As Democracy Dawns in Pakistan, Challenges Remain

"Democracy is the best revenge." These words of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must have reverberated in the minds of millions of Pakistanis today, as Pakistan took its first steps toward the true democracy that General Pervez Musharraf promised over eight years ago but could not deliver. The National Assembly elected Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party Prime Minister with an overwhelming 2/3rds majority of 264 votes. His opponent, Pervez Elahi of Musharraf’s supporting Pakistan Muslim League Q Group garnered only 42 votes. Significantly, the first executive order of the new Prime Minister was the release of the 60 judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, from house arrest. A host of lawyers and members of civil society marked their new freedom this evening with an impromptu procession to the former Chief Justice’s home where they raised the Pakistan flag. Standing with him on the balcony as this scene unfolded were fellow Justice Tariq Mahmood and the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, who led the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf. This flag that had been removed when Musharraf dismissed and incarcerated the Chief Justice through an executive order as the Chief of Army Staff on November 3, 2007. He later had this extra-constitutional order validated by his self-appointed Supreme Court.

Today Prime Minister Gillani promised to restore supremacy to parliament, ending the ersatz presidential system that Musharraf had introduced in Pakistan in contravention of its constitution. Gillani also promised to restore the judiciary to its rightful place. Against this background, a report emerged that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will be visiting Pakistan tomorrow to meet with Musharraf. Might it not make sense for the United States administration to finally recognize that power is shifting in Pakistan to parliament and that the presidency will need to return to its titular role without the power to make decisions on behalf of the people of Pakistan? If so, Negroponte’s first call should be on the Prime Minister. And tempting though it may be, he should avoid trying to sweep the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, into the US’ stifling embrace. Kayani has promised to take the army back to its professional roots and away from politics. The US needs to stop trying to portray Kayani as a special friend of America. The US now should let the leaders of Pakistan act on behalf of Pakistan. This political change of today may also provide Kayani an opportunity to make his own changes in the army’s high command that Musharraf had stuffed with his favorites before handing over to Kayani last November.

The election of the Prime Minister marked some huge landmarks in Pakistani politics: first, this is the first time that the PPP has a Prime Minister who is not a Bhutto. Indeed, for the first time, the PPP has a Prime Minister from the Punjab, a key province in Pakistan’s polity. Significantly, Gillani is from Southern Punjab, an area that borders Bhutto’s native Sindh province. Second, for the first time, the leaders of the major two political parties in the coalition government, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League N Group are not sitting in parliament nor heading the government. Both Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chair of the PPP and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of the PML N will run their party’s affairs outside the national assembly. Meanwhile an isolated and seriously wounded Musharraf watched these developments from Army House, lacking direct command of the army, previously his sole "vote bank." Moreover, he has no meaningful political support in the national assembly, as today’s vote attested. His extra-legal steps of the past one year are now subject to challenge and risk being overturned by the new coalition government, with its two-thirds majority. Even the PML Q’s majority coalition in the upper house, the Senate, risks being depleted now in the wave of change that emerged from the lower house today and may be unable to block any constitutional changes passsed by the lower house.

In the flush of victory, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Bhutto and its coalition partners should pause to take stock of the enormous challenges they face in trying to dismantle eight years of autocratic rule. They will need to hold the coalition together, as individual party objectives clash. Both Sharif and Zardari will have to strongly resist the temptation to call all shots and allow the new Prime Minister to manage the business of government. As a start, the new government could set the tone for its tenure by keeping to a small cabinet rather than the 70 member cabinet of the previous regime that allowed all coalition partners and party factions in parliament to be bought off with ministries.

The other major challenge will be to avoid repeating the past politics of spoils and cronyism that created disillusionment among the population and eventually allowed the army to reassert itself as the key political player on the scene. Restoring the political system should be the first priority. Another major issue will be the restoration of balance to the economy that has had imbalanced growth and recently saw a resurgence of inflation and shortages of key staples and energy. Though it may be tempting for the new government to destroy the local governments that Musharraf’s regime introduced, it may be in the longer term interest of the new government to strengthen these local institutions by giving them greater fiscal and financial autonomy, something that the previous regime resisted. Bringing government closer to the people can only be good for governance. If there are any failures, the independent media in Pakistan with their new-found freedoms will pose sharp challenges to any government n Pakistan today.

