Pakistani Democracy and Afghan Peace: Op-Ed

Starting with General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law in the late 1970s, the anomaly of military control has become a permanent feature of Pakistan’s hybrid military-civilian system. Over the years it has also become a factor in tilting the balance in favor of the generals when it comes to calling the shots in framing the security and foreign policies of the state.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy has remained so completely in the control of the country’s military–of the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) in particular–for so long, that the political class, both in the government and in the opposition, seem to have been totally cut off from dealing with it.

The civil governments in the military-dominated hybrid system have so far been mostly content with symbolic involvement in Afghan policy, acting only when tasked by the military. The recent Kabul visit by Imran Khan was a case in point because it wasn’t anything more than a photo opportunity.

The military’s monopoly over the country’s Afghan policy is a fait accompli, duly recognized by international players also. So it wasn’t surprising to see Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative, and US military commanders always going straight to the GHQ in Islamabad over the last two years to discuss Afghan peace instead of calling on the civilian leaders.

But it’s significant to note that the military’s stranglehold has not been confined merely to the country’s Afghan policy. It is all encompassing–including politics, the economy and controlling the commanding heights of the state system. Producing test tube politicians and political parties and bringing them to power by rigging elections is a well-known practice by what is normally called the military establishment. The military’s involvement in victimizing defiant opposition political leaders in the name of accountability (a clearly selective one) is an open secret. Similarly, the military’s construction company (Frontier Works Organization) and transport company (National Logistics Cell) get all the public sector megaprojects without formal bidding or competition. The Defense Housing Authority (DHA) is a huge real estate business run by the army. Recently a retired general, Asim Salim Bajwa, was brought in as head of the CPEC Authority, a body that’s steering the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Serving and retired military officers are appointed to key civilian posts. It’s a long list that can go on and on.

With the passage of time, the militarization of the state and society has increased to the extent that it has strangled the country’s political and business classes. After the creeping coup launched in 2014 to overthrow the Nawaz Sharif-led Muslim League government, the aforementioned process entered a new stage. The hybrid democracy of the previous decades has transformed into hybrid martial law after the military went into overdrive to rig the general election held in July 2018.

The opposition political parties have been forced to put up resistance to the extreme imbalance in civil-military relationship as they faced annihilation at the hands of deepening military authoritarianism. Credit also goes to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement ( PTM) for breaking the silence and fear on the question of the military’s involvement in politics two years ago when no one else was ready to utter a word on the subject.

There are three new characteristics in the current political polarization in Pakistan that distinguish it from the previous ones:

One, for the first time Punjabis have joined the political resistance to the military’s domination on a large scale. The bulk of the army and business class of Pakistan comes from Punjab, which is also population-wise the biggest province in the country. Nawaz Sharif, the three-time elected former prime minister (and each time toppled by behind-the-scene political machinations of the generals) is leading the resistance from exile in London. Unlike Balochistan, Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh where the state security apparatus could use brutal methods to crush the opposition political forces, it can’t resort to such tactics in Punjab in view of the possible negative reaction from the rank and file in the military. Nawaz Sharif has not only made clear reference to the military’s past intervention in the country’s politics leading to its disintegration in 1971, but he has also accused General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the sitting chief of army staff (COAS) and General Faiz Hamid, the director general of the ISI, of being responsible for the present crises and chaos in Pakistan. The main political slogan of Nawaz Sharif– “give respect to vote”–literally means establishing the civil supremacy provided for in the Constitution. All ten political parties in the grand opposition alliance known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) are supporting this demand.

Two, the military-installed government of Imran Khan has failed on almost all fronts during the last two-and-a-half years, including in governance, the economy and foreign policy. It’s becoming impossible for the government to manage the growing burden of foreign loans in terms of debt servicing. The implementation of the IMF recipe is leading to the skyrocketing of utility bills, price hikes and unemployment. The opposition is tapping into the deepening unrest and it has no problem in attracting large and charged crowds against the government everywhere in the country. The opposition campaign has entered the Punjab in its final stage, and it aims to topple the government with street agitation that is expected to culminate in a march on Islamabad in January. The opposition is also planning to resign en mass from the assemblies.

Three, the post-Zia hybrid system in Pakistan has reached a dead end. The draconian measures for curbing freedom of expression and the aggressive use of security agencies for crushing the political opposition (including enforced disappearances) indicate that the generals are imposing one party (the King’s party) rule in the country. They are reversing, by executive strong-arm tactics, the implementation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which defines the federal democratic character of the country. The opposition alliance PDM is also demanding a new social contract to ensure the supremacy of the Constitution and the Parliament.

So, Pakistan stands at the crossroads. The ongoing political crises will have to be settled one way or the other in the coming spring because Pakistan can’t indefinitely live with the current dire economic situation and the dangerous political polarization. It’s the national bourgeoisie demanding a federal democracy enshrined in the Constitution, represented by the opposition alliance, versus the bureaucratic bourgeoisie of the generals imposing an extra-Constitutional authoritarian regime. The possible political change, unlike the past, is expected to have important consequences for the country’s Afghan policy as well. The strengthening of democracy and civil supremacy in Pakistan will bring more focus to the geo-economic and divert it from the obsession with the geo-strategic. Improved relations with neighbors and avoiding military adventurism is expected to dominate the policy of a democratic Pakistan as it has been the consistent policy of the major political parties in the country. Cooperation between forces of peace and democracy in the region is crucial in defeating the extremism/militancy that threatens peace and development in the region.

Afghan political elites need to carefully watch the situation and develop a working relationship with democratic political forces in Pakistan. Major Pakistani political parties will also have to take a more clear stand on respecting an independent, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan as an equal partner in regional economic cooperation. So far there is almost a total disconnect on this front as formal people-to-people relations are quite weak at the moment.