidents just as it denies support for jihadi groups operating in Kashmir though they operate in full view of Pakistani and international media.
There are many logical reasons for why and how Indian-Pakistan ties can be normalized. Psychological, not logical, factors have held the relationship back so far. Since the country’s birth through India’s partition in 1947, Pakistanis have sought to define their national identity through denial of commonality with India.

Disputes, such as the one over Jammu and Kashmir, have over the years become more symptom than cause of tensions in the subcontinent. At the heart of the problem is Pakistan’s carefully nurtured national narrative and state ideology, diametrically opposed to India’s view of itself as the region’s preeminent power.

Since independence, Pakistanis have been told, and with greater vehemence since 1977 with the rule of military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, that their country is a “citadel of Islam,” that its destiny is to be an Islamic State and its army is “the sword of Islam.” Advocates of modern, secular values, even pluralism, are denigrated as “enemies of the ideology of Pakistan,” therefore cast as “traitors to Pakistan.” Pakistan’s establishment, led by its military, also seeks parity with India, not only in the legal sense of sovereign equality between nations but in military and political terms.

This ideological milieu has helped religious-political groups exercise greater influence on national discourse than is justified by either the size of their membership or number of votes in Pakistan’s sporadic general elections and led to the outgrowth of jihadi groups, one more extreme than the other.

Pakistan’s state ideology has undermined prospects for peace with India since 1950, when Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan travelled to Delhi and signed the first major agreement. The optimism about the agreement died within a year with the assassination of its Pakistani signatory. Pakistan has since gone through years of political instability while the army has gained influence in policymaking.

Over the years, Pakistan participated in US-led anti-communist military alliances to secure military hardware that would enable it to deal with a larger, ostensibly hostile neighbor. It has fought four wars with India, including the one in 1971 resulting in the creation of Bangladesh, leaving Pakistan with half its 1947 territory. Although Pakistan has acquired nuclear-weapons capability, its insecurity in relation to India has not diminished.

Soon after independence, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had said that he expected India and Pakistan to live alongside each other like Canada and the United States. But as long as Pakistan’s establishment continues to paint India as an existential threat and a permanent enemy in the minds of its people, no Pakistani leader –civilian or military –can embrace the Canada-US model. For now, the two sides will maintain their well-worn pattern of diplomatic engagement interspersed with periods of intense hostility.

A Bubble Called Pakistan

Barely 14 months after convincingly winning a general election, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is being asked to resign amid threats of street protests. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based Sunni cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri plan separate marches on Islamabad on August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. Several politicians and parties known for their close ties to Pakistan’s deep state, the ISI, have announced support for the anti-Sharif protests.

Sharif will most likely ride out this first wave of attack. He retains an absolute majority in parliament and, by most accounts, there is no appetite in the country for a military coup. But the protests will weaken Sharif and sap the elected government’s energies, diminishing its effectiveness. That is exactly how the wings of the previous civilian government led by Asif Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani were clipped. Then, the judiciary played a critical role in tying up elected leaders in knots though, this time, the judges have yet to get involved.

The military has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half its existence as an independent country. When it can’t govern directly, the military and its intelligence services still want to exert influence, especially over foreign and national security policies. At any given time, there are enough civilian politicians, media personalities or judges willing to do the military’s bidding for this manipulation to persist.

Currently, the military wants Sharif to curb his enthusiasm about normalising ties with India and turn away from Pakistan’s past policy of meddling in Afghanistan’s politics. It also wants an end to the treason trial of former dictator General Pervez Musharraf.

In the Pakistani military’s worldview, coup-making should not result in a trial for treason. The armed forces represent patriotism, even if their errors result in the loss of half the country’s territory, as happened in 1971 with the loss of Bangladesh. Civilians, on the other hand, can be judged traitors merely for advocating a different path forward for the country.

Ironically, the latest effort to destabilise an elected civilian government is taking place at a time when the Pakistan army is ostensibly waging war against jihadi terrorists in North Waziristan. The chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, has promised that the war will continue until all terrorist groups are eliminated. Usually, war unites political rivals, but there has been no effort by the military and its civilian political allies, or for that matter by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to overcome polarisation.

The current political chaos reminds me of a conversation I had with the then US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, soon after the covert American operation that resulted in discovering and killing Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.

Grossman, who was in Islamabad at the time of the May 1, 2011 operation, described the atmosphere in the Pakistani capital as “surreal”. He told me that he felt Pakistani officials and the rest of the world seemed to exist in “parallel universes”.

The veteran American diplomat noted that instead of realising the need to be apologetic about the world’s most wanted terrorist being found in their country, Pakistanis angrily protested America’s decision to kill bin Laden on Pakistani soil without informing Pakistani authorities.

As Pakistan’s ambassador to the US at the time, I could not tell Grossman that I agreed with him. But like many Pakistanis who worry about their country’s future, I have often noted my compatriots’ tendency to live in a world all our own.

The rest of the world is clearly concerned about the inadequacy of Pakistan’s efforts in eliminating the jihadis. The spectre of terrorism impacts Pakistan’s economy adversely and makes it difficult for Pakistanis to find jobs or travel abroad. Sri Lanka recently withdrew visa-on-arrival facility from Pakistani citizens, further reducing the number of countries where Pakistanis might travel without a visa.

But these adverse reports barely find mention in Pakistan’s media, which remains preoccupied with the shenanigans of people like Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri. Such is the media noise that Pakistanis are often kept ignorant of how the rest of the world looks at their country and remain confused about considering jihadist terrorism the principal threat to the country’s survival.

Pakistani leaders seem to prefer hyper-nationalist rhetoric and allegations of corruption against their rivals to an honest debate about the country’s loss of direction. Thus, Imran Khan and Qadri are not behaving differently from the way Nawaz Sharif and the lawyers’ movement acted against Zardari in the preceding five years.

Calls for a change of government, even if it is only a few months after its election, serve as a substitute for serious debate about how Pakistan may have lost its direction as a nation. There is virtual denial about real problems like rising extremism, increasing intolerance, widespread violence and the prospect of global isolation.

Denial leads to self-deception. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey recently found that even in Pakistan’s closest ally, China, only 30 per cent of those polled had a positive view of Pakistan. But the poll and its implications were barely discussed in the Pakistani media, which has been focused on the verbal duels between Sharif’s supporters and opponents. Parallel universes indeed!