All posts by Seth Oldmixon

Nawaz Sharif Should Cancel His US Visit In Protest

Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif

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 officerLieutenant 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.

More Questions Than Answers After Paramilitary Raid On MQM Offices

MQM Offices Raided

Masked paramilitary forces carried out an armed raid on the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Pakistan’s fourth largest political party this week. One person was killed, at least 27 party workers were arrested and a collection of small arms was confiscated by the Pakistan Rangers. The immediate aftermath of the operation, however, is more questions than answers.

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Islamabad High Court Establishes Important Precedent

Islamabad High Court

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) established an important legal precedent in a recent ruling regarding freedom of speech in Pakistan. The decision involved a petition filed by the Shuhada Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the extreme right-wing Lal Masjid in Islamabad, against TV coverage of music and dancing at recent anti-government protests in Pakistan’s capital. The IHC dismissed the petition and fined the petitioner for wasting the court’s time. In dismissing the petition, Justice Athar Minallah also gave the complainants some important advice: If you don’t like music, change the channel.

change the channelJustice Minallah’s advice has important implications when applied to other cases that involve complaints about offensive content such as those that seek to restrict the broadcast of international programming or allegations of blasphemy. In each of these cases, a court order is not required to remove the offensive content from the individual viewers television. They just need to change the channel.

The precedent established by the IHC also has bearings on another important issue: The now two-year-old blocking of YouTube in Pakistan. As with potentially objectionable content on television, no one is required to view any particular videos on YouTube or other online video sharing sites.

By making the individual responsible for his or her own viewing choices, the IHC’s decision strengthens Pakistan’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and access to information and limits the ability of anti-democratic forces to use legal cases as a weapon against minorities and other marginalized groups.

Pakistan’s Crisis Threatens Millions In Military Aid

Gen Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif

Earlier this year, the US announced plans to provide $280 million in military aid to Pakistan, but that may be cut to zero based on the way the country’s political crisis is taking shape.

The Foreign Assistance Act “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Over the past week, a military coup has become a distinct possibility, if not a fait accompli.

The head of Pakistan’s Army, General Raheel Sharif (not relation to the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif), publicly intervened in Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis late Thursday night. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “The move follows a backroom political deal that government officials privately said ceded important powers over defense and foreign policy from the government to the military.”

While this may be the first time the Army has entered the public light, reports as far back as ten days ago described the military using the protests as leverage to seize political power.

As tens of thousands of protesters advanced on the Pakistani capital last week to demand his resignation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dispatched two emissaries to consult with the army chief.

He wanted to know if the military was quietly engineering the twin protest movements by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan and activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, or if, perhaps, it was preparing to stage a coup.

According to a government insider with a first-hand account of the meeting, Sharif’s envoys returned with good news and bad: there will be no coup, but if he wants his government to survive, from now on it will have to “share space with the army”.

If these reports are accurate, the Army would appear be attempting to carry out a “soft coup” – one that involves a transfer of power without the typical show of military force.

As Gen. Raheel stepped into the public spotlight as a mediator, Pakistan’s press reported that he was doing so at the request of the Prime Minister, a claim the Prime Minister has since publicly denied. Article 245 of Pakistan’s Constitution does permit the federal government to direct the Armed Forces to “act in aid of civil power,” but the real test will be the outcome. Whether or not the military can come to the aid of the federal government, Pakistan’s Constitution makes no provision for any transfer of power from democratically elected offices to the military, nor does it provide for “sharing space.”

Any military intervention in Pakistan’s government will have serious and debilitating consequences. A coup, not matter how “soft,” will set back democratic gains made over the last seven years by decades, severely jeopardizing the likelihood that Pakistan will be a modern, democratic country for the foreseeable future.

The military, too, stands to lose – both in resources and reputation. Gen. Raheel’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, skillfully began rehabilitating the military’s relationship with the United States and its reputation as a threat to democratic order. The new military leadership’s decisions in the next few days could undo all of that progress – as well as cost them $280 million.

