Pakistan Again On The Precipice? – Analysis


What is happening in Pakistan these days are extremely grave with potential security implications for Pakistan’s neighbors and possibly may involve the super powers.

The latest victim of the memogate has been the Defense Secretary, dismissed for “gross misconduct” following the warning by the powerful army of “potentially grievous consequences for the country” in reply to Prime Minister Gilani’s public interview to a Chinese newspaper accusing the army and the intelligence chiefs of failing to make their submission properly to the enquiry commission set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the memogate.

The army replied to the criticism by the Prime Minister that they had followed the rules of the government. BBC found the army’s public confrontation with the government in a media war as unusual. More so as Pakistan’s free press may deter the army to stage a coup as the last military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had to leave in disgrace Additionally international sanctions that would inevitably follow a military coup would further damage an already devastated economy. The situation has been further complicated by the Supreme Court’s threat to dismiss the Prime Minister for refusing to open corruption case against President Zardari and has held the government of “willful disobedience” and called Prime Minister Gilani “dishonest”. The court laid out six options­initiating contempt of court proceedings; dismissing the Prime Minister; forming a judicial commission to take actions against the President for violating his constitutional oath; order the Attorney General to explain the government action etc. It is believed that the army is using the Supreme Court to dismiss the government before the scheduled March Senate elections that the ruling party is expected to win.

According to Pakistan constitution Prime Minister can only be dismissed by the Parliament while the Supreme Court can only disqualify him indirectly. Thus the executive and the judiciary has been brought to a state of confrontation. President Zardari is totally against any trial of his late wife and of himself­one he has described as “a trial of the grave” and the other on ground of Presidential immunity. The possibility of the military to oust the government has been discounted by Stratfor (12th January 2012 report) on grounds that such a coup would not only be unsustainable domestically but internationally it would not be accepted.

And, adds Stratfor, given the historical trend, the military will not become subordinate to civilians anytime soon — while the country’s political parties have yet to demonstrate they are a coherent lot capable of effective governance. That said, the military’s ability to dominate the polity is no longer what it once was. Earlier opposition leader Nawaz Sharif petitioned the Supreme Court to investigate the memo. Memogate refers to an unsigned document delivered in May last year to then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen seeking American help to restrain Pakistani army from seizing control of the State machinery through a coup d’etat. In exchange the document promised greater Pakistani cooperation in tracking down the Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. The document was delivered to US National Security Advisor General Jim Jones by a Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaj who claimed that the document had been authored by Pakistani ambassador to the US Hussein Haqqani, a close confidant of Pak President Asif Ali Zardari. Haqqani who denied paternity of the memo has since resigned but is now denied overseas travel till the resolution of the matter. In an op-ed Haqqani’s wife Farhanaz Isphani has observed “the manner in which my husband is being treated reflects the shrinking political space there for anyone who advocates positive relations with the West or stands up for religious – cultural tolerance and pluralism…

It is a part of systematic elimination or marginalization of every intellectual and leader in Pakistan who has stood up for the institutionalization of a militarized Islamic state”. Referring to the assassinations of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister for Minorities Shah Bhatti for promoting the rights of religious minorities Farhanaz Ispahani appealed to the Americans to stand up for those who share their values. Harlan Ullman wrote in the Atlantic magazine that “at issue here is ultimately Pakistan’s future as a democracy that Pakistan aspires to maintain” and if the government is removed by the court and no ruling coalition emerges “Pakistan in essence becomes unstable or even ungovernable. Internal strains and tensions for independence of Baluchistan and autonomy for parts of Punjab would build to the uncertainty and instability”.

Conspiracy and assassination are not new to Pakistan as evidenced by the murder of the first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan, Rawalpindi Conspiracy case, the infamous Agartala conspiracy case involving Bangladesh Father of the Nation that had to be withdrawn in the face of popular wrath, Ojeri Explosion case, loss of then East Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh, judicial hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, death of General Ziaul Huq and finally assassination of Benazir Bhutto in which then President General Parvez Musharraf is alleged to have been involved. Memogate also reflects the extent to which the US is pulled into Pakistan’s domestic politics overtly to its reluctance and discomfiture. A former official of the White House National Security Council Shamila Chaudhury points out “the US-Pakistan relationship now faces some of the most challenging policy questions it has faced in decades, related to defining to Pakistan’s role in an eventual reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the impact of 2014 international troops drawdown in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s national security interests because of the high risks these questions pose”.

Pakistan military generally told the Americans that the choice for the US was to deal with a militarized government or the Talibanized Pakistan. Way back in 2007 (Foreign Affairs-July/ August 2007) Daniel Markey had posited that the choice facing the US “between supporting Pakistan’s army and promoting democracy has always been a false one. Both are necessary. Only by helping to empower civilians and earning the trust of the army at the same time would the United States successfully prosecute the long war against extremism and militancy”.

