At a time when the US is increasingly coming under sharp attack for colluding with the Pakistan army for weakening the political leadership in that country, and over specific charges that a US State Department official allegedly conspired to throw out former prime minister Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote last year, Open spoke to Professor Ayesha Jalal, widely considered an expert on the Pakistan army. “The United States has done a great deal to bolster the role of the military establishment in Pakistan,” she states. She points out that although there were some periods of hope that a democratic political process would become robust in Pakistan, the military-bureaucratic nexus never quite takes a back seat. She also says that it was the politics of the formative years of Pakistan that led rise to the supremacy of the armed forces in that country.
Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University, is the author of several serious works including The State of Martial Rule, a much-lauded work on the functioning of the Pakistan Army; The Sole Spokesman; The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics; The Pity of Partition and others. Edited excerpts:
You have noted in a recent essay that between 2008 and 2017, military-bureaucratic rule apparently took a back seat in Pakistan. Could you please elaborate? How did things change in 2017?
The operative word here is “apparently” since the military-bureaucratic nexus never quite takes a back seat when it comes to governing Pakistan. The military has ruled the country directly for the better part of its history and indirectly for the rest of the time. As a result, Pakistan has not enjoyed uninterrupted political processes for extended periods of time, allowing voters to throw out unpopular and non-performing governments and elect one of their choice. There has however been a difference in the degree of direct involvement by the army high command, which is the final arbiter in the destiny of Pakistan. What made the period from 2008 to 2017 different from other interludes of elected governments following military rule was that the main political parties in parliament were able to introduce legislation aimed at strengthening parliament and potentially limiting the role of the military establishment in politics. This included the 18th amendment to the constitution as well as the changes to the National Finance Commission Award of 2009, setting new rules for the distribution of financial resources between the federal centre and the provinces. With Pakistan’s first-ever transfer of power from an elected government to a newly elected government in 2013, there were high hopes for more robust democratic political processes. The dismissal in 2017 of Mian Nawaz Sharif, an elected prime minister enjoying majority support in parliament, was the result of interference by the military establishment that entailed disrupting the political process and putting a so-called “hybrid” government in its place. The significance of 2017 lies in yet another interruption of the political process for the sake of narrowly construed interests, whether institutional or personal.
There has always been a slippage between America’s stated commitment to the promotion of democracy worldwide and actual realities on the ground. Pakistan is a good example of this problem
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The jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army were on the same page for some time in 2018, shortly after he won the polls and became prime minister. Later, ties became strained. Where do the roots of the supremacy of the army and the chief of the army staff being the final arbiter in Pakistan lie?
Yes, Imran Khan’s elevation to the prime ministerial slot represented the culmination of a long journey in which he outdid other political parties with the help of advantages conferred upon him as the favoured candidate of the military establishment. The roots of the supremacy of the army lie in the first decade of independence when Pakistan sought to overcome its disadvantages vis-à-vis India by soliciting the assistance of the United States of America and joining security alliances established during the Cold War for the containment of communism. Since the first military regime of General Ayub Khan, the balance of power has been decisively in favour of the army high command, making its chief the natural leader of the institution seen by everyone as the last word in Pakistan.
The United States has done a great deal to bolster the role of the military establishment in Pakistan – a policy deemed to be consistent with American national security interests – despite periodic concerns about a commitment to democratic values
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You have dwelt on the “platitudes about the United States’ commitment to promoting democratic values” globally. What are your thoughts on this so-called duplicity on the part of the US?
There has always been a slippage between America’s stated commitment to the promotion of democracy worldwide and actual realities on the ground. Pakistan is a good example of this problem. The United States has done a great deal to bolster the role of the military establishment in Pakistan – a policy deemed to be consistent with American national security interests – despite periodic concerns about a commitment to democratic values. What you refer to as American “hypocrisy” is also not something limited to Imran Khan. When it comes to Pakistan, the United States has a long history of not practising what it preaches. It is important to place US-Pakistan relations into a historical context to make sense of the so-called ‘cypher conspiracy’. There is nothing remarkable about American officials expressing their dislike of policies being pursued by a Pakistani government, but these do not amount to “conspiracy” to overthrow an incumbent government. Put differently, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the comment by the assistant secretary of state, Donald Lu. But given the long history of Washington’s involvement in Pakistan, any comment attributable to an American official is interpreted as a feature of US foreign policy, if not a nefarious conspiracy to force a regime change.
Imran Khan’s elevation to the prime ministerial slot represented the culmination of a long journey in which he outdid other political parties with the help of advantages conferred upon him as the favoured candidate of the military establishment