Pakistan: Charting a Course

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

February 25, 2000

Pakistanis are probably tired of getting advice, good and bad, from Americans. Nevertheless, the very fact that it is offered it at all implies both a degree of hope for the future of Pakistan and an assumption that its leaders may gain from the observations of others.

It is in this spirit that I turn to the question of charting a course for Pakistan in the next few years. This period is critical—decisions made now will limit the range of options open to future generations. Pakistan is like a cat that has used up several of its lives, it does not have much room for error. There are five or six areas where critical decisions must soon be made: these include the future of the military regime, the re-establishment of politics, the restoration of democracy, relations with India, the Kashmir problem, and Pakistan’s role in the wider world.

The Future of the Military Regime

The Pakistan army is made up of professional soldiers, its officers are not trained to be economists, scientists, bureaucrats, or even diplomats. The more thoughtful army officers must have observed the decline and fall of Pakistan’s democracy and economy with alarm, but they did not move until the army itself, which they regard as the last line of defense for the state, until it came under attack. Pakistan had become a kleptocracy which had also launched several failed (or self-defeating) ventures abroad. The army participated in some of these decisions; now the responsibility rests entirely in its hands.

In five months of military-civilian rule, several things have been set right. If things go well the first anniversary of the accession to power of General Pervez Musharraf and his colleagues could see an economic turnaround. Just as important, the menaces of corruption, sectarianism, and violence seem to have drawn the attention of the government. A start could still be made on the larger problems of spreading literacy, reducing the undue influence of the feudal elements in Pakistani society, protecting the rights of Pakistani women, and reviving the political process with local body elections.

However, it took many years to bring the state of Pakistan to virtual collapse, this government must not try to do everything. If real progress can be shown in several important areas and avoid a crisis either at home or with India, then history will regard the army takeover as justified. It will be judged a success if it can speedily return government to civilian hands.

However, when General Musharraf delivers his speech to the nation on that first anniversary, what will he say about his own role? Some will want him to continue as Army Chief indefinitely, others have suggested that he make the position of CE a permanent one, or that he appoint himself as President. All of these arrangements would be unwise. General Musharraf, by all accounts an admirable man and a fine soldier, should plan for the transition to civilian rule by planning for his own transition. Perhaps his successor could serve as CE for a brief period, perhaps he will want to extend his tenure in office by a brief period, but the military and civilian leaders of Pakistan should have a plan to restore civilian government—even if they want to keep it to themselves for a while longer. There might be a transition period during which the armed forces can offer their advice and counsel, but they, in turn, must learn that there are skills and qualities that they lack as an institution. Nor does the army want to turn itself into a political party. A mixed system is not perfect, but a halfway house will meet Pakistan’s immediate needs if it is moving in the direction of civilianization.

Strengthening Civil Society

Of course, this will not be possible without an agreement with major Pakistani political figures concerning their future participation in politics. As I wrote a number of years ago in The Pakistan Army, there has to be accommodation by both sides. An arrangement that honored the positive achievements of important leaders, giving them positions of honor, would not be unreasonable, if they step aside and allow a new generation of leaders to emerge. In the past, the translation of “Ehtesab” seems to be “r-e-v-e-n-g-e”; the last thing that Pakistan needs is a fresh set of martyrs. Islam, can be a forgiving religion, and Pakistan’s leaders might want to look closely at the South African experience, and create its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I disagree with many westerners pressing for a rapid return to “democracy.” It is more important that Pakistan maintain a strong commitment to the protection of the rights of all of its citizens during this transition period. The record over the past few months has been excellent, but Pakistan should invite human rights groups to visit Pakistan to see the situation for themselves. It would be unwise to place any new restrictions on the press, on public gatherings (except to maintain order), and on travel, both within Pakistan and abroad. Discrimination against any Pakistani on the basis of language, gender, or religious belief should be regarded as unacceptable. General Musharraf’s first speeches struck just the right tone with regard to the reform of civil society. States elsewhere find that their governments are strengthened, not weakened, by the vigorous protection of civil and religious freedom.

India and Kashmir

Pakistan needs to get India to the negotiating table as soon as possible. Given the bitterness in India over the Kargil adventure (which I have likened to a Pearl Harbor—a militarily brilliant operation that was a strategic failure), it is politically difficult for any Indian government to go back to Simla or Lahore after Kargil and Kandahar, the latter further embittering the Indian public, for good reason.

Nevertheless, there are steps that could be taken by both sides even before negotiations begin. Pakistan cannot always argue that India, as the bigger state, must take the first step; to do so would doom the Kashmiri people to the full weight of the Indian military, with the danger that their very culture will be destroyed.

Pakistan needs to take initiatives that get India to significantly reduce the number of troops in Kashmir while starting talks with “their” Kashmiris. Putting my argument in military terms, the Kashmiris have found themselves in a no-man’s land, beset on all sides by violence. Violence is only a means to an end. As Clausewitz said, war itself is like a duel, it can have no conclusion except more violence and the destruction of one or more of the parties. Pakistan should not want that to happen in Kashmir, lest it be said that “Islamabad fought the Indians to the last Kashmiri.”

Pakistan and the World

Further afield, Pakistan’s relations with many important countries has been troubled. It has been cold-shouldered by the Commonwealth, and excluded from SAARC. Relations with Iran have been frosty, and Pakistan’s Taliban tie has led to great anxiety in many countries, not least the United States and China.

I have advocated a visit (without conditions) by President Clinton, but the trip is opposed by many in Washington because Islamabad is beginning to look like a state that tolerates terrorism, that could spread its nuclear weapons abroad, and might provoke another calamitous war with India. Others doubt Pakistan’s ability to rid itself of the scourge of foreign terrorists and mercenaries. Pakistan cannot dismiss these concerns as “anti-Muslim,” or stemming from “pro-Indian” forces, since states such as China are concerned about Pakistan becoming a launching pad for terrorists. One man’s terrorist may be another’s freedom fighter, but supporting such groups has a way of boomeranging upon the state that launches or tolerates them.

The Fateful Choice

Pakistan has become accustomed to crises. Some of these have been imposed by others or by circumstances, but most have been of its own making. A state may like to boast that it thrives on adversity, but too much can weaken it to the point where others can destroy it. This is the lesson of Pakistan’s history. Well-intentioned leaders reached too far, attempted too much, and were too clever by half. The people of Pakistan have paid a terrible price for these misjudgments, including the vivisection of twenty-five years ago. Pakistan has the resources to become a well-respected and prosperous state, living in peace with its neighbors. Does it have the will? The rest of the world is watching, because decisions made in Pakistan could have very positive (or very negative) consequences for us all.