Significant events are unfolding inside Pakistan, most recently with reports within the past few hours that former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, who was exiled for corruption, has been cleared by Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry to return to Pakistan. Judge Chaudhry himself was recently reinstated after an attempt by President Pervez Musharraf to fire him, a move which sparked popular street protests.
Sharif’s return is big news, especially considering the fact that Musharraf has been negotiating a deal with another former PM exiled for corruption, Benazir Bhutto, for her return to Pakistan in exchange for her support of the beleaguered president. The deal would purportedly involve some sort of power sharing arrangement that would allow Bhutto to run as the head of her party (PPP) and vie for the prime minister’s seat again while Musharaf would step down as army chief of staff but remain President.
The return of Sharif appears to further weaken Musharraf’s presidency, which has been beset by the perfect storm of emboldened opposition and protests from militant Islamic, judicial, and democratic forces. While some popular discontent may be healthy and stir up important changes, a number of myths are bound to arise out of this recent news.
The first is the “democracy rising” myth — while the popular gloss on Sharif’s return will spin this as further evidence of a nascent democratic revolution ready to topple a military regime, Anatol Lieven reminds us that these parties, though laced with democratic rhetoric, are in fact factions led by feudal, land-owning elites that rely on patronage networks. Pakistan may be moving towards democratic openings but we’d be remiss to think that political parties like Bhutto’s PPP or Sharif’s PML are primed to fully take on the responsibility of democratic governance.
The second myth surrounds the role of the military. Democratically elected leaders are no more likely to suddenly dispense with Pakistan’s intransigence when it comes to fighting the Taliban. The country is too plagued by ethnic and religious fissures for any government to swiftly crackdown on the Northwest Frontier Province, where Taliban fighters are reported to be taking refuge, and civilian leaders have historically thrown up their hands and deferred to the military to control unrest.
Former State Department official Daniel Markey recently penned a thoughtful and sober account of Pakistan’s military as the bulwark institution of the country that is not going away anytime soon. Like many military governments in the region, the Pakistani military and has been far more effective (and less corrupt) than civilian institutions and, for better or worse, has assumed significant governance capacities critical to the country. Markey suggests that pulling the Pakistani military even closer with US aid, joint training, and intelligence sharing, will afford the US considerable leverage to push for a heavier hand against al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as a gradual democratic transition.
I’ve remarked to some colleagues that space-time continuum has been ruptured when Anatol Lieven, Peter Beinart, and a former administration official all agree on roughly the same approach — to encourage democratic openings like the Musharraf-Bhutto deal while acknowledging the critical role the military will continue to play.
Sharif may be returning to Pakistan and whispers may resume of a democratic alliance with Bhutto, his once and future political nemesis, but the fact that Pakistan heavily relies on military stewardship for governance and security is unlikely to change in the near future since civilian governments have routinely failed at the job.