Washington’s post-9/11 claims of democracy promotion in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, were as hollow as recriminations in these countries that America had historically been responsible for blocking their democracy. Washington did play some negative role by supporting unrepresentative regimes but how much blame should be assigned to it relative to the internal forces is a matter of debate. Let us look at Pakistan’s case.
There is no denying that the US-Pakistan relations have been the strongest during the army rule in Pakistan, and that economic and military aid received by the army helped it to prolong its rule and weaken the political process and democratic institutions. Was America then guilty of sabotaging democracy in Pakistan? Not quite. Such a suggestion is based on a questionable assumption that the army alone was responsible for undermining democracy and the civilians had little or no role in it. Equally false is the inference that without Washington’s support the army would not have had the capability or the political will to rule Pakistan.
Yet the charge against Washington persists, based largely on a myth that nothing moves in Pakistan without the US approval. And if the army stayed in power for so long and intervened repeatedly it is because America willed so.
Why myths are so seductive? Because they often have some factual basis, however, slender, which for psychological or political reasons gets exaggerated or falsified. It is a fact that the US in advancement of its economic and strategic interests has had a long history of interventionist policies, especially in the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East. The approach was abandoned after the fall of Shah of Iran but saw a brief comeback during George Bush’s administration, under the cover of his so-called democracy promotion initiative.
The reality is “democracy promotion” was just a code word for regime change in countries seen as hostile to the US national security or economic interests or the interests of its allies in the Middle East, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and other conservative monarchies. It also gave a moral underpinning to the post-9/11 wars.
There is thus enough evidence to inspire suspicion about American intentions and conduct in Pakistan. But suspicion is not a fact. For facts we have to focus on the polity of Pakistan, its power structure, dominant social groups and existential dilemmas, and its search for identity, security and organising idea. That will give us a much better answer to questions about who has played what role in Pakistan’s political development.
Given the circumstances of Pakistan’s birth and India’s implacable hostility to the new state, Pakistan had no option but to give survival the central priority in its national agenda, especially as there were also serious challenges of maintaining national unity and setting up administrative framework, economic infrastructure and governance institutions. That led to the emergence of a high profile for the army and civil military bureaucracy, who prospered in the shadow of failing politicians.
The system had it successes and failures. The prolonged rule of Ayub Khan brought significant economic development and stability but helped establish the army’s primacy in a security denominated centralised and authoritarian state. Ziaul Haq injected religion into this paradigm, making Islamists a part of its support system. And there emerged a model of Pakistan in which, religion, social order, national security, and foreign policy were rolled into one and came to affect its political process.
Politicians went along with this organising idea as it served the class and institutional interests of the country’s broad spectrum of power centres and stakeholders, and also gave them an easy route to power. They and the army figured that out, aided by bureaucracy and a pliant judiciary, and a focus on Islam, they only needed each other to appropriate power and did not have to court the public or fear accountability. It thus supported a personalised rule. The model served the ruling establishment well while benefiting Pakistan up to a point. Politicians and the army took turns in ruling the country, without reference to people, and with help from external benefactors, a principal one being Washington.
If Washington worked better with the army it was because the US interests in Pakistan have primarily been military and intelligence related. Beyond the army and the country’s geopolitical location, Pakistan’s value was limited. Also Washington’s need for Pakistan was sporadic not permanent, and it so happened that whenever it needed Pakistan the army was already in power in some form or another.
But Washington did not always have good relations with the army’s Pakistan. When Ayub Khan had challenged American interests in South Asia with opening up to China and the 1965 war, he fell out of favour with President Johnson. But he continued to rule for another four years. Yahya Khan was an untouchable till he helped set up the US-China dialogue.
Zia started off with a pariah status in Washington because of the coup and Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan came under different sets of nuclear-related sanctions imposed under Glenn and Symington Amendments. But with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia became a celebrated leader in the West. Washington’s support for him, however, started wavering because of differences over the Geneva talks, yet his regime lived on. As for Musharraf he was completely isolated for good two years prior to 9/11 with Pakistan under not only Pressler, but also democracy and nuclear tests related sanctions.
The army was, thus, neither brought to power by Washington nor was it helped to stay in power. While the US was weaving in and out of Pakistan, the army had found other friends — China beginning in 1965, and Saudi Arabia following the 1973 rise in oil prices. If the army needed outside benefactors to stay in power it had enough of them.
Pakistan is not a banana republic. It is a nation of nearly 190 million hardworking and resilient people and an educated middle class with an extensive institutional network and established governance structure. The rulers may have taken dumb decisions for Pakistan, preventing it from realising its full potential but they have been exceptionally smart in taking decisions to strengthen their own power. They cannot be manipulated by outsiders. America has taken nothing from Pakistan which its leadership did not give it willingly.
Pakistan’s tortuous road to democracy is a function of its own internal dynamics. America did not create or manipulate this dynamics; it merely exploited it to its advantage. Pakistan’s democracy now appears to have stabilised. Hopefully it will continue to make advances but let us not forget its story so far has been domestic not external.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2017.