Finally, on the security front, the government will need to seriously study and take over the fight against militancy in Pakistan to attack its root causes. It will need to work with the military in this regard to ensure that there is a proper balance between politico-economic measures and military actions in the border region where Al Qaeda and the homegrown Taliban now threaten Pakistan’s stability. Short-term salves and deals will not do the trick. Indeed, the amalgamation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Pakistan proper may need to be put on the fast track. And, the new government will need to carry forward the initiatives that Musharraf launched to normalize relations with India, to reduce the defence burden on Pakistan’s economy, and to allow it to divert resources toward education and health. Some 50 million of Pakistan’s children have slipped through the education net, according to estimates by leading economist Parvez Hasan. The new government will have to turn back this dismal tide.

Pakistan has to play catch up economically and politically. Parliamentary democracy offers it a great chance. Will the politicians live up to these challenges? The time for celebration will be short. And, as the new government will no doubt discover, the time to get the country back on track may also be too short.

Published on The Huffington Post 24 March 2008

Rethinking the War in Pakistan’s Borderlands

It took the United States government over six years after 9/11 to concentrate on designing a strategy for the war against the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. It was not alone. Pakistan too managed to ignore the deeper issues at stake and pursued a half-hearted strategy that allowed the Taliban to make inroads into Pakistani territory and challenge the writ of the state and the Pakistan army itself. Now, as the militants have brought the war into the Pakistani hinterland, things seem to be moving in the direction of a new war strategy. But the remarkable lack of public discourse of the emerging approaches in both countries is symptomatic of the secretive and top-down thinking on this critical issue. For years the US pushed a Pro-Musharraf policy and relied on one man to help it fight its "war on terror" in the region. Now, rushing to put it into effect a new war strategy, even before a new popularly elected government takes over in Pakistan may compound the difficulty in shifting to a Pro-Pakistan policy.

First some background: the US made a serious mistake in Afghanistan by shifting its focus and resources from that country to Iraq before it had consolidated its position against the Taliban. A nominal force was left in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions and all attempts to reinforce its numbers were resisted, for instance by the offer of the Marine Corps to send a special expeditionary force. In effect, the US military command and its diffident NATO allies conceded the countryside to the Taliban, content to policing the cities and their immediate environs. Even the Special Forces, who had gained some rural traction, were largely withdrawn for duty in Iraq. The allies also failed to provide good governance and security for the population of Afghanistan, allowing its Pashtun majority to coalesce with the Taliban and against the regime in Kabul.

On its part, Pakistan recognized the cross-border influence of the Pashtun tribes that sit astride the border with Afghanistan but chose to ignore the Taliban that sought sanctuary inside FATA. In return for the injection of US payments for the army’s expenses in entering FATA, Pakistan concentrated only on trying to curb the "foreign" elements in FATA, the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, and sundry other nationalities under the umbrella of Al Qaeda that had made their homes in the tribal badlands, some even marrying into local tribes.

Nothing was done to control the Afghan Taliban, who then spawned a Pakistani offshoot. More important, nothing was done to integrate FATA into Pakistan proper and give it the economic, legal, and political benefits potentially available to other Pakistani regions. Ignoring the Taliban only emboldened them, as they fought for space against an under-equipped and weak Frontier Corps and other local para-military outfits. And lack of training and individual command failures contributed to poor morale, defections galore, and ignominious surrenders. Meanwhile the FC and army suffered heavy casualties, showing their lack of preparation for counter insurgency warfare.

