Thomas Friedman on Sunday compared Pakistan’s ISI to Egypt’s Amn al Dowla, the security agency responsible for propping up Hosni Mubarak’s police state, and asks why the US continues to provide billions of dollars in assistance to Pakistan while we cheer the fall of autocratic regimes in the Arab world. Friedman troublingly mischaracterizes the relationship between the ISI and Pakistan’s civilian government, and his conclusion – that the US should cut aid to Pakistan – is ultimately misguided.
According to Friedman, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence “dominates Pakistani politics” and is “the twin of Hosni Mubarak’s security service.” This is fundamentally incorrect. While it’s true that Pakistan’s ISI plays a heavy hand in Pakistan’s domestic politics, unlike Mubarak’s use of Amn al Dowla to intimidate and oppress political opposition, Pakistan’s ISI operates largely outside the control of the civilian government.
Egypt under Hosni Mubarak would be better compared to Pakistan under Gen. Musharraf – an autocratic regime that used the looming threat of extremism and regional instability to extort support for its security services and the personal fortunes of its officers – not present day Pakistan. Democratic elections in 2008 brought to power a civilian government, but Pakistan’s military establishment was less sidelined than removed from the spotlight.
Unlike Egypt, Pakistan has a popularly-elected civilian government that is struggling to build power in a country dominated by a military-intelligence apparatus that operates outside of its control. Following a meeting between Pakistani cabinet officials and the head of ISI, one Pakistani newspaper reported that, one attendee “dared not be arbitrarily fired.” Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida described the power dynamic more bluntly:
By now the cat is out of the bag. When the interior minister, the ex-foreign minister and the all-powerful spy chief met to decide the fate of Raymond Davis, two of those gents were of the opinion that Davis doesn’t enjoy ‘full immunity’.
One of those two has now been fired by Zardari. The other, well, if Zardari tried to fire him, the president might find himself out of a job first.
Thomas Friedman falsely equates the ISI with Pakistan’s government, but it is a well-known fact in Pakistan that the two are presently in competition for control of the nation. And the two sides in this competition are not equally resourced.
As described by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa in her book, Military Inc., Pakistan’s military dominates not only the nation’s security, but it’s economy as well, controlling much of the private sector and extensive land holdings. Pakistan’s parliament ostensibly controls the purse strings, but it is another accepted fact that the military sets its own budget. The military’s resources also include a massive patronage network, an established recruitment and command infrastructure, and the Inter-Services Public Relations agency – the intelligence agency’s propaganda wing.
Diverting aid from Pakistan will not weaken anti-democratic forces in the nation’s military establishment. It will, if anything, make it stronger and less pliable to pro-democracy influence. Nations such as China and Iran would quickly fill any military assistance void left by a diversion of US aid, and the civilian government would find itself without the leverage it needs to strengthen its hand in opposition to military influence over the nation’s foreign and domestic policy.
Even cuts that specifically target military aid would be counterproductive at this time. While it’s true that much of Pakistan’s military still sees India as the most pressing security issue, threats to cut military assistance are unlikely to change this perspective which has deep ideological and historical roots. Moreover, there are signs that the military’s strategic focus is beginning to change. Threats to cut aid are more likely to abort rather than encourage any reorientation and will be used to justify continued support for jihadi militant groups as irregular defense forces. This would be devastating.
As Pakistan’s President Zardari noted in The Washington Post,
Our nation is pressed by overlapping threats. We have lost more soldiers in the war against terrorism than all of NATO combined. We have lost 10 times the number of civilians who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Two thousand police officers have been killed. Our economic growth was stifled by the priorities of past dictatorial regimes that unfortunately were supported by the West. The worst floods in our history put millions out of their homes. The religious fanaticism behind our assassinations is a tinderbox poised to explode across Pakistan. The embers are fanned by the opportunism of those who seek advantages in domestic politics by violently polarizing society.
Pakistan today looks like what we may increasingly see emerge in countries like Egypt and Tunisia – military and intelligence establishments that, decoupled from civilian control, operate with their own agendas. They are states within states, operating without oversight or accountability. Mr. Friedman is correct that Egyptians and Tunisians will have to develop their own democracies, and this is exactly what the people of Pakistan are doing right now. We should not abandon them as they struggle to uproot the “deep state” and replace it with effective civilian democratic institutions.
Where Friedman is correct is in his recognition of the importance of investment that strengthens civilian governance and institutions. This is exactly what the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill passed in 2009 represents – a change in focus from supporting Pakistan’s military establishment to strengthening civilian institutions. Unfortunately, this aid is not being dispersed quickly enough to meet the nation’s needs.
According to a GAO report released earlier this year, only $179.5 million of $1.51 billion in US civilian aid to Pakistan was actually dispersed in 2010. The US should concentrate on finding ways to get this funding to projects that will make lasting improvements in the lives of Pakistanis and strengthen civilian governance in Pakistan.
Support for emerging democracies should not be played as a zero-sum game in which the latest entrant to the democratic community receives support at the expense of those that came before. Pakistan represents not the autocratic regimes of the past, but the delicate stage in democratic development during which nascent civilian governments attempt to supplant entrenched military and intelligence institutions.
Abandoning new allies as they struggle to secure civilian control will set back democratic progress for generations. Cutting aid to Pakistan would not weaken the nation’s “deep state” and promote democratic reform. More likely, it would be a catalyst for Pakistan to revert to a military state buttressed by a fundamentally anti-democratic ideology. If any outcome is “totally out of proportion…with our interests and out of all sync with our values”, it is this.