Pakistani Military Cool Amid Political Crisis

In staying on the sidelines, the Pakistani army may be the only party to emerge from the weeks-long political crisis unscathed, says CFR’s Daniel S. Markey.

September 12, 2014

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have weathered weeks of protests, but he and his rivals, Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, will likely all suffer politically from the crisis, says CFR’s Daniel Markey. "Everyone will look weaker except perhaps the army," which has sought to avoid a military takeover and facilitate peaceful negotiations, Markey explains. Despite hopes for his political success at home and abroad, Sharif has fallen short in addressing some of the country’s very difficult challenges, particularly its ailing economy and poor governance. "He’s learned what every Pakistani leader has learned for several decades now, which is that it’s an incredibly difficult country to govern," Markey says.

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The latest news from Pakistan are the floods, but there have also been continuing street protests and sit-ins in Islamabad. Do these endanger Sharif’s government?

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It looks like Nawaz Sharif is okay for the time being. There were moments during the past few weeks when it looked like the government might fall, but he seems to have held on, and now the issue is whether he’s such damaged goods that he will be significantly weakened, and in particular whether the army has used this political crisis to reassert itself.

Back in 2013 when he was elected prime minister, there was a great deal of enthusiasm both in Pakistan and the United States about a way to repair relations: Secretary of State John Kerry went to Pakistan right away. What’s happened in the last year or so that’s damaged his standing?

He came in with a wave of euphoria, certainly among his own supporters but also among everybody else, including those in Washington who were hoping that—with an elected government succeeding another elected government for the first time—this was a milestone for Pakistan. And Nawaz Sharif, the head of a major party, was seen as somebody who would be business-minded and perhaps who would be better at actually improving the governance of the country.

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Over the last year, he’s picked a variety of fights, both with opposition parties as well as with the military. And probably more important than that, he’s learned what every Pakistani leader has learned for several decades now, which is that it’s an incredibly difficult country to govern.

Success is hard to find, and it’s hard especially in the near term to turn a grievously ailing economy around quickly in ways that are not too painful for the public—to get electricity during the summer heatwave or to improve the infrastructure such that these latest floods would not inundate major cities like Lahore. These are tough challenges, and by nearly all accounts he didn’t make progress quickly enough to keep that enthusiasm he enjoyed in 2013 going. And so opposition party leaders—Imran Khan, the former cricket player, and Tahir-ul-Qadri, a religious leader—came together to challenge him in the streets. And that’s the origin of this most recent protest.

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How does the military play into the politics right now?

Throughout almost all of Pakistan’s history the military has dominated the areas it cares most about: its budgets, [decisions on when to go to war], major foreign policy issues, and the nuclear program. That’s not really changed dramatically, even as you’ve seen civilian governments in place.

Now, this latest protest, by most accounts, was an attempt by the two protest leaders to force a change of government by pressuring the army to step in or adjudicate or tip the scales in their favor. There is little reason to think that the opposition protests, in and of themselves, could bring down the government. We’re talking about a country of two hundred million people. Even if the opposition leaders had gotten the million marchers that they originally promised—and they got nowhere close, [the number was] something much closer to tens of thousands—that would have been only a tiny fraction of the country. The idea of bringing down a duly elected government with a protest like that makes no sense unless you take into account that there has always been this other force in Pakistani politics—the army—that could reach in and pressure politicians one way or the other.

Most observers, myself included, are speculating that the protesters had some reason to hope that the army would step in. Now, as it turned out, the army has made its preferences felt, and by and large those [preferences are] to avoid any sort of a coup and to force the politicians to resolve this issue themselves.

Pakistan military helicopter
A helicopter flies past Pakistan’s national flag near the parliament house during the Revolution March in Islamabad, September 2, 2014. (Photo: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

Is there any dialogue between Sharif’s government and Khan, for instance?

There is an ongoing negotiation. It would be reasonable to say that if Imran Khan had kept to his original points—he was arguing that the last election was rigged and that there ought to be an audit of sorts—and maybe a few other demands, he probably would have succeeded, and the government probably would have acquiesced.

Instead, he pushed it further, and he’s now been demanding the resignation of the prime minister, which they won’t go for. So they’re in a negotiating process, and the hope—really the expectation—is that the negotiations will allow a kind of a face-saving way for the opposition to end the protests and for the government to stay. Everyone will look weaker except, perhaps, the army.

