One-stop shop —Rafia Zakaria

The current US stance in the post-Musharraf era may have left the new democratic set-up in Pakistan dead on arrival

Clues to the future of the new administration now installed in Islamabad may lie in the following series of events:

On Tuesday August 19, 2008, President Pervez Musharraf resigned his office after nearly eight years in power. On September 3, 2008, first reports emerged of US forces having crossed into Pakistan as part of an attack in South Waziristan in which at least 20 civilians were killed. On September 9, 2008 Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, took oath as Pakistan’s new president. The next day, September 10, 2008, The New York Times reported that President Bush has authorised unilateral military action in Pakistan in July.

General Musharraf’s exit has signalled an immediate withdrawal of US confidence in Pakistan’s ability to fight the Tehreek-e Taliban and Al Qaeda. While previously the mode of attack had been had been unmanned aircrafts and co-ordinated exercises with the Pakistan Army, it has now changed to full-fledged incursions into Pakistani territory that make a mockery of its sovereignty. The message is clear: the US wants to eliminate the Tehreek-e Taliban and Al Qaeda and will do what it takes, even if it means an invasion of Pakistan.

Realising that US support is necessary to maintain a civilian government in Islamabad, days before his installation as President of Pakistan (and the day after the first US strike into Pakistan) Asif Ali Zardari wrote in the Washington Post, “We stand with the United States”, vowing Pakistan’s unblinking support for the fight against terrorism.

But a few weeks later, as the outcry over US incursions increased and American rhetoric about the necessity of carrying out unilateral operations in Pakistan failed to abate, Zardari was forced to say that the latest operation was an “unacceptable and outrageous violation of the territorial integrity of the country”.

In these two statements lies the Catch-22 facing the newly installed democratic government in Pakistan. On the one hand, it has to acknowledge the reality that no civilian government in Pakistan can realistically survive without the billions of dollars in US aid that Pakistan has become accustomed to; on the other, appeasing the US almost certainly requires angering the Pakistani people.

In a poll conducted last year by the University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes, less than half the Pakistani public supported the military operations being used to root out Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e Taliban. This lack of support is visible in the complete lack of outcry over killings by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, organisations that are perceived as victimised and persecuted both by Pakistani security forces and now US airstrikes.

The lack of public support may not have been such a crucial issue had this government not ridden to power through democratic means. It is certainly true that it was General Musharraf who began operations in the tribal areas, and it was during his administration that Pakistan became significantly involved in the “war on terror”. General Musharraf, however, was not a democratic ruler, and therefore was not dependent on public opinion or public support. Not having been elected through a democratic mandate, support of the people was for him at best an abstraction, having little effect on the mechanics or ultimate longevity of his rule. This was of course a convenient situation for the United States, which could depend on him for unilaterally supporting its policies.

Democratic governments are another matter. They derive their basis of legitimacy from electoral politics, from having been “chosen by the people”, and are thus dependent on them. As rational choice theorists studying elected officials and voting behaviour have confirmed repeatedly: elected officials are invested in guarding their own turf and insuring re-election, and their politics reflect this ultimate purpose.

In Zardari’s own words, his government is legitimate because it has the support of the Pakistani people and his primary aim as its head is to address the “people’s needs”. This consideration for the “people” stems not from any altruistic concern for the larger polity, but simply from the desire of the PPP to stay in power. And power, for them, depends on re-election and lack of intrusion by the army.

But the conundrum arises from precisely this point: if the PPP government wishes to entrench its power and insure the continued support of the people that voted it in, it must enact policies that take a harsh stance against the United States. But this is increasingly a difficult task, not simply because of US demands for public avowals for support but also based on the existing civil-military dynamic within Pakistan.

What we have is a weak democratic government trying to stake its ground as the point of contact between the United States and Pakistan. In this situation, the ability of the army to negotiate covert deals with the Americans while publicly threatening to make retaliatory attacks on US forces makes the government’s position even more precarious.

Unlike the army, the civilian government has to play an impossible game: assuring the US of its support, which it can do only by ceding its sovereignty and angering the people. If it doesn’t do so, the Americans can resort to negotiating only with the army and sidelining the democratic set-up in Pakistan, thus making it irrelevant to Pakistan’s security issues. At the same time, if it ignores public opinion and continues with pro-US policies, it loses its only basis of legitimacy over a military government, leaving it vulnerable to yet another military coup.

As in times past, this will be welcomed by people. A democratic government that flouts the people is little better than a dictatorship. In such a situation Pakistanis may feel they are not giving up much in once again submitting to military rule.

Put simply, the current US stance in the post-Musharraf era may have left the new democratic set-up in Pakistan dead on arrival. With the United States demanding support for its strong-arm tactics in the tribal areas on the one hand; and the army waiting in the shadows on the other, the PPP government in Islamabad is left with few means of survival.

US support for a democracy in Pakistan has been evasive from the start but its current actions seem pointedly calculated to restoring the one-stop shop negotiations it can only get if Pakistan reverts back to military rule.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 20/9/2008

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