Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Guest Post: Support Process Over Personalities in Pakistan

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
February 27, 2013

mran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is surrounded with supporters as he leads a peace march against U.S. drone strikes from Islamabad to South Waziristan, in Mianwali on October 6, 2012 (Ahsan Baloch/Courtesy Reuters). Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is surrounded with supporters as he leads a peace march against U.S. drone strikes from Islamabad to South Waziristan, in Mianwali on October 6, 2012 (Ahsan Baloch/Courtesy Reuters).


Yesterday, my colleague Dan Markey published a compelling new CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum (PIM), Support Process Over Personalities in Pakistan. In it, he argues that the United States should avoid playing favorites as Pakistani leadership transitions unfold over the course of 2013, starting with parliamentary elections later this spring. I’ve asked him to write a guest post about the PIM.

Supporting process over personalities in other countries’ elections might seem like a no-brainer to those who see American support for democracy overseas as a central animating principle of U.S. foreign policy. In the Pakistani case, however, Washington has strayed from such strategies in the past for pragmatic reasons and, in a way, for principled ones as well. U.S. officials may be tempted to do so again.

The first reason for past U.S. political interference can be traced to the fear that Pakistan’s political process might otherwise yield more instability than democracy. Even if democracy is ultimately the best and most stabilizing form of government over the long run, it is well established that the democratization process is typically messy and dangerous. In Pakistan’s case, the process is particularly difficult because it challenges the military’s traditional political dominance. In order for Pakistan to achieve a full democratic consolidation, the military would need to acquiesce to civilian political authority. This is still a work in progress; despite nominal civilian control since the end of the Musharraf regime in 2008, Pakistan’s military enjoys significant autonomy and plays a dominant role in many issues of foreign and domestic policy.

Thus, the prevailing thought has at times been that in order for the United States to support the long-term goal of democracy in Pakistan, a little interference might be a good thing. In 2007, when Washington tried to broker a deal between General Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of several motivations behind the U.S. interference was the U.S. hope that a gradual, managed process of transition from military to civilian authority would enable a smooth, incremental rebalancing of the civil-military relationship, thereby paving the way to stronger democratic practice over time.

That effort failed for too many reasons to list here. But Washington should draw at least two lessons from the painful experience: (1) the United States is not very good at mediating between Pakistani leaders, either civilian or military, and (2) the consequences of picking sides last well beyond the election. Not only do large numbers of Pakistanis still hold a grudge for America’s too-loyal support of Musharraf, but many have also perceived the ruling government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and President Asif Ali Zardari as little more than venal American puppets. That taint has undermined the PPP’s popularity and its ability to govern. The cycle is vicious; when Pakistan’s pro-American leaders are routinely accused of weakness, corruption, and mismanagement, the U.S. image is tarnished further.

The second U.S. fear is that anti-American leaders might win power in Islamabad. Some of these worries are clearly misplaced. The most extreme groups in Pakistan have yet to translate their capacity for mayhem into organized political power at the national level. Pakistan’s Taliban and other militant groups can shoot schoolgirls and bomb markets, but they cannot win elections. The Islamist political parties are relatively small and often at odds with each other. They have had trouble selling their message to the wider public while simultaneously facing down even more violent extremists who reject the democratic process altogether.

That said, Washington would have some legitimate concerns if Pakistan’s rightward-leaning parties win power. It would be wrong to characterize Imran Khan, for instance, as “anti-American,” much less “anti-Western,” but there is no doubt that his opposition to important aspects of U.S. policy—like the use of drones—would be much more vehement than that of the ruling coalition. Beyond that, Americans can reasonably question the nature of his party’s ties and affiliations with individuals and groups like the Defence of Pakistan Council, a political organization that is clearly hostile to the United States.

Similarly, if Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party takes charge—as looks increasingly likely—it might rule in coalition with the country’s Islamist parties. That could create new tensions with Washington. Then again, U.S. policymakers should recall that Musharraf’s party (the PML-Q) did the same. Moreover, the left-leaning PPP coalition has had only marginal success tackling extremism in Pakistani society. So while it is hard to be enthusiastic about a center-right coalition in Islamabad, it is harder to argue that it would be disastrously worse than what Pakistan has witnessed in the recent past. At this stage of the game, the bottom line is that the challenge of extremism in Pakistan is not one that will be solved by Washington’s taking sides in a leadership transition.

The third reason why Washington has, in the past, picked favorites rather than simply embracing Pakistan’s democratic institutions and processes is that those institutions and processes are themselves deeply flawed. If the price of “democracy” is dysfunctional governance, serious questions should be raised about just how much more dysfunction an already unstable Pakistan can take. This is a pragmatic argument, but also a principled one; a democratic order will have trouble sinking roots in a society experiencing serious upheaval.

This was at least part of Washington’s calculation during the Musharraf era. If Pakistan’s experience with civilian rule throughout the 1990s had been a successful one of prosperity, effective governance, and the rule of law, U.S. officials might have been far more eager to see Musharraf’s military regime replaced by civilian politician and administrators. Even the civilian government of the past five years has been appreciated more for what it was not—a military dictatorship—than for what it was—an ineffective, internally feuding system that struggled to deal with even the most immediate economic and security threats. It is difficult to defend the current set-up by pointing to evidence of effective governance.

Unfortunately, even many well-educated Pakistanis have tired of democratic experiments and claim they would trade elections for stability, higher growth rates, and order. But for Pakistan that would be a bloody, costly deal. To install an effective authoritarian regime in Pakistan of the sort we see in China would demand Maoist-style repression that would threaten to break the army, followed by centralized, capable administration of the sort that no Pakistani military regime has come close to implementing in the past.

In short, the temptation to interfere in Pakistan’s political transition is a real one for Washington, as it has been in the past. It is even possible to argue the merits—pragmatic and principled—of U.S. interference under certain circumstances. In the circumstances we face today, however, such interference would be unjustified and counterproductive.

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