It has been argued in favor of Daniel Markey’s premise that societies like that of Pakistan burdened with the attributes of tribalism preclude fairness and justice to the people. Added to this feudalistic character of the society is the constant fear of Hindu India overrunning smaller (but nuclear) Pakistan. It has been suggested that the Pakistan army and its intelligence agency-ISI’s- retention of ties with the militants and Taliban sympathizers have been done as a hedge against abandonment by the US in case of an Indo-Pak conflict. Ayesha Siddiqa(Military INC) writes that “the military’s power allows it to define its economic interests and exploit public and private resources, a behavior that increases the organization’s appetite for power”. Siddiqa’s contention is strengthened by the belief that Pakistan military will not accept any dilution of power, however tainted some elements of the army remain of Islamist extremism and Jihadist ideology. The future of Pakistan would be better served by a choice between the military and the democrats and not the military and the Mullahs as constantly propagated by the vested quarters.

It is well known that Pakistan had always regarded Afghanistan as “strategic depth” in the event of Indo-Pak conflict and consequently is worried about alleged increased Indian influence in Afghanistan. Besides, President Hamid Karzai’s strident accusations that attack on Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan are conceived and financed from Pakistani soil had added fuel to the fire. In the defense of Pakistani government it can be argued that some of the areas along the Pak-Afghan border are under effective Taliban control and Pakistan government is trying both through signing an agreement with the Taliban and through military means to bring back these areas under the central government control. Pakistan’s inability so far to stop the cross border incursions into Afghanistan has led to the US military leaders including then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s claim that the US had the right to take military action in Pakistan or in Afghanistan without prior information to either government if the US got reliable and concrete intelligence about the presence of top leadership of Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Despite former President Bush’s description of Pakistan as a “strong ally and vibrant democracy” use of the US drone attack inside Pakistan raised the hot debate on the violation of Pak sovereignty along with the US accusation that Pakistan is not doing enough in the fight against extremists and terrorists . New York Times (Jan12 2012) commented that the “reputation of the Pak army, the most powerful and privileged force in the country, was severely undermined by the American raid. That American helicopters could fly into Pakistan, carrying a team to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist and then fly out undetected produced a stunned silence from the military and its intelligence service that some interpret as embarrassment, even humiliation”. The debate was further confounded by Afghan President Karzai’s accusation that Pakistan military intelligence was not doing its best to prevent cross border militancy by Afghan Taliban from their sanctuary in some areas of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas(FATA).

Meanwhile Obama administration suspended and in some cases cancelled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to the Pak military in retaliation to Pakistani decision to expel American military trainers and to force Pakistan to fight the militants more effectively . While one cannot dispute the urgent necessity to confront and defeat terrorism in any form one has to consider whether Pakistan government has the capacity to wipe out Islamic extremism in areas that for centuries defied central control, that during the regime of General Ziaul Huq the Talibans were given both financial and material assistance by the US and then Pakistan government to fight Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, and no less that the US invasion of Iraq as an implementation of President Bush’s doctrine of preemption was largely perceived in Pakistan and in many Islamic countries as an war against Islam and as a result was bound to put any government in Pakistan in a difficult position to be on the same page with the US war on terror. Added is the number of terrorist groups operating in and from Pakistan territory that, according to Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Foundation and Rohan Gunaratna of International Center of Political Violence and Terrorism, can be classified as sectarian, anti-Indian, Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and no less importantly the Pakistani Taliban who have become an effective fighting machine engaging both the Pakistani military and the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The emergence and consolidation of Pakistani Taliban in the FATA happened when the Pakistani forces were fighting the “foreign” Taliban elements and in the process ignored the transition of the indigenous elements from Taliban sympathizers to a force fully subscribing to the Taliban ideology. Hasan Abbas, a fellow of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government wrote in an article that “during this process (of Pakistani forces fighting foreign terrorists) the Pakistani Taliban effectively established themselves as an alternative leadership to the traditional tribal elders. By the time the Pakistani government realized the changing dynamics and tried to resurrect the tribal jirga institution, it was too late. The Taliban had killed approximately 200 of the tribal elders under charges of being Pakistani or American spies”. The disparate Taliban elements banded together year under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). TTP has announced a programme of defensive jihad against Pakistan army, enforcement of Sharia laws, and to unitedly fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan. These elements appear to be more extremists as the traditional intermediaries between the Taliban and the establishment has been replaced by “a younger generation of more violent radical leaders who are in a hurry and have no patience for compromise”. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a pro-Taliban political party of Pakistan was quoted by the New York Times as saying that “when the jihad in Afghanistan started, the maliks (tribal leaders) and the old tribal system in Afghanistan ended; a new leadership arose.

