Fighting Terrorism, Undermining Democracy in Pakistan

It was a speech foretold. After being compelled to make the “Friend-or-foe” choice after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf in his policy address on January 12th set about redefining the role of religion in Pakistani society and its domestic and external politics, with a special reference to Kashmir and terrorism. Islam, he said, has been misused and the Pakistani people exploited in its name. The general condemned acts of terrorism and in particular September 11, October 1, and December 13–the last two dates are of suicide attacks in Srinagar the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir) and on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi.

In the short term, the new “rules of behavior” he set and the commitments he made should help ease a seemingly dangerous military standoff with India, which one hopes would lead to constructive dialogue between the two countries. Pakistan does not have–and never had–the option of fighting a prolonged war with India. Pakistan and India standing eyeball-to-eyeball is by now virtually a cliché that has nearly lost its shock value. Pakistan’s military inferiority, geographical vulnerability, and economic fragility prevents a total, all-out war with India–even if the two armies remain engaged in hostilities on limited scale, as they not infrequently do along the Line of Control in Kashmir and on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen. General Musharraf’s denunciation of violence as a tool in the movement for Kashmiri self-determination leaves India with no plausible justification for aggression.

In the long term, however, the military government’s inherent incapacity to build a tolerant, pluralistic society and a modern, democratic state will become increasingly evident. Pakistan has been under military rule for more than half of the 55 years since independence. The general’s recent experiment may come to nothing more than a detour in yet another failed effort of a military ruler to modernize and democratize the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani public, by and large, appreciates the many pressures under which General Musharraf must operate. For us, it is a familiar story of a Pakistani military ruler parroting a script written in Washington. All of the previous military rulers–Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and Generals Yahya Khan and Zia ul-Haq–thrived in power because of their alignment with the United States. With the cold war long over and the war on terrorism in vogue, seeking U.S. support makes more sense than ever. Pakistanis, in general, are convinced that the United States makes or breaks Pakistani governments and that the military does Washington’s bidding.

As long as the United States backs Musharraf, few will challenge his hold on power, and on the home front there appear to be no serious challenges to his rule. The military’s control over state institutions and the country’s resources is virtually unchallenged. The norm of military supremacy over civilian authority is well established. Public resistance to the military’s ascendancy is conspicuous by its absence. The much-feared backlash to General Musharraf’s decisions to back the U.S. war in Afghanistan and crack down on jihadi militant groups operating in Kashmir has not happened and does not look like it will occur very soon, if at all. A mutiny by the Islamists in the military, a favorite scenario among those who take military rhetoric at face value, has no historical precedent, nor does one seem imminent. These so-called “errant” elements within the military establishment may not be as widespread or resourceful as feared, not least because of discreet pruning of Islamist officers since the October 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power.

The military as an institution is well entrenched and in firm control of the state machinery. Many long years of direct military rule have diminished its mystique and charisma, but not its ability to curb dissent or crush any threat to its rule. So it won’t be surprising if General Musharraf comes out on top and unscathed in this confrontation with the religious extremists.

But if Musharraf actively pursues his stated aim of turning Pakistan into a modern, progressive, and tolerant society, he will find the military itself standing in the way. The institution has grown in mammoth proportions at the expense of development in other sectors. It is precisely because of how the military has run this country over the years that Pakistani political culture remains weak and civil society virtually non-existent. When all is said and done, the fate of Pakistan will eventually hinge upon the question of military reform.

Can the military submit itself to popular will and abide by the notion of civilian supremacy? If an elected civilian government had taken the recent decisions on Afghanistan and Kashmir, would the military have supported it? Will it ever forego its self-assumed right to rule without the consent of the people? Shouldn’t General Musharraf also redefine the role of the military?

General Musharraf has already made it clear that he plans to stay on as president indefinitely. It will be a pity if the United States, in pursuit of its short-term objectives in the “war on terrorism,” repeats the errors of the cold war and again provides unqualified support for undemocratic forces in Pakistan. History, however, suggests it is likely.