The US raid that killed Osama bin Laden gave Pakistan’s weak civilian government a rare chance to wrest some power away from an influential military establishment that suddenly faced unusual public criticism over its failure to detect the al-Qaeda leader and prevent the foreign incursion.
Instead, the ruling party is defending the army and allowing it to investigate its own intelligence fiasco, undermining the notion that Pakistan’s elected leaders will ever be able to assert their full authority in a country prone to military coups. The civilians’ timidity doesn’t bode well for US and Pakistani hopes that the nuclear-armed nation will evolve into a stable democracy.
“The civilian-military imbalance is the greatest threat to Pakistani democracy. It is also the issue the civilian politicians are least capable of tackling,” said Cyril Almeida, a prominent Pakistani commentator.
It’s not easy for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party to take on the army, even as the military brass reel from the humiliation of the US raid.
The Navy SEALs operation in Abbottabad on Monday last week left bin Laden and at least four others dead, giving the US a huge victory against al-Qaeda. Pakistan’s military said it had no warning of the raid, disappointing many citizens, some of whom said the army and intelligence chiefs should resign.
The popular uproar was extraordinary in a country where many live in fear of the security forces, but the civilian government itself is deeply unpopular. It is generally regarded as less competent than — and at least as corrupt as — the military. Its failure to address the pressing problems in Pakistan has disillusioned many Pakistanis who were thrilled to see it take power three years ago after nearly a decade of military rule.
At this point, the government’s sole focus appears to be surviving for a full five-year term. That would be a historic achievement, but one which apparently has left the current administration too nervous to challenge the generals.
The wariness has showed in the changing messages that have emanated from Islamabad since the raid on bin Laden’s compoundl. At first, the country’s civilian leaders declared bin Laden’s killing a great victory, but within days, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement that slammed the US for violating the nation’s sovereignty.
At the same time, the military appeared to launch a subtle campaign to shift the blame to civilians.
Former Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a People’s Party member who has tangled with the party leadership and is believed to be close to the military, publicly called on Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to resign. That raised many eyebrows considering Gilani and Zardari have essentially no control over security issues and have ceded to the army much of the country’s foreign policy as well.
On Monday, Gilani addressed parliament in a speech that appeared heavily influenced by the military and the army-run spy network. Although he said bin Laden’s death was “indeed justice done,” he also heaped praise on his nation’s armed forces and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Instead of appointing an independent, or at least civilian-led, panel to probe the debacle, he said the military would handle the investigation.