US & democracy in Pakistan

Published on Feb 2, 2007 in the Dawn

I HAVE always wondered why in Pakistan, and developing countries in general, people tend to blame outside powers, specially the United States, for all their problems. And they do so with such omniscience and confidence in the validity of their view.First, a simple psychological reason.

In relatively closed and authoritarian, especially feudal, societies people are generally afraid of owning up to their actions for fear of punishment. That encourages the tendency to apportion blame elsewhere, find fault in one's stars or shift the onus of failures to the supernatural.

There is yet another factor. Most individuals in such societies are brought up in an environment lacking autonomy of thinking and decision-making, freedom of expression and choice. Invariably someone else, more powerful and authoritarian, on whom we are dependent for sustenance or emotional support . parents at the family level and government at the national level . is always making decisions for us in fact running our lives.

But who plays that role for the nation? It's done by a nation more powerful and dominant especially on whom we have been dependent for security and economic support. And since societies such as ours have lacked an open political process, representative democracy and free flow of information, the truth as to who runs their affairs is hard to know. So rumours, myths and conspiracies prosper.

Especially prevalent is the myth that nothing moves in these countries without US approval. So is the corollary that everything that is wrong in these places is America's fault. This perception is often instigated by the ruling elite itself who find the US a convenient lightning rod to divert dangerous currents of social discontent or political dissent. But the United States also is partly to blame for fostering this impression by traditionally proclaiming itself as defender and promoter of freedom and democracy in the world, a claim whose main purpose, barring a few good examples in history, has been to provide an intellectual cover for interventionist policies. Under the Bush administration, this has become a code word for regime change in countries seen as hostile to US national security or economic interests. So there is enough evidence to inspire suspicion about American intentions and conduct.

Yet the US reputation has been worse than its record. Where Pakistan is concerned, America has the reputation of making and unmaking the governments there which is not quite true. The fact is Pakistan has had serious problems relating to governance, social change and democratisation. We ourselves are primarily responsible for it. The US has not created these conditions but merely exploited them to its advantage.

One can debate endlessly as to whether the army or politicians are to blame for Pakistan's troubles. Seen from a historical perspective neither have covered themselves with glory. They have both been united in the common pursuit of strengthening their class and institutional interests. Indeed, their identities fluctuate and often merge imperceptibly. As for the Americans, they have worked with any regime in Pakistan that was needed by Washington and was willing to do its bidding.

If Washington appears to have worked better with the army it is not because it liked the army and not the politicians, but whenever the US needed Pakistan, whether in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan or now in the war on terrorism, the army was already in power.

Ziaul Haq's regime was already there before the Afghan jihad but had a pariah status because of the coup, the execution of an elected prime minister and Pakistan's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pakistan was under sanctions. US-Pakistan relations were at a very low ebb despite army rule. But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Zia became a celebrated leader in the West. By the time he died Washington's support for him was wavering, yet his regime lived on.

Earlier, when Ayub Khan had challenged American interests in South Asia with opening up to China and the 1965 war adventure, he fell out of favour with President Johnson. But he continued to rule for another four years. Yahya Khan was an untouchable for Washington till he helped set up the US, China rendezvous. President Musharraf had been terribly isolated for a good two years prior to 9/11.

The point I am making is that the US has had both good and bad relations with Pakistan during army rule depending on its interests in South Asia. The US connection no doubt enabled such a rule to prolong itself as economic and military aid and international support enhanced its staying power. But it does not necessarily follow that the regime may have been brought to power by the Americans and it would only go when Washington so desired.Nonetheless the US does remain a party in the internal political dynamics of many countries which it tries to influence and sometimes manipulate depending upon the seriousness of its stakes and the vulnerability of the regime or the state. But the fact is in most countries including Pakistan it can do so only indirectly. Why does American writ and influence then seem so decisive, far more than it actually is? Partly because the regimes themselves have a vested interest in flaunting the US connection to dispirit the opposition which gets resigned to a feeling that nothing can be done until Washington wills it.

No wonder, successive regimes in Pakistan, including those of Benazir Bhutto and her father, craved a close embrace with Washington and did their best to hold on to it. But since the factors that have historically attracted America's interest in Pakistan have been primarily military -- and intelligence-related in which the army has been a better partner from Washington's perspective, relations have been stronger during army or army-directed rule. Washington has been able to extract more out of such a regime as the latter has been desperate for international recognition and help, and also, being unrestrained by public opinion and political considerations, could give more in the bargain.

Yet it does not obscure the fact that the army and politicians are equally pro- or anti-American. For instance, during the 1990s when Pakistan had been very shabbily treated by Washington there was a strong anti-American feeling in the armed forces, more than even among the population which on the whole has tended to be more anti-American. Where it came to defending the country's core interests like the nuclear programme the army did not lag behind anyone in resisting American pressure.

Of course, historically Pakistan's national interests, especially its security concerns, have been served to an extent by US-Pakistan relations but Americans always gave precedence to their own interests. Over time Pakistan's ruling elite itself came to closely identify the national interests with their own interests and to tie them both to a close US-Pakistan relationship. In the end the relationship became as much a part of the problem as of the solution. Among other things, it complicated Pakistan's struggle for democratisation.

As to the future US role in this struggle, it seems that Washington will continue to support President Musharraf. But it will not resist any political change arising out of Pakistan's internal dynamics. Right now, Washington is throwing its weight behind Musharraf because of an assessment that the relationship of forces inside the country is still in his favour and that the opposition cannot change the balance of power. But the moment the equation changes it might prompt a reassessment of US support, especially if Washington concludes that the continued dominant role of the army could lead to depoliticisation of the country, exacerbate its internal tensions and increase the influence of the Islamists thereby destabilising Pakistan and complicating US interests.

As things stand now, the Americans feel that Musharraf is in control and as a crucial partner in the war on terrorism he and the army are the best bet, not only for them but also for Pakistan. That is why he is under no great pressure from Washington on the issue of democracy. But there is little doubt he is being advised to open up the electoral process for the 2007 elections to liberal forces and make it more inclusive to avoid any extreme scenarios. The signs are that Washington is warming up a bit to Benazir Bhutto. It is hard to say whether this is meant as a pressure point for Musharraf or Washington is positioning itself for an inevitable change of scenario in Pakistan.

To conclude, the factors that brought President Musharraf to power and that will deprive him of it are primarily domestic. Of course, the American connection has helped, just as US help or the lack of it has been a factor in the strength or weakness of various regimes in Pakistan. But this has been one factor among many. It cannot override the fundamental reality of Pakistan's internal dynamics that seems to be approaching a critical mass of some kind.