Pakistan’s Army, Post-Osama

Will Pakistan’s military see its grip on the country weakened after the Osama bin Laden affair?

By Tridivesh Singh Maini for

The Pakistani Army is keen to repair its image after the battering it has taken following the discovery that Osama bin Laden was ensconced in a mansion in Abbotabad. And while US criticism has made international headlines, the Army has also come under fire domestically, including from the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (N), PML-N, which has blamed many of the country's ills on the military’s dominance.

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, for example, blamed the Army for the domestic turmoil facing the country and the damage done to Pakistan’s image in the international arena by bin Laden having been found on Pakistani soil. Sharif also said that an inquiry into bin Laden’s killing should be carried out by members of the judiciary rather than the Army.

But is the recent joint meeting between the military and the country’s parliament an indicator of a change in the civil-military equation, as some have billed it? While the Army may well want to foster this view publicly, the reality is likely to be somewhat different.

Already, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's speech to the parliament seemed more a defence of the Army and the intelligence services than an effort to protect the country’s tattered image. The interview he gave to Time magazine, meanwhile—when he called for the renegotiation of the Pakistan-US partnership—suggests that the Army is still in the driver’s seat.

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All this means we can expect the Army to make full use of the Indian bogeyman, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Afghanistan, to imply an external threat to Pakistan. And aside from the PML-N, Pakistani lawmakers are likely to go along with the Army’s view on this.

The result is that the leadership in Pakistan has missed a golden opportunity to tame the military establishment, which has been severely discredited in the aftermath of the bin Laden incident. Certainly, prominent Pakistani analyst S Akbar Zaidi seems to have been vindicated when he wrote last week that:

‘(T)he problem in this relationship of power between the military and civilian and (for once) democratically elected institutions is not so much the strength of the military, but more importantly, the cowardly, dithering and weak civilian elites and the compromises they make with military power. They are equally implicated in making Pakistan a national insecurity state.’

With this in mind, the United States—which has been increasingly assertive over the Pakistani Army’s role—should continue to aim to strengthen more enlightened forces in the country. US aid should therefore be targeted at improving the quality of the country’s health and education, rather than being directed to the Army. In addition, the US would do well to reach out to political actors, especially the PML-N, which it has previously largely shunned.

As far as India is concerned, Singh should be lauded for his visit to Kabul, where he made it amply clear that India would support Afghanistan’s reconstruction, and that it is there to stay.

Ultimately, Pakistan must realise that the real threat to its existence comes from a handful of the country’s uniformed citizens. The battle for a democratic Pakistan will have to be fought from within.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.