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Why Afghanistan Should Be Worried About Pakistan's Political Crisis

Michael Kugelman

This month, Pakistan has experienced its most serious political crisis in years. While the outcome of the protests remains uncertain, this much is clear: The Pakistani military is the big winner. This is bad news for Pakistan's fragile democracy -- but also for fragile Afghanistan.

This month, Pakistan has experienced its most serious political crisis in years.

Protesters, led by cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan and populist preacher Tahir ul-Qadri, have converged on the capital city of Islamabad to call for the ouster of the government. On Aug. 19, tens of thousands of people removed barriers and marched into the city's "Red Zone" -- a highly secured area of official state buildings (including parliament) and foreign embassies that the government had warned was off-limits to protesters. Perhaps not since 2007, when demonstrators in multiple Pakistani cities rallied for the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, have Pakistan's streets been thronged with such strong levels of anti-government sentiment.

While the outcome of the protests remains uncertain, this much is clear: The Pakistani military is the big winner. This is bad news for Pakistan's fragile democracy -- but also for fragile Afghanistan.

Pakistan's military is no fan of the current government led by Nawaz Sharif, who repeatedly sparred with the military during two previous terms as prime minister. Sharif's current term has barely exceeded a year, and already he has clashed with the armed forces over his desire to improve relations with India and Afghanistan, his decision to put Musharraf (who overthrew him in 1999) on trial, and his pursuit of negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban. For these reasons, the anti-government fervor on Islamabad's streets is likely music to the ears of the military, which, unsurprisingly, is thought to have links to both Khan and Qadri.

True, protester numbers fell far short of expectations, and as of yet, demands for Sharif's resignation have not been met. Nonetheless, the marchers' extended presence in Islamabad and their "government-must-go" position have made the civilian government look quite vulnerable. So has a meeting that reportedly took place between the government and military last week. The military agreed not to stage a coup, but in return, it demanded that the government must "share space," as a government source told Reuters, with the armed forces and effectively hand over the full foreign and security policy portfolio to the military.

With Islamabad increasingly on the defensive, the military is gaining an upper hand. Consider Sharif's decision last week to make the armed forces responsible for security of sensitive facilities in Islamabad during the protests. This can be interpreted either as a sop to the military or as an acknowledgment that the government can't protect its own people -- or itself. Additionally, Sharif's Independence Day speech on Aug. 14, the first official day of the protests, was rife with praise for Pakistan's military. That such praise came from a civilian leader as combative as Sharif is quite telling. Most significantly, on Aug. 19, as marchers entered the Red Zone, the government ceded full security of the area to the military. The government gave the military carte blanche to do what it so relishes: serve as the nation's protector and savior.

Furthermore, with many Pakistanis cheering on a countermilitancy offensive underway in North Waziristan, the military's star could continue to rise in the coming weeks. Possible retaliatory terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities could prompt more calls for the military to provide security, which would further embolden Pakistan's most powerful institution.

This all marks a striking change in the military's fortunes. In 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden near a military training academy dealt a devastating blow to the military's reputation -- as did an explosive government report in 2013 that referred to the military leadership as incompetent and irresponsible and that described its failure to prevent the U.S. unilateral raid on bin Laden's compound as "Pakistan's greatest humiliation" since losing a war to India in 1971. Adding to the military's miseries -- and perceived vulnerability -- in recent years are militant attacks on its headquarters in Rawalpindi, on a naval base in Karachi, and on an Air Force base near Islamabad. Additionally, widely circulated video clips have depicted military-perpetrated brutalities. Meanwhile, an often-critical press and an activist judiciary (last year, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered investigations of military abuses in Baluchistan) have served as modest checks on the military's excesses.

Yet the military's rebound should come as no surprise. Even after six consecutive years of civilian rule, the armed forces have retained a veto on foreign and security policy -- not to mention a strong grip on their vast economic holdings, which are rarely subjected to scrutiny. Defense budget allocations continue to increase. Additionally, so long as reconciliation with New Delhi remains elusive, powerful security establishment factions can invoke the existential threat of India as justification for the military's continued outsized role in politics.

