May 27, 2020
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Denying Democracy

A young minister from Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government can declare with aplomb that "democracy is the root of all evil" in front of the Washington cognoscenti and walk away without a trace of embarrassment...

Denying Democracy


Pakistani democrats these days are a disillusioned lot. They have little to hang on to given the reality of domestic alignments and the politics of US aid. Things have come to such a pass that a young minister from Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s government can declare with aplomb that "democracy is the root of all evil" in front of the Washington cognoscenti and walk away without a trace of embarrassment.

Democracy has failed over and over again in Pakistan, said Umar Ghuman, Pakistan’s political GenNext at a recent conference. Those unwilling to give up on the failed project of democracy gave a spirited defence but they are quite alone in their struggle.

Democracy in Pakistan is the last in line of Washington’s concerns as US policy makers eagerly strengthen Pakistan’s military muscle, stuff the general’s arsenal with new weapons in the name of the war on terror and not even blink. There was no sense of irony as the Bush Administration announced a $1.2 billion arms package filled with naval surveillance planes and thousands of heavy anti-armour missiles apparently for use against the tribal hideouts on the frontier.

The sophisticated versions of the weapons being sought are gratuitously generous and unneeded in the terrain and targets of the war on terror. But there is always the "other" front where the weapons can come in handy as they have in the past. However, the formal notification sent to the US Congress by the Pentagon blandly declared the weapons "will not affect the basic military balance in the region." Since Washington says so, it must be true.

There is loud talk of F-16s for Pakistan and all indications are that the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council have already done their homework on the sale and it is a matter of time and a good confluence of events before the sale is announced.

When asked about the impending sale, the mantra all the way from Condoleezza Rice on down is that "no decision has been taken." Which means the idea is on the table, has not been rejected and, from the sounds of it, will be executed. Pakistan wants the planes both as proof of US commitment and for bolstering its fleet against India.

The sale will adversely affect Indian public opinion and could impact the delicate India-Pakistan peace initiative but American policy priorities centre around pleasing the Pakistani military. For India these are worrisome developments but besides repeating the obvious history lessons to their American counterparts, there is little Indian diplomats can do.

The last four years of US engagement with Pakistan are a study in how not to encourage democracy -- a specially painful sight when the Iraq project is allegedly all about sowing the seeds of democracy. If US policy makers can’t water and sustain existing institutions in Pakistan, however parched, what hope of creating brand new ones in Iraq where a dictatorship smothered voices for decades?

Dispirited, disillusioned and demoralized Pakistani democrats have repeatedly asked Washington to wake up and use the tremendous leverage of aid and power more imaginatively to create pulls for democracy rather than a sag for an arrogant and an increasingly corrupt military.

A recent conference on the "Future of Pakistan" organized by visiting Pakistani economist S. Akbar Zaidi was a good reality check for US policy makers who can make a difference if they so decide. Speaker after speaker demanded a better policy mix instead of the open tap of American aid for the Pakistani army.

Sherry Rehman, a former journalist and now a member of the National Assembly, eloquently talked of the dangerous consequences of US policy, of "blowbacks," of reducing the problem of Pakistan to a mere statistical balance sheet of getting "high value targets. " The United States has traded democracy for security in Pakistan before and is doing so once again.

And once again those with the leverage are underestimating the power of political Islam. There were no speakers from the Bush Administration at the conference with the passionate defence of democracy and freedom -- a gift from God to use President Bush’s revelation -- bouncing off the few government officials who attended.

With every periodic engagement, Washington bolsters the idea that a military regime is better suited to the people of Pakistan. There are no benchmarks, no conditionalities on the $3 billion military and economic aid package announced last year for Musharraf. The US Congress is in Republican hands and cares little about forcing the issue.

The release of Benazir Bhutto’s husband is cited by US officials as a move towards restoration of democracy. While long overdue, if $3 billion can only spring one man’s freedom, what will it take for Pakistan’s dismembered political parties to rejuvenate?

The American commentariat on South Asia has finally begun to mildly criticise the uni-focal US policy and ask for change but who’s listening? This is turning out to be a dangerous decade like the 80s with a potential for a bigger blowback. Stephen Cohen’s latest book The Idea of Pakistan warns that ignoring deeper problems at this crucial stage would snowball into an interminable mess. Ashley Tellis has written eloquently about the need to hold the general to higher standards.

Anyone with a modicum of memory can remember Charlie Wilson’s war waged with CIA money against the Soviets in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s Gen. Zia-ul Haq as a willing conduit. The Americans won their war against the Reds but changed the subcontinent forever.

Today the enemy is not the Soviets but the Americans.

Anti-Americanism among Pakistanis thrives at alarming levels and is rising even among Indian Muslims. The Pakistani military didn’t have the intelligence to check the monster it created with jihad then, and it doesn’t today. So why fall in the same trap again? Why not force democracy in Pakistan, surely an easier project than fashioning it in Fallujah?

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