Pakistan's Governance Challenges

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations
Wednesday, August 13, 2008; 10:53 AM

The political crisis in Pakistan deepened this month when the country's democratically elected government announced its decision to seek impeachment (BBC) for President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, the country's army chief until last November, seized power in a 1999 coup and has retained office through two controversial votes. The new coalition government, which came to power in February elections, is seeking to impeach him on charges that include violating the constitution, damaging the economy, and unlawfully dismissing senior members of the judiciary. Musharraf's alliance with the Bush administration in its global "war on terror" and his crackdown on the judiciary and media have made him unpopular in Pakistan. The new government has sought to marginalize him but Musharraf is determined to put up a fight (VOA).

Experts say Musharraf's isolation has left a power vacuum in the political corridors of Islamabad. Musharraf, as army chief and president, was arguably the most powerful leader in the country, but now it is unclear how much control the civilian government wields. Its rule so far has been marked by spiraling food and fuel prices (PDF), rising militant violence, and deteriorating relations with neighbors. Critics say the government has done little but argue about Musharraf's fate and the deposed judges' reinstatement.

Musharraf's decline poses a problem for Washington, which has given him unstinting support throughout his period of tumult. Irfan Husain, a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, says the biggest challenge for the United States today is "who to talk to in Pakistan." Husain says there are many centers of power "[a]nd it's very difficult to find someone who can speak for the whole country." Experts worry the army and the intelligence services continue to play an important role in the country's counterterrorism and foreign policies. Bruce Riedel, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution, says the civilian leadership has "virtually no control" (PDF) over the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, however, speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in July, insisted the ISI "will do only what I want them to do."

This assertion could come back to haunt the new government amid fresh accusations against the ISI. According to the New York Times, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has accused the ISI of harboring links to the militants operating in Pakistan's tribal areas and also suspects the ISI of aiding the July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. The ISI's alleged complicity in the Kabul embassy bombing has also put India-Pakistan relations on edge. Rising tensions across the Line of Control (Bloomberg) in Kashmir prompted India's foreign secretary to say that peace talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors had reached their lowest point (Dawn) in the last four years.

U.S., NATO and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed terrorist safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas for increased attacks across the border into Afghanistan. Increased casualties in Afghanistan have prompted both U.S. presidential nominees, Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ), to call for a troop surge in Afghanistan. But Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, contends that sending more troops won't save Afghanistan when "the main problem is Pakistan" (Newsweek).

According to news reports, some in the Bush administration, frustrated with Pakistan's performance on counterterrorism, would prefer more flexibility for U.S. soldiers to pursue militants (AP) into Pakistan. But experts caution against an overly military approach to terrorism. In a new Council Special Report, South Asia expert Daniel Markey lays out a more comprehensive U.S. approach that aims to foster political and economic reform and increase the capacity of the Pakistani government.

© 2008