It has been six years since the Pakistani military gave up direct control of that nation’s government. But U.S. defense officials continue to deal directly with Pakistan’s military leaders — potentially undermining the civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, experts said.
In the past, the U.S. favored dealing directly with the Pakistani military instead of the civilian government because the military could get things done, said Reza Jan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. The question going forward is whether the U.S. can effectively work with Pakistan’s military through its civilian government, he said.
For much of the last decade, the U.S. dealt only with the Pakistani military. Pervez Musharraf seized power through a military coup in 1999, and from 2001 to 2008 served as president. He was charged with treason earlier this year for undermining Pakistan’s constitution in 2007, when he fired top judges in order to slow an opposition movement.
Now as Pakistan’s civilian government consolidates control, lines of authority between civilian leaders and the traditionally powerful military are changing — and that creates tension, said Jan.
“The two sides are doing that dance, trying to figure out where the line has moved to,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s the case where the military pulls the strings from the shadows and the government is just there for show.”
However, Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown and author of “Fighting to the End,” a book on the Pakistani army’s strategic culture, said that she has not seen any evidence that the military has ceded real control to the civilian government.
“The Pakistan military doesn’t have to run the country to have its preferred policy operationalized,” she said, adding that this is why the U.S. military still works directly with the generals in that strategically critical Central Asian nation.
Fair said that although Musharraf’s trial will act as a deterrent for any Pakinstani army chief considering a future coup, it’s a personal indictment of Musharraf rather than an indictment of the army.
Pakistan’s “military controls all of the policy levers that generally influence the United States,” Fair said. “There is a space where America can engage civilian counterparts but those spaces have to be far away from anything that the Pakistani military cares about,” she added.
Aqil Shah, a lecturer at Princeton University and author of “The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan,” said he is not convinced that Pakistan’s military fully recognizes the authority of the country’s civilian government.
“Pakistan’s military has traditionally dominated the state, which has an impact on how they perceive their own legitimate role,” he said.
Since its inception, Pakistan has been engaged in near-constant conflict, making military strength crucial. The threat of war with India is a big reason why Pakistan’s military must be powerful, said Shah. Both countries have nuclear weapons, a threat that has given generals incentive and opportunity to increase their political influence, Shah said.
Shah said he doesn’t see Pakistan’s military fully accepting its lesser role under civilian government unless “Indian and Pakistani hostilities are resolved.” He added that military personnel would need to unlearn much of what they have been taught in order to accept the civilian government as legitimate.
“It’s possible a re-socialization of the army happens,” Shah said, but not likely. He said that when he has asked Pakistani generals if they could name one other professional military in the world that acts as Pakistan’s does, they respond with, “Could you name one country [like] Pakistan?”
The Pakistani military is good at manipulating public opinion, the media and even judges, which leave it with a sort of veto power over proposed policy changes it doesn’t like, Shah said. He added that the military has particular control of the country’s national security narrative.
But Jan said that the Pakistani media is part of the reason civilian control is growing. “The media actively goes after stories dealing with the military and insurgents,” he said.
And a hyperactive news media and growing social media — combined with a new reverence for the judiciary — has kept memories of the downsides of total military control fresh in citizens’ minds, allowing the current civilian government a chance to “flex its muscle,” Jan said.
For the U.S., Jan said the changing landscape in Pakistan still features considerable military-to-military contact, “but the U.S. is trying to keep it quieter now.”