Military rule: Defying democracy in Pakistan

When General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was elevated to the most powerful job in Pakistan, many hoped that he would efface the shame of eight years of military rule under his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Keen to rebuild the army’s much-damaged domestic image, Gen Kayani pulled all serving officers out of civilian institutions within weeks. The 2008 general elections also slipped by with no obvious military interference, a veritable rarity.

The army chief has also won plaudits for the military’s impressive displays of resolve against Taliban militants, first in Swat and now in South Waziristan. Under Gen Musharraf, earlier offensives lacked public support and ended in ruinous peace deals.

But since the return to civilian rule, in the unlikely shape of President Asif Ali Zardari, observers note that the military has jealously guarded what it sees as its own traditional prerogatives.

On paper, Mr Zardari is the “supreme commander of the armed forces” and his prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani oversees the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. But these are, as one senior western diplomat puts it, “constitutional fictions”.

In 2008, an attempt to bring the ISI under civilian control backfired within 24 hours. After the Mumbai massacre, Mr Gilani’s decision to dispatch its chief spy to Delhi was thwarted. More recently, Mr Zardari was forced to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry after discrete pressure from the army.

On the foreign policy front, the army has regarded Mr Zardari’s proximity to Washington with scarcely disguised concern. Last autumn, the army publicly protested against what it saw as humiliating conditions attached to a US bill that tripled civilian assistance.

Fresh accusations that the army continues to resist attempts at reconcialition with the disgruntled Baluch will now add to the sense among its critics that it remains unprepared to yield elected civilians the power they would take for granted in established democracies.

Under a media blackout, the vast and resource rich province of Baluchistan has drifted away as nationalist fighters battle Pakistani troops in the mountains, activists mysteriously “disappear”, and long-simmering discontent has boiled over into a clamour for separatism.

After tough negotiations, the political class has now united behind a move to divide the national budget equitably, cease military operations, and lure the province’s most recalcitrant elements to the negotiating table.

If that process is in jeopardy, it augurs poorly not just for Gen Kayani’s burnished reputation, but the very stability of Pakistan.