In November 2006, the Pakistan army came to the US with a 5 million plan for building up the capacity of the Frontier Corps. Discussions since then have led to a heightened US interest in FATA, with CENTCOM actively entering the picture. The result was a billion Government of Pakistan plan over a nine-year period to help improve governance, economic development and security in the FATA and enhance the Pakistan army’s capabilities in the region. The U.S. contribution will be a little over billion, the most well known part of that effort being a 750 million contribution for development in FATA for the next five years. Another part of the U.S. contribution is the Security Development Plan (SDP) to improve security by enhancing the capability of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

In the face of a deteriorating security situation, the first phase of the SDP, approved for FY 2007, concentrated on improving the policing and antinarcotics capabilities of the FC and assisting the Pakistan army’s commandos, the Special Services Group’s operational capacity in the region with helicopter support. Much more is (pardon the pun)en train:

• 2 training centers for the FC
• 2 intelligences bases
• 4 sector headquarters for increased Command and Control, and
• A series of Border Coordination Centers to share intelligence, develop a common operational picture on both sides of the Durand Line, and help coordinate the activities of the US, Afghan, and Pakistan army in the area; the first one opening in Torkham on the Afghan side shortly, the second one being built.

The US hopes to begin training of the FC, starting in October 2008, especially its newly raised Wings, through a "Train the Trainers" program. Current FC officers will be trained in counter insurgency warfare. And intelligence training will be imparted to personnel of two new intelligence battalions of the FC. When all is said and done, the overall cost of these measures in the SDP may exceed 0M. But much time will have been lost by these plans become reality. Senator Joseph Biden has proposed an even larger aid plan for Pakistan to help it on its path toward democracy that would triple the non-security aid to .5 billion annually for a decade. He has also proposed a "democracy dividend" of billion to encourage the shift from autocracy to democracy.

But there are causes for concern on both sides. First, in the direct military-to-military discussions there have been no exchanges on the need to politically and economically integrate FATA into Pakistan proper. The Department of Defense has conceded that ground to the Department of State that has been demure in pushing this agenda forward, only recently waking up to the issue. As a result FATA remains an anachronistic appendage, and its population deprived of the full benefits of Pakistani citizenship. A disconnected population will not actively participate in any development plans and this may led to "carpetbaggers" from the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province or other provinces taking advantage of economic opportunities and tax breaks in FATA. Second, there has been no sharing of information by the previous government of Pakistan with its general population of what is planned for FATA with the United States and what conditions for the entry and operation of US forces in Pakistan are being agreed upon and by whom. As a result, the few bits of information that leak out into the pages of the newspapers tend to paint the cooperation in the darkest hues. The danger seen by critics of the US plan is that Pakistan’s leadership may be bartering away its sovereignty by allowing the US unbridled access to the borderlands. Third, a new civilian government is being formed in Pakistan these days. If it is not brought into the picture and allowed to make final decisions on the future plans for FATA and collaboration with the US in Pakistan’s own interests, this whole enterprise may collapse for lack of political support. It would behoove the US and the Pakistan army to bring the new political leadership on board and allow it to decide on future plans so it takes ownership of these ventures before signing any agreements. This would also strengthen the move toward civil supremacy.

Finally, the enhancement of the FC should be seen only as a short-term transitional measure, with a greater and longer-term shift towards improving the capacity of the regular Pakistan army in counter insurgency warfare. Most thinking officers in the Pakistan army probably know that they will not be fighting any large-scale conventional war in the near future, especially against India. The posture there is purely defensive and the presence of a well trained, mobile Pakistan army, backed by nuclear weapons, should be enough to deter any regional hegemon from exerting undue influence on Pakistan.

Pakistan’s wars within, against homegrown insurgencies, will demand a different type of force and a different mind-set. This will take time. Despite his desire to move towards this new objective, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has only three years to complete his tenure. The shift in the army’s posture and capacity for the new kind of warfare will likely extend even beyond the term of his successor.

But, the rush to get the US plans into action and to improve the FC’s capacity, without looking at the more important longer-term issues affecting the region and the Pakistan army itself may not yield the intended results. Rather, pitting a locally-recruited FC against its own tribal cousins may end up creating more problems and feed the very insurgency they are meant to quell. Both the US and the Pakistani public need to be part of this important discussion. Haste and secrecy can only undermine these efforts.

This appeared on Huffington