Clashes erupted Monday between the riot police and thousands of supporters of the opposition politician Imran Khan in northwestern Pakistan, ahead of his plan to hold a protest in the Pakistani capital later this week, The New York Times reports. Khan backed down from his threat to shut down the capital on Wednesday, vowing instead to hold a celebratory rally about a Supreme Court decision to pursue a case linked to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. – Reuters adds.
Pakistan’s military uses spoilers like Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri to stir up violence and destabilize the government or when they want to send a signal to Sharif and by default, all political parties: don’t mess with the army or you will get into serious trouble, argues Aqil Shah, author of “The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan” (Harvard University Press, 2014).
The strategy is simple: divide and control, says Shah, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Every country has an army, but Pakistan’s army has a country, notes analyst Adarsh Singh:
The Pakistan army is an un-elected institution in itself which over the years has deliberately crafted, created and sustained an India-centric security narrative through two of its nefarious wings – the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Through direct and indirect means, the army intervenes forcefully in the national narrative and promotes itself as the defender of the country’s ideology.
“That ideology, of course, is of its own making,” Singh adds.
Extremist attacks have left deep scars here. Since 2004, more than 48,000 Pakistani civilians have died, the Courier-Journal’s Chris Kenning writes:
It has altered daily life, from parents who no longer let children play outside to ubiquitous airport-like security at many businesses, hotels and offices. Those with money employ their own guards who sit in lawn chairs outside homes with machine guns. “We live behind walls,” said an official with the Jinnah Institute think tank in Islamabad [a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO].
The recent terrorist attack in Quetta – like a similar assault five years ago on the police academy in Lahore – share a political rationale.
“They (terror groups) chose these hardcore state installations to give a message to the Pakistani army and government that you are still vulnerable and open to attacks,” said Raza Rumi, consulting editor at The Friday Times and currently visiting faculty at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.
Some 89% of Pakistani respondents said suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified, according to a 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2013, up from just 40 percent in 2002.
Still, “the narratives, the ideologies, are what get a lot of traction,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. : “The world being out to get Islam; how the U.S. and India and Israel are out to get Pakistan …these are messages you come across in school textbooks and wildly popular television shows and influential religious leaders. You have a country where people hear this messaging all the time; plenty of people think it’s ridiculous, but many do not.”
There are few democratic countervailing forces to curb or balance the power of the military or the corrupt political elite, observers suggest. Although Pakistan enjoys relatively vibrant civil society and independent media, both are marred by illiberal sentiment and, in any case, constrained by adverse public opinion.
Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s advocacy has inspired millions around the world, for instance, but her global popularity is not matched at home. As TIME’s Omar Waraich reported, “In an unpublished public opinion survey, the International Republican Institute found that a majority of Pakistanis are critical of Malala and didn’t blame the Taliban for the attack on her.”
Similarly, more than 1,000 lawyers associated with the movement that led Pakistan’s Black Coat Revolution (right) against President Musharraf, signed up to defend Muhammad Mumtaz Qadri, the police official who shot provincial governor Salman Taseer 26 times, said Ahmed Rashid, author of “Descent Into Chaos.”
“A lot of the lawyers are extremely right-wing and very conservative, but they united with liberal lawyers in a common demand for a return to democracy allowing Benazir Bhutto to come back to the country, the holding of elections, and the reinstatement of the chief justice,” he told NPR.
Pakistanis remain strongly attached to free elections, but until politicians improve the standard of governance and the popular military recedes from politics, democracy will remain incomplete, says analyst Madiha Afzal, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Pakistan’s democracy is at a juncture of import, she writes:
Its citizens have shown faith in it, despite continued corruption and poor governance, and in defiance of long-held narratives that undermined democracy in the country. The army has also indicated that it will not seize control of the government, although it continues to meddle in politics, and commands power over internal and external security matters.
“Pakistan’s democrats need to let go of paranoia, to stop governing in survival mode, and invest in Pakistan’s long-term development,” Afzal writes for The Cairo Review of Global Affairs. “They eventually need to reassume civilian control over security matters, command a compelling narrative for Pakistan’s future, and ideologically counter extremism….. They must hold back on self-indulgence.”