Pakistan’s Democratic Progression and the Impending Changes in Afghanistan

8 March 2014, 1019 EST

This is guest post by Professor T.V. Paul*

On March 5, 2014, the Nawaz Sharif government completed nine months in office, despite Pakistan’s continued economic crisis, chronic power shortages, and escalating sectarian violence. The military and the ISI are yet to show any inclination to wrest control of power from the civilians. In November, 2013 Sharif was able to  appoint General Raheel Sharif , who is known to be politically less ambitious, as the army chief and General Rashad Mahmood as the chairman of the less powerful joint chiefs of staff. This has given him a space to deal with internal problems as the army headed by General Sharif  is expected to go along with civilian wishes. But this harmony with the military may not last for the government’s full term, as in 1999 also Sharif had a few months of honeymoon period with his then army chief, General Pervez Musharraf.

Early indications are that the military’s approach this time around is to allow the democratic process to continue without its intervention. This is largely because the military knows it will not be able to fix Pakistan’s lingering economic and internal security problems if it takes over power and that it will lose whatever legitimacy it has left in the eyes of the Pakistani people. Pakistan’s judiciary and the media have helped to solidify the democratic forces up to a point.

Pakistan’s democracy, however, is not out of the woods anytime soon. The impending withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan is likely to be bad news for Pakistan’s domestic power arrangement and will put tremendous pressure on Pakistan’s civilian leadership. The ongoing negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are unlikely to produce a permanent peace as powerful groups with in the  Taliban are unlikely to agree to anything but full implementation of  Sharia laws.  The precise outcome will depend on how the Sharif government deals with both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups and how coordinated the military and the ISI will be with the civilian government to pursue a policy of peace and reconciliation in handling the Afghan imbroglio. The military will be under tremendous pressure to continue its long-standing  policies of pursuing strategic parity with India and support of the Taliban as a way to neutralize Karzai ‘s successor regime that has the support of the US, India, and Russia, among others. The urge to distinguish between the good Taliban and bad Taliban is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The Taliban challenge is even more significant for the civil-military relations in Pakistan. In 1996, the then civilian government of Benazir Bhutto willingly went along with the ISI and even appointed a pro-Taliban Pashtun in charge of the Afghan policy, producing the victory for Taliban. This time around the chances are that Sharif’s government  may end up supporting the Taliban unwillingly especially if an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is not reached or Pakistan loses its significance in Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal era.

The trial and a guilty verdict of the previous military ruler General  Musharraf for treason charges may also generate fissures between the civilians and the army. Although General Musharraf does not seem popular with the military, the fact that he was the head of the Pakistan army and that he led a coup on behalf of the army has been the reason why he  is under trial may provoke the army to react harshly if the general is given severe punishment including the death sentence.

Ironically, even a limited victory for the Afghan Taliban will increase the power of the Pakistani Taliban as well as they seem to work in tandem. In either scenario, the US withdrawal does not bode well for the civilian government of Pakistan.  The limited US military presence in Afghanistan  may necessitate  Washington to resort to more drone attacks as a way to tame the Taliban, which also will cause major challenges to the Sharif Government as the opposition parties are already threatening violent challenges to the US policy.

It is in the interests of the Sharif government and democracy itself that Pakistan doesn’t get too cozy with the Taliban this time around. A protracted civil war in Afghanistan will force Pakistan to take sides and divert its limited and rapidly depleting resources in that struggle. The domestic implications are even worse. More refugees will flow into Pakistan while the Pakistani Taliban strengthens its hold on the country.

In terms of its civil-military relations, the hope of taming the military and the ISI by the civilians will remain a pipedream if the conflict in Afghanistan lingers on. With the rivalry with India persisting, the military is unlikely  to lose its societal status or political power. Pakistan should take the initiative in meeting with the US and regional players including India to create a coordinated international effort for the development of Afghanistan as a democratic country where different ethnic groups live in peace.

Afghanistan, a long-suffering country, should not be viewed as an arena for zero-sum geopolitical rivalry, but a theater where durable peace in South Asia can begin. Indeed, it is the reduction of old-style military competition paving the way to economic cooperation and joint resources development and extraction that can entrench democracy and development in Pakistan and the region at large.

The clear way the civilians can strengthen their power in Pakistan is to reduce external and internal security competition and involvement in the affairs of neighbors, the logic of which are driven by archaic ideas like strategic depth and vassal states.  The military survives and thrives in an environment of conflict claiming it is needed to protect the country even when a large part of the insecurities are created through its own activities such as playing double games with the Americans and Islamic extremist groups such as the Taliban. Pakistan needs a major rethinking on what constitutes security and how to achieve realizable modest goals incrementally. The  ambitious strategies set by its military and civilian leaders in the past have led to the creation of a violent country which is a major source of insecurity today in South Asia and Central Asia.

*T.V. Paul is James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, Canada with a specialization on South Asia’s international relations. His latest book is: The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World (Oxford University Press, 2014).