Madiha Afzal: Pakistan Needs To Control the Narrative

Excellent post by Madiha Afzal on the need for Pakistan’s leadership to take control of the national narrative and articulate a vision for the country’s future.

Slowly but surely, independent voices countering the Taliban narrative are being silenced. Last month, the Express Tribune, for which I write a regular column, was attacked for the third time in a few months. Three staff members were killed. After the attack, I was asked by the newspaper’s editors to refrain from writing about terrorism for the time being.

So Mr. Sharif must step up now and articulate his vision of Pakistan’s future. He must stand up for the sanctity of Pakistan’s constitution and its democracy. He must set preconditions for any future talks. Talks have to be held under Pakistan’s constitution—no ifs, no buts. His government must state its unwillingness to compromise on women’s rights, the rights of minorities and Pakistan’s place in the world. Most of all, if he is to win the war of words and ideas with the Taliban, and, along with it, the hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens, Mr. Sharif must start talking to the Pakistani people. Otherwise the TTP wins.

You can read the full article on the Brookings website.

Pakistan’s increasing isolation

Imran Khan leads protest

The Lahore High Court this week tightened restrictions on screening foreign films – a move clearly targeted at India’s prolific Bollywood industry. This follows a campaign by some in Pakistan’s TV industry last year to secure a ban on foreign content. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa officially banned a 12-year-old academic book by Suranjan Das, the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in India. No rationale for the ban was given, and the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, recently banned the teaching of comparative religion. YouTube remains inaccessible in Pakistan, and earlier this week access to IMDb was temporarily blocked, with a Pakistan Telecommunications Authority describing the site as, “anti-state, anti-religion, and anti-social.”

But cutting itself off from foreign media is not the only isolationism that is gaining popularity in Pakistan. In the wake of a drone strike that killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, a group designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, Pakistan’s Interior Minister publicly questioned how Pakistan could continue to regard the US as a friendly nation. Populist politician Imran Khan took the rhetoric a step further, declaring the strike to be “a declaration of war” between Pakistan and the United States and announced that he would organize a permanent blockade of NATO supply routes beginning today. Protests led by Imran Khan have begun, but it’s unclear whether they will actually be able to sustain an effective blockade of NATO supplies. What is clear is that, while Taliban militants continue to attack Pakistan, Imran Khan and other populist leaders are focused on casting the US as the real enemy, fostering sympathy for terrorists.

While Pakistan may be looking to replace American patronage by more closely aligning with China, it is unlikely that this would relieve Pakistan from pressure to tackle extremism. US and Chinese interests increasingly align in Pakistan, and earlier this year Pakistan was forced to take action against three militant groups due to pressure from China. The legality and efficacy of the US drone program can be debated, but it does not alleviate Pakistan of the responsibility to ensure that it is not becoming a safe haven for terrorists, as desired by al Qaeda.

Pakistan is facing a number of difficult challenges. Closing itself off from the rest of the world is not the solution.

Ambassador Husain Haqqani speaks on the ‘magnificent delusions’ that plague US-Pakistan relations

Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011, has spent many years researching and writing about his country’s complex political history. His new book Magnificent Delusions explores how, despite over 60 years of being “most allied allies,” the US and Pakistan have never really understood each other. Ambassador Haqqani’s first-hand experience in US-Pakistan relations notwithstanding, Magnificent Delusions is not a memoir, but a case study. Neither is the book a polemic against the US or Pakistan. From Secretary of State Dulles overlooking the eerily prescient observations of Ambassador Langley in the late 1950s to Pakistan’s misunderstanding of the limits of US obligations in bilateral security agreements, Haqqani details a history in which both countries have developed foreign policy around a set of wishful assumptions rather than contextual analysis.

The US has failed to fully understand the India-centric narrative that has defined Pakistan’s national identity and served as a myopic focal point of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies as well as the role of anti-Americanism and fundamentalist religious groups in serving as leverage in bilateral negotiations. Ambassador Haqqani offers an equally incisive analysis of the failure of Pakistan’s political and military elite to understand their position relative to US regional and global interests, taking an outsized view of both their strategic importance and the limits of US .

