Pakistan: Navigating the Perilous Path to Democracy

Pakistan today is taking baby steps back to becoming a democracy again, after nearly eight years of the rule by fiat of General Pervez Musharraf, the “liberal autocrat”. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe put it very well: “Democracy is not something you put away for ten years, and then in the 11th year you wake up and start practicing again”. Pakistan has been through that cycle twice before, after military rulers and keen US allies, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and then General Zia ul Haq stayed in power for over a decade each. The announced agreement between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party about the restoration of the judiciary represents a major attempt by the newly elected government to respond to the democratic needs of Pakistan and its people.

If the US alliance with Pakistan is to remain but this time with the people of Pakistan, not with any individual, then the US needs to show greater patience and allow Pakistan to reconstruct its political system and make decisions based on the norms of democracy not autocracy. This means, among other things, involving the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bordering Afghanistan, in discussions that will allow them to be consulted in their governance, giving them greater autonomy of action and providing them security through the presence of a well trained military on the one hand and well targeted economic opportunities on the other. Simply upping the military ante will not do the trick.

The US made no attempt to take these wider needs into consideration after it invaded Afghanistan. It was only in late 2006 that the Pakistanis came to the US to seek help in developing the area and building the capacity of the ill-equipped Frontier Corps and other military and para-military forces in the region. Now, the US, Pakistan, and importantly Afghanistan have agreed on a tripartite plan to improve collaboration and operations in the border region on both sides of the frontier. But the earliest training will not begin till this fall. And none of the economic work has begun in earnest. Even when it does it will be a paltry 750 million over 7 years. Of the 150 million a year that was promised, a sizable chunk will flow back to the United States through contracts for consultants. And crippling legislative restrictions on the flexible use of the funds (e.g. to help “convince” local tribes and leaders to collaborate) will mean that only a small amount will find its way to the ground. Unless Pakistan and its overseas partners can show change occurring rapidly in FATA, the Taliban will have the upper hand. After all they are already reported to be paying some Rs. 15,000 a month to their fighters. We have to outbid them in real terms.

In the meantime, Pakistan must bring back some semblance of normalcy to that region by allowing the local tribes to police themselves and work with the government in maintaining law and order. This will help isolate the militants who thrive on the chaos and confusion of constant and sweeping military actions. But, the Pakistan army and paramilitary forces must not cede the space to the Taliban to establish their writ, as happened in the hasty deal of 2006. And the government needs to re-establish for now, and only as a transitional measure, the role of the tribal Maliks and local political administrators who know how to manage the affairs of their tribal society. For the longer term, it needs to find effective ways of integrating FATA into NWFP and Pakistan proper and to raise the quality of life and services available to its inhabitants.

The impatience being shown by elements in the United States government with the attempts of Pakistan’s new democratically elected government to fight the war against terror inside its borders reflects a deeper divide in the way both countries view their past and future relationships. Under Secretary John Negroponte’s forceful pronouncement and body language at the conference that he addressed in Washington DC on May 5 indicated a lack of understanding about the ground realities in FATA and Pakistan. Over the horizon attacks are no substitute for action on the ground and human interaction and intelligence gathering. Moreover, each side needs to understand how the other operates. The US has a shorter time horizon and seeks a quick and simple solution to its difficulties in Afghanistan, a country where, because of the diversion of forces to Iraq, it invested less than necessary military resources and where economic development since the US invasion of 2001 has been spotty at best. Pakistan has a longer memory and time horizon. It recalls how the US decamped from the region and left it in the lurch after the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1989. It fears that the US will do the same again. It may not take much for that to happen: some well directed and continuous Taliban attacks on the British and Canadian forces would push the politicians in those two countries, who are teetering in their support of the coalition, into pulling out of Afghanistan. That would make it difficult for the US to go it alone, since the rest of the “Coalition of the Almost Willing”, including aspirants to membership of the Western European Club are largely what my fellow analyst Michael Scheuer calls “ditch diggers” not fighting forces.

The fledgling and rather tenuous coalition government in Pakistan has a huge task before it: restoring democracy, the judiciary, and the economy (buffeted by waves of global price increases in food and energy). It will need to reach clear and unambiguous agreements amongst itself, without footnotes or reservations that could be exploited by opponents of democracy and the proponents of the status quo ante. And it will need to gradually restore civilian supremacy over the huge and dominant military. Fighting the wars within Pakistan, against foreign and home-grown terrorists and Islamists, will demand patient planning and careful navigation through the constitutional and bureaucratic minefields sown by the ancien regime. The leaders of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Mr. Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), former Prime Minister Sharif, have till now shown a desire to talk their way through difficult situations. The political glue holding them together seems to be opposition to General Musharraf. If they fail to work together, their coalition will fracture, giving Musharraf the upper hand again. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, wisely has given space to the new government to make its own decisions and by maintaining a low profile allowed it to operate fairly autonomously. So must the United States. Otherwise, we risk seeing Pakistan’s latest experiment in democracy fail like many others before it. We do not have the time to re-learn the lessons of democracy every decade or so.