Events have been moving fast in Pakistan in the last few months. Yet while the country’s longest lasting democratic government has been widely reported as being on the brink of a coup, rumors of its death have been premature. Indeed, the classic standoff between civilian government, the military and the justice system seems to have been tempered by another element – the free media and its counterpart, informed public opinion. The likely scenario if all factions hold to the status quo will be an early election following the March vote for the Senate.
This will be an opportunity for emerging leader Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf,or the Movement for Justice Party, to step into the political space being created, and to prove that Pakistan’s fragile democracy really has taken root. In a CNN interview on January 22 with Fareed Zakaria, Khan stated his ambition is to end “the war with no objectives,” as well as to put an end to corruption, the deepening sense of gloom, the unprecedented inflation and the sense that “Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world.”
Khan’s call for peace is also a powerful protest against the United States and its policies in this turbulent area of the world. Anti-U.S. feeling is strong in Pakistan ever since the killing of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan refuge, something that caused major embarrassment to the military establishment and its intelligence service, the ISI. Relations with the U.S. became even frostier in November, when 24 Pakistani troops were killed in a NATO aerial attack on two border outposts. Pakistan still doesn’t accept the U.S. account that puts partial blame on Pakistani forces.
Then there’s the recall of Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, also in November, which has broken the communication established between the two countries. Haqqani, a key ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, was well regarded by the Obama administration. He’s now said to be under virtual house arrest in a presidential guest suite in Islamabad because of his implied role in asking for U.S. help should there be a coup in Pakistan. He denies that he wrote the memo or that he asked an American businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, to deliver it to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
Ijaz was scheduled to arrive in Pakistan before January 24 to give evidence before the judicial panel investigating the allegations, but he is reportedly refusing to enter the country because of fears over his safety. In the meantime, the government announced on January 19 a “parliamentary review of bilateral relations,” saying this was the reason a visit by U.S. Special Envoy Marc Grossman was rebuffed. Grossman is currently touring the region for consultations over the peace process with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan is said to be annoyed about not being informed about such talks and the opening of the office in Qatar. Pakistan had recently also asked Washington to reschedule a visit of the Central Command head Gen. James Mattis to the country, saying that “Pakistani leaders were busy with an internal political dispute.”
Another point of tension is the closing of NATO supply routes by Pakistan as retaliation for the fatal airstrikes in November. Pakistan plans to reopen these routes, but will impose tariffs on supplies, both to express their anger and to raise funds for the government. At present, the United States is paying six times as much to send war supplies to troops in Afghanistan through alternate routes, and hundreds of vehicles stacked with goods and fuel are still being held at the border.
An event that will no doubt arouse further anti-American feeling is the resumption of drone air strikes in Pakistan after a two-month reprieve. On January 19, the United States announced that Aslam Awan, a senior operations organizer for al-Qaeda was targeted and killed in one of two U.S. drone strikes launched inside Pakistan. Described as a joint U.S.-Pakistan operation, it has enraged Pakistani politicians who continue to see the drones as an attack on Pakistani sovereignty, creating an unacceptable level of collateral damage among the civilian population. The authorization for the resumed attacks is being questioned, and many in Pakistanbelieve that the drone campaign is sanctioned by unwritten agreements between the CIA, the Pakistani government and the security establishment.
Another development was the recent announcement by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he intends to return from self-imposed exile in London to run in the next election. He has reportedly delayed his return home, no doubt because Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that he would be arrested if he returned to the country, allegedly for failing to provide adequate security for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto when she was assassinated in 2007. Musharraf shows an astonishing lack of awareness of his unpopularity, and if he’s relying on the loyal support of former Army colleagues, he will be dismayed to discover how unhappy his former supporters are with the military. Members of the urban, liberal, educated class, along with the younger generation, have shifted their allegiance instead to Khan, and it remains to be seen whether he can continue to build support in what looks like an increasingly short time for campaigning before the election.
While the suspense and political turmoil continues, Pakistan is suffering from a 40 percent drop in foreign investment. “Pakistan can’t be a war zone and expect investment,” Khan told Bloomberg in a January 14 interview. “Every day the government is in power, the economy is sinking. As a Pakistani, the quicker the election is held, the better.”
The present government may or may not survive to end its term as the generals work behind the scenes to influence the Supreme Court in restraining the powers of the civilian government. By issuing a pro-democracy resolution in parliament on January 15, the government appears to be struggling to resolve issues democratically by maintaining a constitutional balance between the army, the justice system and the government.
It would certainly help relations with the United States if the Pakistan government could assure the Americans that foreign policy was in their hands and was not being dictated by the military establishment and the all-powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. It would probably be helpful too, if the CIA downplayed their role of undeclared and unaccountable operations and left diplomacy to the diplomats in the State Department. The days of policy being made by generals talking to generals should come to an end.
The world would certainly welcome a stable nuclear Pakistan, with a new transparency in Pakistan’s internal affairs and accountability to the people and the newly vocal media in the country. The United States has an opportunity now to build a different relationship with Pakistan, and indeed it will have no alternative if Imran Khan becomes Pakistan’s next leader. Pakistan finally seems to be undergoing evolution instead of revolution, a process to be welcomed by all its allies, and especially by the United States. Let us hope that rumors of a coup remain just that.
Azeem Ibrahim is an Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College, Lecturer at the University of Chicago and Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. More of his writings can be found here: www.azeemibrahim.com