Similar is the case in tribal areas”. South Asian expert Stephen Cohen wrote that the Taliban grew out of a generation of leaders who had received their education in Pakistan’s religious schools in NWFP and Baluchistan who sought to gain power in Afghanistan and then purify it of contaminating elements. Their success was due in part to support received from Pakistani intelligence, various Pakistani military groups, and especially JUI. Unfortunately for Pakistan the Taliban began to see Pakistan itself as a ripe fruit to be plucked. The defeat of the Taliban at the hands of the Western powers had a blowback effect on Pakistan in the form of sectarian violence, appearance of drug culture, easy availability of guns and general social breakdown that came with a big cost to the socio-political structure of the country.

Neo-conservative Robert Kagan dismisses the possibility of cataclysmic effect of “the struggle between modernization and Islamic radicalism” on international affairs because “Islamic resistance to westernization is not a new phenomenon” and “in the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, tradition cannot win”. Many Pakistani believe that the Westerners’ heavy handed handling of the frontier regions are doing more harm than good because of their ignorance of the tribal customs and unfamiliarity of the terrain in the frontier region. Besides the US is not particularly popular in Pakistan and consequently Pak government’s war on terror is also hugely unpopular in the country. One wonders whether the Americans are aware of the paradox being faced by the Pakistani leaders who have been elected through a free and fair election, the paradox of waging an unpopular war that also must be waged at all cost. But then again as the al-Qaeda and the Taliban cannot be allowed to turn Pakistan into a failed state and cause instability in one of the most volatile regions in the world one hopes that four countries­Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh­assailed by Islamic extremism in varying degrees would cooperate both within the ambit of SAARC and bilaterally in order to defeat this scourge in this region and the world.

One may ask the question whether the nine-eleven terrorist attacks would necessitate revision of the UN charter. While the developed countries’ call for revision is for gaining authority to preempt not an imminent but a plausible threat, the developing countries will like a reconstitution of the UNSC and other UN organs because the UN charter when formulated reflected the ground realities of the post-Second World War but not the sea change which have taken place since then. The wave of decolonization has seen the emergence of many countries joining the UN.

The end of Cold War has seen fragmentation of the Soviet empire and of East Europe. And now the world is witnessing the scourge of Al-Qaida and its associates. Historian Bernard Lewis finds several forms of Islamic extremism current at present (he recognizes though Muslim complaints when media speak of terrorist movements and actions as “Islamic” and do not identify the Irish and Basque terrorists as “Christian” terrorism) the best known being Al-Qaida, the fundamentalism of Saudi establishment, and institutional revolution of the Iranian ruling hierarchy. While Al-Qaida needs little elaboration, the perceived threat from Saudi fundamentalism is contested.

Bernard Lewis describes Wahabism, embraced by the Saudi rulers, as a “rejection of modernity in favor of a return to the sacred past” whose ire is not directed primarily against outsiders but against those who they see as betraying and degrading Islam from within. Muslim fundamentalists, Lewis believes, are those who feel that troubles of the Muslim world today are not due to insufficient modernism but due to the excess of modernism. Regardless of the debate on clash of civilizations Islamic extremism has caused less damage, though highly regrettable, in the Western world than it has in the Islamic countries. In Benazir Bhutto’s words (Reconciliation- Islam, Democracy and the West):- “Within the Muslim world there has been and continues to be an internal rife, an often violent confrontation among sects, ideologies, and interpretations of the message of Islam. This destructive tension has set… a deadly fratricide that has tortured intra-Islamic relations for 1300 years.”

Pakistan’s most recent developments raise a fundamental question on the ability of the Islamic world to be truly democratic with all the attributes that democracy has. Even if one were to consider that the West had to meander around for centuries to reach the stage of a society where majoritarian rule has become the acceptable form of governance keeping in mind John Adams’ caution that the majority must not become a tyranny over the minority. But a glance at the Organization of Islamic Conference would show that only a handful of Muslim countries practice democracy while most, despite the Arab Spring, are ruled by various forms of authoritarian government. How far the distortion is due to religious interference (Islam does not have the system of separation of the Church and the State — a much later addition in Christendom elaborated by Harvard Professor Robert Bellah –Civil Religion in America) and how much the distortion is due to socio-cultural and economic reasons are matters of debate. In Pakistan’s case the homogeneity of the society on religio-cultural and feudal background which still remains a part of the social structure may explain why democracy is being thwarted time and again while neighboring countries with comparable economies continue to have, however flawed, democratic forms of government.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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