Asia Program

An Incomplete Democracy

Oct 22, 2013

Pakistan’s military continues to cast a long and often dominant shadow over the state. So when President Obama meets with Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on Wednesday, he should use the occasion to bolster the civilian government’s role relative to the military.

Pakistan, ruled by the military for half of its 66-year life, has taken steps toward democracy, but the process is far from complete.

In March, for the first time, a democratically elected government completed a full term. It transferred power to the current administration, led by Mr. Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party won elections in May.

New constitutional amendments have curtailed the power of the presidency, and transferred authority and resources from the federal government (a traditional power base for the military) to provincial authorities.

Earlier this month, the long-time army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, announced that he would retire in November — and not extend his term as he did back in 2010.

Mr. Sharif isn’t afraid to stare down the country’s formidable army — a fearlessness that led to his ouster from an earlier stint as prime minister. He sent a strong signal early in his current term by declining to name foreign and defense ministers, holding those portfolios, representing areas long controlled by the military, for himself.

He also stated his intention to charge Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief and president who overthrew Mr. Sharif in a 1999 coup, with treason.

But Pakistan’s recent history cautions against giddy thinking about democracy. Before Mr. Sharif was ousted in 1999, many observers thought that democratization was well under way; they were wrong.

Today, the military isn’t itching for another coup, but it continues to wield tremendous influence, often with impunity. Its power is enhanced by Pakistan’s Constitution, which prevents high courts from challenging its actions. The military’s vast economic holdings, ranging from cereal to cement, are rarely subjected to scrutiny.

For years, civilians have deferred to the security establishment on security matters — and this hasn’t changed during Mr. Sharif’s first months in office. Despite a series of deadly terrorist attacks, his government hasn’t offered a clear security or counterterrorism strategy. It did, however, authorize a 15 percent increase in next year’s defense budget.

This summer, a jailbreak freed hundreds of militants, and the capital went into lockdown in anticipation of attacks. The ever-present military was deployed and took the lead in hunting down terrorists — even as it was rescuing citizens trapped by floods.

The United States largely perceives Pakistan through the lens of its 12-year-long military intervention in Afghanistan, so its relations with Pakistan are dominated by security concerns: sanctuaries for militants in the tribal areas, near the Afghan border; the safety of Pakistan-based NATO supply routes; and Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban in Afghanistan. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited in August, he met with the army chief, General Kayani — which would be rare in high-level diplomatic visits to other democracies.

The United States government can help reduce the dominance of the Pakistani military by strengthening key civilian institutions, particularly Parliament and the police. The American government should renew its main civilian assistance program to Pakistan, which is financed only through 2014.

Every year, before it can release security assistance, the United States government is required by law to certify that the Pakistani armed forces meet certain counterterrorism criteria. Last year, however, the Obama administration quietly issued a waiver — citing national security needs — that allowed the certification process to be bypassed. Such free passes are a bad idea.

To be sure, a stronger civilian government in Pakistan does not necessarily mean a stronger democracy. Mr. Sharif’s government, for instance, has called for dialogue with the fundamentally antidemocratic Pakistani Taliban. It also does little about the horrific plight of Pakistan’s religious minorities. In fact, Mr. Sharif’s political party has been associated with militant organizations like the Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

But the alternative — a weaker civilian government susceptible to another military takeover — would be far worse, not just for Pakistanis but for regional peace. Mr. Sharif government’s appears to be more pro-India than does the Pakistani security establishment. Reconciliation with India could also end Pakistan’s policy of state-sponsored support for anti-Indian militant groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Pakistani officials sometimes say their country is “too big to fail.” The implication is that its powerful, well-oiled military deserves a constant inflow of foreign arms and cash — and an outsize role in politics. But in a true democracy, no institution, no matter how essential, should enjoy such unchecked power.

This article first appeared on the opinion pages of The New York Times.

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