Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is due to arrive in Washington this week for three days of meetings with his US counterparts where he is expected to “reaffirm Pakistan’s national interests.” The Prime Minister is not, however, the only Pakistani official traveling to Washington. In fact, despite the headlines, Nawaz Sharif may be the least influential Pakistani official to make his way to Washington.
Before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for Washington, another Pakistani quietly arrived in town to hold high-level meetings with American officials. These meetings have not received the same triumphant media attention as the Prime Minister’s, despite likely having far more significance. That official? Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar, Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). According to Pakistani media,
The DG ISI, upon his return Sunday evening, will present a report to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and brief the premier regarding details of his discussions with US officials. Nawaz is expected to depart for the US following the briefing.
The ISI chief’s briefing is probably necessary as it is unlikely that the Prime Minister is aware of what was discussed by the General beforehand despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif technically holds the Foreign Minister’s portfolio in addition to his responsibility as Prime Minister. It is well accepted that Pakistan’s civilian officials have little to no say in matters of foreign policy or national security. Even Nawaz Sharif’s “Foreign Policy Advisor,” Sartaj Aziz, is being replaced with a military officer – Lieutenant General Naseer Khan Janjua, who conveniently retired from the military a few days ago. Neither will Prime Minister Sharif have the last word with American officials. After he returns to Pakistan, his visit will be followed up by the man most accept as the true head of the Pakistani state, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.
If you think bookending a Prime Minister’s high-profile visit with low-profile visits from high ranking military officers looks like dressing up a military regime with a civilian facade, maybe that’s because it is. That was the assessment of Vali Nasr, Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former Senior Advisor at the US State Department.
“Nawaz Sharif’s administration has fallen into the same pattern as [former] President [Asif Ali] Zardari, which means that there is a very stable civilian façade that actually does not make any critical decisions, particularly on security issues that [are] very obviously delegated to the military,” Nasr, who served as Special Adviser to Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2011, said in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council.
When it comes to Pakistan’s Afghan, Indian, and general security policies, the “real decisionmakers” are in the military, specifically Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, said Nasr. “That’s the new normal in Pakistan: No coups, civilian governments that will end their terms but basically make no waves.”
Herein lies the problem. By allowing Pakistan’s military to keep up this charade, the US is undermining Pakistani democracy and facilitating an unsustainable political situation in which Pakistan’s military is increasingly in control behind the scenes while civilians are left taking responsibility for social and economic problems. American officials may believe, as they have in the past, that this is an unfortunate but necessary outcome from American reliance on Pakistani military cooperation in Afghanistan, but there’s increasing evidence that this reliance on Pakistan’s military is actually undermining progress in Afghanistan. As Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida explained yesterday, it’s Pakistan’s military – not the civilians – who gain from letting the war drag on.
The way the US has defined its interests means what it basically needs from Pakistan are security things. And that shapes who is relevant here and who is not.
Since 9/11, there’s nothing the US has asked of Pakistan that makes civilians relevant. When you’re incidental to the biggest foreign policy and national security demands from the biggest player in the world, that distorts what happens at home.
Which is a pity. No mainstream civilian wants to dominate Afghanistan. None consider militants to be a tool of statecraft or a fundamental ally. None advocate more and more nukes.
Whether it’s Afghanistan, militancy or nuclear weapons, most civilians do not have the same approach as the army’s. That’s why the army needs to dominate them.
Four years ago, Admiral Mullen defined the Haqqani Network, a group of Islamist militants responsible for killing American soldiers, as “a veritable arm of the ISI.” Just last month, the State Department issued a statement lamenting Pakistan’s continued unwillingness to stop the Haqqani Network and other Islamist groups responsible for destabilizing South Asia, a problem the White House continues to press Pakistan on. A few days ago the Associated Press reported that US analysts believe ISI operatives are coordinating Taliban attacks against US troops in Afghanistan. One would think this would be enough to convince US leaders of the need to re-prioritize relations with Pakistan’s civilians over continuing what Bruce Riedel has described as the “deadly embrace” with Pakistan’s military leadership. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. And so it is left to Pakistan’s civilian leadership to do something to change this disastrous course.
Shortly after Pakistan’s previous civilian government took power in 2008, then-Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani announced that control of the ISI would be shifted to the portfolio of the civilian Interior Ministry. It was only a matter of hours before the Pakistan Army’s spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, told the media that no such change would occur. The civilians promptly retracted the decision. In contrast, Pakistan’s present civilian government has largely given the Army wide latitude. The results speak for themselves.
Despite a concerted (and admittedly impressive) public relations campaign designed to depict a Pakistan ascending, there is little reason to believe that much has changed for the better. Islamist militant groups continue to operate openly while secular political parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement are targeted by paramilitary forces, and retired military officers call for expanding the raids to include other secular political parties. And while many are quick to cite the decline in fatalities over the past year, the fact remains that Pakistan suffered over 800 terrorist attacks in the first eight months of this year alone. Just last week, a suicide bomber carried out an attack against a member of the Prime Minister’s political party in his home province of Punjab. Meanwhile, relations with both India and Afghanistan continue to sink to new lows.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, may believe that he has no choice but to play his role in this absurd charade. He’s probably right. While Pakistan’s military would only stand to lose by carrying out an obvious coup d’etat, they remain firmly in control and there are plenty of political opportunists waiting in the wings to fill Nawaz’s role should he fail to perform as expected. Playing along may provide short-term protections, but the long-term outlook is bleak. The Prime Minister’s political party is losing support along with civilian democracy. When historians look back on Nawaz Sharif’s third-term as Prime Minister, will they see a strong national leader, or a willing puppet?
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is reportedly stopping in London en route to Washington for his three day visit. He should stay and enjoy a shopping trip at Harrod’s. The Prime Minister would better serve his country if he canceled his visit to the US in protest of the US government’s complicity in the undermining of Pakistan’s civilian democracy. He would likely be serving his own interests as well.