Magnificent Delusions serves as a important point of reorientation for US-Pakistan relations, and is recommended to anyone who wants a keen understanding of not only how US-Pakistan relations got where they are, but how to forge a more productive relationship for the future.

Pakistan’s Activist Judiciary Doing More Harm Than Good

Chief Justice Iftikhar ChaudhryOver the past five years, Pakistan’s courts were widely criticized for pushing the boundaries of reasonable judicial oversight and taking an aggressively adversarial role against the previous Pakistani government. Many observers assumed that the judiciary’s behavior was the result of a personal dislike for former President Asif Zardari on the part of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges. Whether or not that was the case, the judiciary’s activism did not end with the Zardari government earlier this year – something that does not bode well for Pakistan’s democracy.

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The Fourth Option For US-Pakistan Relations

Joe Biden, Nawaz Sharif, John Kerry, ShahbazSharif

As 2014, and the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan that will come with it, rapidly approaches, analysts in Washington are working to influence the direction of US policy in the region. Unfortunately, much of what is being bandied about as a new direction looks an awful lot like the well-worn path that brought us where we are today. With the recent handover of power between two democratic governments, it’s time to try something new with Pakistan.

In response to a question about the key constructs of the US engagement with Pakistan post-2014, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Dan Markey recently outlined three options for the US:

  • The United States would devote the bulk of its efforts to protecting itself from Pakistan-based threats (terrorism, nuclear weapons, and general instability) by relying on coercion, deterrence, and closer military cooperation with neighboring India and Afghanistan.
  • The United States would focus on cultivating a businesslike negotiating relationship with Pakistan’s military—still Pakistan’s most powerful institution—in order to advance specific U.S. counterterrorism and nuclear goals.
  • The United States would work with and provide support to Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership as well as civil society in ways that would, over time, tip the scales in favor of greater stability in Pakistan and more peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbors, Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China.

At the end of his piece, Markey recommends a combination of all three strategies. But this is exactly the strategy that the US has been pursuing, and to little success. There are several reasons why this policy cannot work. First of all, partnering with India in a policy of coercion is mutually exclusive to developing a productive relationship with Pakistan. More importantly, though, Markey’s recommendations place too much emphasis on continuing to focus on relations with Pakistan’s powerful military at the expense of the democratically elected civilian government. And it is the democratically elected civilian government that is key to ending Pakistan’s problem with militancy.

Nawaz Sharif, having already experienced the consequences of military adventurism during his previous time as Prime Minister, has demonstrated a willingness to confront Pakistan’s military about its alleged involvement with extremist militants. Following the discover of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was one of the few politicians to demand answers from the military about how the world’s most wanted man could live undetected for years just outside the Kakul Military Academy. And his pursuit of treason charges against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf has united civilian politicians across party lines despite the concerns of some former military officers.

Since being elected Prime Minister earlier this year, Nawaz Sharif has also pursued improved relations with India, including continuing the policy of improving bilateral trade and economic cooperation begun under the previous government.

Dan Markey’s approach would threaten the progress that is currently being made by breathing new life into military dominance just as the civilians are starting to get a strong foothold, and driving a wedge into Pakistan-India relations just as they are on the brink of a breakthrough.

Rather than reprise past policies, the US should take the fourth option: Treating the democratically elected civilian government as the legitimate policy-making authority; providing significant support for civil society by investing in domestic capacity building for key areas including education, energy, and law enforcement; and using its growing influence to reassure India that continuing to work towards improved trade and economic relations are the most effective path towards boosting Pakistan’s national security perception and eliminating its reliance on militant groups as part of their national security strategy.

For decades, the US has pursued a relationship that overemphasizes the military’s power, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the military is “still Pakistan’s most powerful institution” at the expense of democratic progress, civil development, and regional security. It’s time to try something new.