Over 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.
U.S.-Pakistan ties deteriorated significantly in the past year, and the anti-American rhetoric in Pakistani media (NYT), especially television, reached a crescendo. Najam Sethi, an award-winning Pakistani journalist and editor-in-chief of Geo News and the English political weekly Friday Times, says U.S. counterterrorism policies in Pakistan have caused this acrimony. The two countries, he says, have failed to develop a strategic relationship because of each side’s refusal to consider the other’s national security interests in Afghanistan.
Calling the development of Pakistan’s media “a work in progress;” Sethi says the anti-American and anti-Indian narrative runs more fiercely in the Urdu-language press. “English media is more liberal, rational, and oriented towards pragmatism” but do not reach as wide an audience as the other regional media, he says.
At the same time, Sethi points to attempts by the army to manipulate the media. The media’s main threats come from ethnic, jihadi, and sectarian groups, “some of which are patronized by the national security establishment,” he says.
Pakistan’s political class is a buzz over rumors that the country’s military and intelligence agency are working behind the scenes to alter the makeup of Pakistan’s government. All of this comes following a closed door meeting on Monday between Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and President Asif Zardari in which the nation’s military chief allegedly demanded the removal of some civilian officials.
Newsweek Pakistan reported on Twitter early this morning that a “source claims Army has asked President Zardari to sack three officials”, and that “Army also pressing Islamabad to appoint a National Security Adviser” – no doubt they have a recommendation readily at hand.
One of the officials Pakistan’s military is trying to push out appears to be Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. On his political talk show, Aapas Ki Baat, Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi reported that Pakistan’s Army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) – long suspicious of the outspoken ambassador – no longer wishes to have Husain Haqqani remain at his post.
Husain Haqqani is a controversial figure in Pakistan. He has long issued warnings about the rise of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, including in the nation’s military and intelligence agencies, and he has openly called for a change in the nation’s national security paradigm.
Some in Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies may see this as a threat to a security strategy in the region that relies on militant groups like the Haqqani network to “[shape] an Afghanistan that is more favourable to Pakistan,” and defend against a perceived threat from India. Right wing commentators for years have called on the ISI to “put [Husain Haqqani] under surveillance if not on a lamp-post,” while others have posted today that the “Time for ruthless accountability of those who’ve betrayed our nation and people nears.”
Today’s issue of The Nation, a right-wing English-language daily, carries a front page headline, “Husain Haqqani in hot waters.” Pakistan’s mainstream media reports that the Ambassador has been summoned to Islamabad to brief the government on recent developments in US-Pakistan relations, but some worry that a trap is being set and that the Ambassador could be used as a reminder to other civilian officials not to stray too far from the establishment line.
Reports that Pakistan’s military and ISI are once again interfering in domestic politics are deeply troubling for Pakistan’s fragile democracy. That the civilian officials being targeted by the ISI appear to be those speaking openly against extremism makes the reports even more dire.
Most Americans see the death of Osama bin Laden as an unambiguously positive event. The world’s most wanted terrorist, the man who orchestrated the deaths of thousands of innocent people, was brought to justice after a ten year manhunt. To many Pakistanis, however, the American operation evokes a complicated set of contradictory emotions. While there is certainly relief that a violent terrorist is no longer a threat, this relief is coupled with the embarrassment that he was found hiding in Abbottabad. Many in the Pakistani military consider the event humiliating. The fact that bin Laden was killed in a raid carried out without the cooperation or consent of Pakistani officials is seen as the right outcome, but the wrong process.
In his book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama notes the human desire for “intersubjective recognition, either of their own worth, or the worth of their gods, laws, customs, and ways of life” as a basic building block of political development. He goes on to explain that “the desire for recognition ensures that politics will never be reducible to simple economic self-interest.” Viewed through this lens, the May operation that killed Osama bin Laden takes on a meaning in Pakistan much different from the basic “law and order” narrative that informs American understanding of the event.
The midnight raid on Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was carried out without informing the Pakistani government. Following the operation, Admiral Mullen stated “we should not underestimate the humbling experience that this is, and in fact the internal soul-searching that’s going on inside the Pakistani military right now.”
Unfortunately, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Douglas E. Lute, the US did just that.
Responding to questions from the audience, Mr. Lute acknowledged that the administration failed to anticipate the depth of embarrassment suffered by Pakistan’s military by the revelation that Bin Laden had lived comfortably and with local support in a fortress-like home near a leading Pakistani military academy for more than five years, and that American commandos swooped into their country on a two-and-a-half hour mission undetected and unchallenged.
“We underestimated the humiliation factor,” he said. That reaction has prompted Pakistan’s military to take several steps since the raid to recalibrate its relationship with Washington and distance itself from the Pentagon, including expelling some 150 American Special Forces trainers for Pakistani paramilitary troops.
Najam Sethi, Senior Fellow at The New America Foundation, suggests in The Friday Times that the next time the US tries to go it alone, things might not turn out so well.
A single spark – power shortages, inflation, natural calamity, assassination, institutional gridlock or confrontation – could light a prairie fire of discontent. More probably, an outrageous unilateral interventionist act by the US – like the OBL Abbottabad raid or boots on ground in Waziristan – would provoke a media driven wave of revulsion and anger against the US and also, more pointedly, against the Zardari regime for its abject helplessness. The sentiment that would sweep the country would compel all the domestic players to scramble and exploit openings for their narrow party political or institutional interests rather than band together and build a national consensus that indirectly bails out the Zardari regime.
As Washington debates future aid and operations in Pakistan, American lawmakers should remember Fukuyama’s observation that “politics will never be reducible to simple economic self-interest.” The ‘dignity gap’ that we identified following the arrest of Raymond Davis remains an important determinate of how US-Pakistan relations will develop. Another perceived blow to Pakistan’s dignity of the magnitude of Raymond Davis or Abbottabad, however, would do more than damage US-Pakistan relations. As Najam Sethi warns, it could cut down Pakistan’s fragile democracy before it has a chance to firmly take root. If that happens, the US and Pakistan will both lose.