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Rapprochement at risk

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 18, 2014

Pakistan's ongoing political crisis has emboldened the country's powerful military to impose its views on key policy areas and put PM Nawaz Sharif's rapprochement policy with India at risk, as Michael Kugelman tells DW.

Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

Pakistan has been facing political unrest over the past several weeks ever since opposition politicians Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri led mass demonstrations against the democratically elected government of PM Nawaz Sharif, whom they accuse of incompetence and rigging last year's parliamentary vote. The protests come just months after Sharif attended the inauguration of Indian Premier Narendra Modi in New Delhi, a symbolic gesture that raised hopes of an improvement of ties between the neighbors.

Pakistan's military, which initially appeared reluctant to get involved in the protests seemingly changed tact a few weeks ago by inviting Khan and Qadri for talks to resolve the crisis. But while the powerful army has stated that it doesn't plan to take over the government, analysts agree that it may be using the protests to weaken the Sharif-led administration.

Michael Kugelman, Pakistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that if the government wants to stay in power, it will likely need to cede more power and influence to the military. This means that the military is likely to take full control of defense and security policies, and to stop many efforts toward rapprochement as well as improved relations between Islamabad and New Delhi.

DW: What role is the Pakistan's powerful army playing in the ongoing crisis?

It is playing the roles that it has played throughout much of Pakistan's history - behind-the-scenes powerbroker, protector, intermediary, and, above all, meddler. It likely encouraged the protest leaders to launch their movement, knowing that such a movement would weaken a government that the military does not like.

Michael Kugelman
Kugelman: 'The Pakistani military has an inherent opposition to reconciliation with India'Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

Some more hardline elements of the military, perhaps within intelligence circles, likely prevailed on protestors to turn to violence for a few days in early September, to put further pressure on the government.

The government then had no choice but to authorize the military to take over security amid this violence. And in more recent weeks, the military has taken on a mediating role in the crisis- all behind the scenes, of course.

Has the current political impasse somehow benefited the military?

This impasse has strengthened the military immensely; though let's not forget the military was strong before this protest movement began. In essence, the government has repeatedly been put on the defensive. The protests failed to mobilize the thousands promised by protest leaders, but they have still managed to stage sit-ins in Islamabad for more than a month.

The protests have put great pressure on the government, increased the military's leverage, and given the government little choice but to accede to many of the military's wishes - which reportedly include ceding control of the foreign policy and security policy portfolios to the military.

What influence can the military exert on PM Sharif's government and how?

Because the military is the most powerful institution in Pakistan, it can theoretically use its influence at will - and in recent weeks, we can assume that the military used a form of blackmail: It likely told the Sharif government that unless it gave the army more control over state policy, that the government's very existence could be imperiled - not via a military coup, but by forcing the government to call early elections.

Indien Narendra Modi trifft Nawaz Sharif in Neu-Dheli 27.05.2014
The protests come just months after Sharif attended the inauguration of Indian Premier Narendra Modi in New DelhiImage: Reuters

This is undoubtedly frustrating for Sharif, who has made a habit of pushing back against the military during all three of his terms as premier - a habit that may well have helped bring on the current crisis, given that the military has been increasingly exasperated with his insistence on taking positions at odds with the military - from India and Afghanistan policy to the legal plight of Pervez Musharraf.

However, setting aside discussion about the current political crisis, it is important to emphasize that the military has long enjoyed many tools by which to wield influence. For instance, on the policy side, even as civilian democratization has slowly taken root in recent years, the army has retained a veto over most security policy issues. And on the budgetary side, defense allocations continue to increase.

According to a report published by BBC Urdu, the name of a new director general for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is likely to be announced next week along with the appointment of five new lieutenant generals in the Pakistan army. How important is the timing of this?

The crisis has weakened Sharif and allows the military to bring in the new leaders that it wants, with little chance of resistance from Sharif - who may be forced to rubber-stamp such selections. I really think Sharif will be a very weakened, even lame duck figure for the remainder of his term - which may well not last its full five years - and that he will have little choice but to grudgingly accept many military decisions, including those related to personnel moves.

What is the Pakistani military's stance on Indo-Pakistani ties?

The Pakistani military has an inherent opposition to reconciliation with India. This is because Pakistan's military has long derived its legitimacy - and its outsize role in politics - from framing India as an existential threat to Pakistan. In essence, according to the military, the threat of India makes Pakistan's army too big to fail. If there were to be reconciliation with India, or even significantly improved ties, then the military's grand argument for legitimacy comes crashing down.

Pakistan's military is not opposed to diplomacy with India and to various confidence-building measures, and we can assume that it has slowly come around to the idea of a normalized trade relationship with Delhi - Pakistan's decision to eventually extend most favored nation status to India could not have been made without buy-in from the military.

However, anything beyond this is simply off the table - particularly with the rise to power of India's new prime minister, the nationalist Narendra Modi, who terrifies many Pakistanis, including some of the country's most progressive voices.

How can an increased influence by the military on the government hamper efforts to strengthen bilateral ties with neighboring India?

The new occupant of the driver's seat of Pakistan's India policy is much more hostile to India than the previous occupant. This in itself constrains meaningful cooperation. And it may well help explain why Modi recently called off high-level meetings between the two countries.

He used the pretext of a meeting between Pakistani leaders and separatist figures in Kashmir, but he probably reasoned there was no point in having meetings with the Pakistanis if these civilian representatives no longer enjoyed the authority to have meaningful or friendly discussions.

Pakistan Unruhen in Islamabad Polizei
Pakistan has been facing political unrest over the past several weeksImage: Reuters

On a more sinister and dangerous level, the military's increased influence could imperil India's stability - and consequently plunge bilateral relations into a deep crisis. With the military firmly in control of India policy, there's a fair chance that hard-line elements within the security establishment could be in strong position to link up with traditional proxies such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and other anti-India militants - many of which have been fighting in Afghanistan in recent years - but with the foreign troop withdrawal will be ready to redirect their focus to India.

These anti-India militants could launch new campaigns of attacks in India. And we can all count on this: Modi would not be nearly as restrained as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, if there is a terror attack in India traced back to Pakistan.

Michael Kugelman is a Pakistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.