An emboldened Pakistani military, coupled with a weaker government, is an obvious setback for Pakistan's slow but steady democratization. At the same time, these developments pose two troubling (and potentially destabilizing) implications for Pakistan's western neighbor.

First, the perennially volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship could be plunged into crisis. Any hopes that fledgling civilian-led efforts will improve relations with Kabul could be dashed by increasingly dominant military-led policies that worsen them (though the probability that Afghanistan's next president will be Ashraf Ghani -- regarded as the Pakistani security establishment's preferred Afghan presidential candidate -- suggests that an all-out collapse in bilateral relations is unlikely).

These military-led policies could entail, even more so than in recent years, allowing if not encouraging militants to slip into Afghanistan, including those displaced internally by the current operation in North Waziristan. The Haqqani network, for example, has reportedly formed a new sanctuary in Parachinar (a city in Pakistan's Kurram tribal agency), and the group could easily be dispatched to nearby Khost and Paktia provinces in Afghanistan, where it has traditionally enjoyed a strong presence. Further into the future, Pakistan could permit the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network to re-establish their previous haven in North Waziristan after the military operation has ended there. The implications for Afghanistan -- where departing international combat troops are leaving security responsibility in the shaky hands of Afghan national forces -- could be deeply problematic. Furthermore, with Pakistan staunchly refusing to crack down on anti-Afghanistan militants on its territory, Kabul would have little incentive to target the Pakistani Taliban militants who launch deadly cross-border attacks on Pakistan from Afghan territory.

The second troubling implication of a strengthened Pakistani military is that with the armed forces asserting more control over Afghanistan policy, prospects for Pakistani meddling in the country could increase exponentially. Under the best-case scenario, this might involve Pakistan pressing the Afghan Taliban to join a peace and reconciliation process. Unfortunately, a combination of factors -- Afghan Taliban mistrust toward its patron, exaggerated Pakistani influence over the Taliban, and the possibility that neither Pakistan's security establishment nor the Quetta Shura truly desire a peaceful outcome to the war in Afghanistan -- suggest this is an unlikely scenario.

More realistically, Pakistan will tighten its links to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network and perhaps even supply these proxies with funds or other resources that improve their capacity to carry out attacks against the Afghan state. These links could be further tightened next year, when the foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will compel Kabul to seek an even closer relationship with its ally in New Delhi. Pakistan, which fears India's presence in Afghanistan, will see even greater utility in embracing its proxies, which aim to limit New Delhi's footprint in Afghanistan by attacking Indian targets there.

One might wisely counter that this same Afghanistan policy might have been pursued even if the protests -- and their empowering effect on the military -- had not taken place. After all, Pakistan's armed forces, which have run the government for roughly half the country's existence, have long been in the driver's seat of Afghanistan policy, which Western and Afghan sources often describe as "meddling." Additionally, Sharif's past relations with Afghanistan mirror those of the Pakistani military. He was a protégé of former military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who helped nurture the Afghan mujahideen movement that fronted the anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980s. Sharif had close ties to the fundamentalist fighters who took power in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal. Most significantly, Sharif was premier in 1997 when Pakistan became one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul.

However, in more recent times, Sharif, unlike the military, appears genuinely interested in improving ties with an Afghan state no longer controlled by the Taliban. After Sharif's election victory in May 2013, his foreign-affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz insisted that "bilateral relations will improve" due to shared interests. In a trip to Kabul last December, Sharif promised to "continue to stand by Afghanistan." Recent weeks have seen attempts to forge countermilitancy cooperation, including a bilateral meeting on sanctuaries and cross-border violence.

Yet now, with the military having gained an upper hand from the anti-government protests and in position to tighten its grip on Afghanistan policy, such progress could be jeopardized -- with destabilizing consequences for both sides of the Durand Line.

Pakistan's current political crisis is domestically driven. Its reverberations, however, will be felt across the border in Afghanistan -- a country all too used to getting caught up in, and made to suffer for, the problems and rivalries of its regional neighbors.

This article originally appeared on as part of a monthly series highlighting possible post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan.

About the Author

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more