Let’s talk about the security issues, which at one point were very high on Washington’s agenda, with drone attacks almost every week. Now the army is still on its offensive against the Taliban in northern Pakistan. What is the situation?

The fighting is in North Waziristan, which is one of the territories within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. The army has been on this offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and their sympathizers or affiliates based in that area for several months; this came after a longer period of preparation, even negotiations, with the Pakistani Taliban.

Now that the military finally pulled the trigger, the expectation is that they will be in this phase of a hot war offensive, probably until the end of this year, perhaps even longer. They claim that they’ve cleared out a number of the major urban centers in North Waziristan, and that they have one more area they’ll have to go into. So there will be some more tough fighting this fall.

The criticism of the offensive from Washington is that it hasn’t really targeted the groups the United States has been most upset about, in particular the Haqqani network that has gone after U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. That’s probably true if only because this offensive came with so much prior warning that anybody with any sense could have gotten out if they had wanted to. So the element of surprise was not there. The offensive is probably still a worthwhile undertaking because the infrastructure of terrorism, that is [improvised explosive device] manufacturing facilities, training camps, and other places—tunnels, arms caches, and so on—are more or less being disrupted. But without unbiased international observers on the scene, or journalists or anybody from the outside to see what the army is doing, it’s very difficult for us to know just how effective their operations have been.

Now in neighboring Afghanistan, of course, we have a real mess it seems because the U.S. and NATO forces are due to leave at the end of this year, and we don’t have an agreed upon new president because of this flap over the elections. Are people in Washington really worried about the situation in Afghanistan and potential spillover into Pakistan?

People in Washington, people in Islamabad, people in New Delhi, people in Tehran, and the whole region are very concerned about the political deadlock in Afghanistan, and that it comes, of course, at a time of a security transition where we’re drawing down to about ten thousand U.S. forces.

So the Pakistanis don’t control the Taliban in Afghanistan?

"Control" is probably too strong a word. The Pakistanis have clearly, historically, had connections to and have supported certain parts of the Afghan Taliban, and that probably continues to be the case. But the problem is that some of those same groups have been aligned with Pakistani Taliban who have attacked the Pakistani state for the past five to seven years. And so peeling these groups apart and figuring out who are the good ones and the bad ones, and who Pakistan can make deals withhas been an increasingly difficult proposition. So that’s what they’re stuck with. And even the old Afghan Taliban leadership—the Mullah Omar types, and Quetta Shura—has been a fraught relationship for the Pakistanis.

In Pakistan, is there much concern over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as there is in the United States and in the Middle East?

There is a huge amount of concern. I had a chance last week to spend some time with a number of Pakistanis at a bilateral dialogue, and ISIS got a fair amount of attention. Not because they think ISIS is about to break out in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but because of what it says about the potential for these groups to become even more radical, violent, well-funded, and sophisticated than they have in the past. Pakistanis would have hoped that the end of al-Qaeda would be the end of that particular chapter. ISIS suggests for Pakistanis, as it does for the rest of the world, that this may be a recurring challenge.

Is there any chance that Pakistan might contribute to a force against ISIS?

They have enough on their plates right now at home. They’ve got somewhere between 130,000 and 170,000 of their own forces in the fight along the border with Afghanistan. So, even for a very large army, that’s a huge burden. And that is to say nothing of what they consider their major, long-term security threat, which is India. They are major troop contributors to UN peacekeeping, but to push beyond that would be a bridge too far right now.

Are Sharif and Prime Minister Modi of India talking much? Is there any rapprochement there?

There were initial signs. When Modi had his inaugural meeting, he invited all of the different heads of state of his regional neighbors, and Nawaz Sharif attended. It was a big deal to have a prime minister go to India on that occasion. So there was initial hope that that would turn into a reopening of a broader dialogue. Unfortunately, because of some violence along the India-Pakistan border and several other episodes, including some diplomatic exchanges that the Pakistanis had, the Modi government decided to cancel what was intended to be their next big meeting, a foreign secretary-level meeting.

This is not being greeted well in Pakistan; they see the Indian step as being a little bit too hostile. But the Indians may be trying to send a message that they’re still unhappy with the Pakistanis about various outstanding issues they’ve had in the past, starting with Pakistani-based terrorist groups that have attacked India. So that hasn’t changed. There’s a hope that they can get back to business—there had been a trade deal in the works before Modi was elected that many in Pakistan thought would move forward once he was in place, but right now things look a bit stalled.

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