Kerry visit underscores power still wielded by Pakistani army

By Karin Brulliard
Friday, October 23, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Sen. John F. Kerry briefly swept through the Pakistani capital this week to allay politicians' concerns about a new U.S. aid package that has sparked public outrage. But Pakistani media reports focused on his meeting with the person who seemed to really matter -- the army chief.

With furor simmering over the conditions attached to the $7.5 billion in development aid, the Massachusetts Democrat's stopover underscored the power the Pakistani military, which has ruled the nation for half its existence, continues to wield in Pakistan's political theater. In this show, the army cast itself as the backroom champion of a proud public -- and President Asif Ali Zardari and his civilian government as American stooges.

The aid package, which calls for stronger civilian oversight of Pakistan's military, was intended as a display of the Obama administration's support for Zardari's democratically elected government, which initially embraced the funding. Instead, Pakistani politicians and analysts said, a public backlash stoked by the nation's top generals has worsened a tense relationship between the army and the president and further weakened the fragile government.

"The message to the people has been that the army succeeded," said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, head of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. "They redefined the debate."

Generals vs. government

It is a particularly dangerous time for a deepening gulf. Pakistan, which has a history of military coups, is facing an emboldened Islamist rebellion and last week launched a ground offensive against the Taliban in a tribal border region the United States views as key to the war in Afghanistan. Unity between the military and the civilian government is crucial, analysts said.

The controversy "has sent a signal of a deep divide between the civilian government and the armed forces," said Tariq Fatemi, a former ambassador to the United States. "Which, given Pakistan's history . . . is a very dangerous and risk-fraught development."

That might be what the generals wanted. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to alter the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which he argued was too narrowly focused during the Bush administration on supporting the Pakistani military, at the expense of the Pakistani people. Such a shift, observers said, would be a major blow to the army and its intelligence services, which rely on U.S. aid but also have a history of quietly stoking anti-American sentiment in their country.

"For the first time, money was going directly to the public," said one opposition politician, who did not want to be quoted criticizing the military. "The army succeeded in pressuring the government and maneuvering public opinion. They are showing the Americans, 'We are everything.' "

Most analysts dismiss the idea that the showdown between the government and the military would spark a coup, noting that Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief, has expressed little political ambition. Still, he would need to be reappointed by Zardari next year to stay in his job, and some see the military's rush to capitalize on Pakistanis' deep suspicions about the United States as a way of gaining leverage.

After the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing the aid last month, Pakistani media and opposition parties heaped criticism on the package because of terms they considered patronizing and colonialistic. Still, cash-strapped Pakistan could hardly refuse the money, which is intended for the construction of roads and schools.

Even moderate voices said the terms -- which demand civilian oversight of military promotions and a commitment to dismantling terrorist bases in Pakistan -- were insensitive. Polls show the public is increasingly queasy about its government's cooperation with U.S. anti-terror efforts.

Burnishing its image

It was a ripe opportunity for the military, which shares that ambivalence, analysts said. After its popularity plummeted under military ruler Pervez Musharraf, the army has been buoyed by a successful anti-Taliban offensive in the Swat Valley, the ongoing operation in South Waziristan and even a recent wave of attacks -- which, a siege by militants at army headquarters notwithstanding, security forces have been praised as handling well.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company