Even though Pakistan has restored a civilian government, the country's military establishment will retain considerable influence, experts agreed during a recent panel discussion in Washington. Complicating efforts to define their new relationship, Pakistan's civil and military leaders must also manage pressure from Washington to contain Islamic radicalism.
Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within, was one of the featured speakers at the October 22 discussion, which was co-hosted by the Asia Society and the Atlantic Council. Nawaz said Pakistan's civil and military leaders have a long history of contentious relations, and, as a result, the country is caught in a cycle of "conflict between the coercive power of the army and the constitutional and legal authority of the state."
Decades of formal and de facto military rule have instituted a problematic political pattern. "Whenever the civilian government has taken over from an autocratic government," Nawaz maintained, "it has found it extremely difficult to get rid of the autocratic powers that the previous government had."
"The military is watching and waiting and, when it feels that things have gotten out of hand," it decides that "it is time for us to save the country" and seizes power again, Nawaz continued.
Now is a time that the vicious cycle could finally be broken, Nawaz contended. "The ball is in the court of the civilian administration to assert itself," Nawaz said. "We have a great opportunity, yet again, with an army chief who is saying, yet again, that he wants to be professional and keep the army out of politics."
Another featured speaker, Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, stressed historical continuities in the Pakistani-American defense relationship. Curtis suggested that while the threats perceived by Washington have changed over time - moving from Soviet expansionism during the Cold War to Islamic radicalism in the post-9/11 era - the attention of Pakistan's generals has remained fixed on India throughout the past few decades.
Another unwelcome continuity that Curtis pointed out is "the lack of accountability and transparency" in US-Pakistani assistance programs, which prompts members of the US Congress and of the Pakistani public alike to wonder "where is all this assistance from the United States is going?" [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, Curtis warned that recent history shows that making an abrupt turn away from Pakistan can have "extremely negative repercussions." To highlight her point, Curtis noted that in the 1990s, when Washington abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan and sanctioned Pakistan for its nuclear weapons tests, Pakistani leaders created the Taliban and transferred nuclear technology to Iran.
"We need to engage in more serious and frank dialogue with Pakistani civilian and military leaders about the situation around the Pakistani border, as well as the situation inside Afghanistan," Curtis said. "This has to be a conversation. The United States needs to listen to Pakistan's geo-strategic concerns and demonstrate that it supports Pakistan's long-term success and prosperity."
In tandem with substantive give-and-take, Washington "will have to use discretion in carrying out [unilateral] strikes" against suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, since such attacks can "undermine longer-term US objectives of building partnership with Pakistan and preventing radical forces from strengthening in the country," Curtis said.
The event's third featured speaker, Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia Studies Program at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, cautioned that while Pakistan's current military leaders might want to remain outside of the nation's politics, adhering to that aim will be challenging "in a country in which you have a well-organized army that operates in an underdeveloped political system."
According to Anderson, what Pakistan most needs is "civil-military consultation to head off a confrontation." In particular, the two interest groups need to find accord on the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence and on parliament's oversight functions concerning defense issues. Without institutionalized cooperation, the political process stands to suffer "a loss of trust between civilian and military leaders that could slow down, and maybe even set back the transition to democracy that they all say that they want," Anderson said.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.