The implications of Pakistan’s power triangle
Those who follow Pakistan are familiar with the metaphor that describes that country as “negotiating with a gun to its own head.” Here’s an update: it’s now run by three power centres—the military establishment, the higher judiciary and the civilian government—, where one holds a gun to the another’s head, while not so subtly stroking the back of the third. That makes the drama complex and absorbing, but the upshots for the rest of us are simple.
First, you can’t deal with Pakistan any more. You need to deal with bits, pieces, factions and quarters of Pakistan. Since none of them has the power to see through whatever they might agree, any commitment or deal they make involves, shall we say, immense counter-party risks. In other words, it means they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Whether it’s the IMF dealing with the Pakistani treasury apparatus, or the Indian commerce ministry discussing trade with its Pakistani counterpart or the United States government working on a deal over Afghanistan, there’s no guarantee that the Pakistani side is in a position to see through its end of the bargain. The only reason to persist is perhaps because, well, “the show has to go on.”
Second, the civilian government has neither any control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies nor has any real means to bring terrorists to justice. The military establishment controls the former and the higher judiciary controls the latter. There is a degree of tacit but not-so-subtle complicity between the two. In other words the military-jihadi complex not only remain in charge but now has a lot more latitude because there are fewer pretenses to keep and fig leaves to hold up. The complex has also regained narrative dominance. To the extent that the presence of US and international forces in Afghanistan keeps the Pakistani army strategically focused on that front, General Kayani and his colleagues are unlikely to want to escalate tensions with India through renewed terrorist or insurgent attacks.
Third, while the general view is that the US-Pakistani alliance is over, it is difficult to shake-off the perception that Washington has decided to work with the Pakistani military establishment rather than strengthen the hands of the civilian government. Therefore, at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, Washington has again let go of an opportunity to put the military monster back in the pen. There are good excuses for this, but as much as they are good, they are still excuses.
This does not mean that President Asif Zardari will lose and General Kayani will win decisively. On the contrary, Mr Zardari might be considered to have won if he and his government just survive in office for their term. General Kayani, on the other hand, needs to meet the standards set by his successful coup-making predecessors. That is not a victory for democracy. It is at best an establishment of a new, tenuous distribution of power which, as described above, involves gun-pointing and back-stroking.