Pakistan Spring Emerging From Winter of Discontent

Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr Former Brookings Expert, Dean, School for Advanced International Studies - Johns Hopkins University

April 16, 2012

The snarling between the U.S. and Pakistan won’t let up. The battle began, of course, when U.S. forces sneaked into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden last May.

Last week, the U.S. upped the ante, announcing a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of notorious terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who is thought to be close to Pakistani intelligence. Things are so bad, Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid pronounced in his recently published book, “The United States and Pakistan are just short of going to war.”

America’s greater fear is that Pakistan will get in the way of war. Pakistan’s Parliament last week unanimously voted to forbid the U.S. from conducting drone strikes inside Pakistani territory. If the measure is implemented, it will deny the U.S. its most effective weapon against al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Yet, as worrisome as the trend in bilateral relations is, other developments within Pakistan signal that the country may be changing for the better, in terms of the military’s role, democratic tendencies and relations with India. By focusing on the security dimension of its relationship with Pakistan, the U.S. risks missing these currents and thus the opportunity to engage with the country in fruitful new ways.

Unexpected Turn

One new twist that should be particularly gratifying to the U.S. is the Pakistani public’s unexpected turn against the military. Popular anger at the U.S. for swooping into the country to kill bin Laden was matched by outrage that the military was caught snoozing by U.S. commandos. Pakistanis asked: Why do we need such an expensive military if it can’t even protect the country’s borders and doesn’t know that the world’s most wanted man is hiding in a garrison town?

If that weren’t enough, three weeks later, extremists attacked the naval base in Karachi, which houses nuclear warheads. They destroyed a helicopter and two advanced P-3C Orion patrol aircraft. Pakistani special forces lost 10 men and had to fight for 16 hours to end the siege.

More embarrassments followed. Impassioned appeals to the Supreme Court to find President Asif Ali Zardari a traitor backfired on the army and intelligence chiefs when the credibility of their witness, who had claimed that Zardari was colluding with the U.S. against the military, dissolved amid the man’s ever-changing story and his cameo in a mud-wrestling video. Next, the Supreme Court opened hearings in a case alleging that the military bought votes in the 1990 election. The televised spectacle of generals hauled to court to answer judges has mesmerized Pakistanis.

The humbling of the military is good news for democracy in Pakistan. National elections may take place as early as October and must occur by February. With the military restrained, there is hope that voting will be free and fair, and that the outcome may further strengthen civilian rule.

There are signs that democracy already is budding in what may prove to be a Pakistani Spring. Amid widespread disenchantment with corruption and government mismanagement, the young and the middle class are restless. Many have flocked to anti-establishment politician Imran Khan, a former cricket hero, and his Movement for Justice. Khan isn’t friendly to the U.S.; he promises to stand up to America. But in other ways his campaign has enhanced the political debate. He regularly addresses the need to earnestly battle corruption and to reform the woefully inadequate tax system.

Questioning the Rolls

Also, at Imran’s request, the Supreme Court in February reviewed the electoral rolls and questioned the validity of 35 million names, about 44 percent of the 80 million registered. Given that 32 million new young voters will be added to the rolls, Pakistan may have its cleanest — and most unpredictable — election since the 1970s.

At the same time, Pakistan’s relations with India have mellowed. With Pakistan’s economy in poor shape — growth was 2.4 percent in 2011 and there is little foreign investment or aid — its business community has convinced the military that expansion can come only through increased trade with India. Pakistan’s government has agreed to remove restrictions on the import of most goods from India by year’s end. Liberated from military pressure and eager to add momentum to the cross-border commerce, Zardari went to New Delhi on April 8, the first Pakistani head of state to visit in seven years. There is now talk of even more trade and greater cooperation on other fronts.

A humbled military, a resurgent democracy and better ties with India are all things the U.S. wants to see in Pakistan. Together they present hope, however slight, for a more stable, constructive Pakistan. In responding to the Pakistani Parliament’s new security demands, the Obama administration should consider these developments rather than answering on purely military grounds. The U.S. should be careful not to derail these positive trends, for instance by provoking popular resentments about sovereignty breaches, and risk restoring credibility to the military. In the long run, these developments may matter more than drone attacks anyway.