Did America ‘sabotage’ Pakistan’s democratisation?

Published: May 2, 2017
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America has taken nothing from Pakistan which its leadership did not give it willingly. PHOTO: AFP

America has taken nothing from Pakistan which its leadership did not give it willingly. PHOTO: AFP

America has taken nothing from Pakistan which its leadership did not give it willingly. PHOTO: AFP The writer, a former ambassador, teaches at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities

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.

‘Pakistan not incapable of evolving viable democracy’

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.

Lessons for Pakistan from the US: Democracy only works if you participate

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.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Feroz
    May 2, 2017 - 11:04AM

    If a country where elected representatives do not control the levers of power and can be jettisoned and replaced at will by forces other than the electorate can be called a democracy, so be it. Unconstitutional forces have used media and propaganda to tarnish democracy even though the democratically elected government has not framed policies or strategies that have are at the center of the countries problems. That hunger for power has often made the political class seek undemocratic means to unseat an elected government, has not helped their cause.Recommend

  • nadeem
    May 2, 2017 - 11:55AM

    Largely accurate analysis of democracy’s journey in Pakistan. Evolution of checks and balances, public watchdogs of various kinds, media, etc. will hopefully prevent in future the in-your-face type anti-democratic moves of the past. Subtle efforts to undermine democracy will still continue. Recommend

  • Ali S
    May 2, 2017 - 3:00PM

    A more relevant question would be ‘did Pakistan’s establishment sabotage democratisation’? The answer is clear as day.Recommend

  • HB
    May 2, 2017 - 3:08PM

    Extremely biased towards US and current state, not even mentioning the last involvement of Condoleezza Rice in NRO.

    The author is not able to research basic facts or just wants to ignore them. Recommend

  • Tp
    May 2, 2017 - 3:26PM

    This “blame-game” mentality is deep rooted in the ideology subscribed by Pakistan and its Arab neighbors. Nothing is ever their fault. It is always somebody else.Recommend

  • Tony
    May 2, 2017 - 4:44PM

    The democratization in Pakistan was not sabotaged by America or by Army. The politicians sabotaged democratization by total mismanagement and zero governance. People want their daily life improvement but it a fact (without taking any side) that most politicians have looted the country bone-dry. Look at the protocols and elite life-style of dynastic politicians who do not have democracy in their own political parties. A son or daughter must be the top leader not because they earn it but because they are connected. People look towards Army because the fact is they provided more freedom and more economic opportunity. Our politicians have history of paying to get articles printed in international publications and one has to wonder who is behind this one.Recommend

  • Shakil
    May 2, 2017 - 4:50PM

    US has been inconsistent to support democratic or un democratic rulers across the world. Their prime objective is to get their own terms, regardless who they put or support into power! They supported Ayoub Khan, Musharraf, and equally Benazir Bhutto, Zardari and Sharifs too.

    If they leave countries to elect own leaders, that will be helpful instead of trying to install and throw away governments across the globe Recommend

  • Solomon2
    May 2, 2017 - 11:54PM

    “Given the circumstances of Pakistan’s birth and India’s implacable hostility to the new state -”

    “India’s implacable hostility” has no factual basis in reality, only in the national mythos of the Pakistani state: As Pakistan’s founding politicians justified their rule not by election but by portraying Pakistan as the defender of Muslims in the subcontinent, then it had to have an enemy to protect these Muslims from, so naturally India was tasked with the role. Recommend

  • numbersnumbers
    May 5, 2017 - 2:42AM

    @Shakil:
    Second try!
    You of course approve of Pakistani efforts to decide who just who governs Afghanistan!Recommend

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