Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics

How Aiding the Army Undermines Democracy

The United States has a major stake in Pakistan's stability, given the country's central role in the U.S.-led effort to, in U.S. President Barack Obama's words, "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" al Qaeda; its war-prone rivalry with India over Kashmir; and its nuclear arsenal. As a result, U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been dominated by concerns for its stability -- providing the reasoning for Washington's backing of the Pakistani military's frequent interventions in domestic politics -- at the expense of its democratic institutions. But as the recent eruption of protests in the Middle East against U.S.-backed tyrants has shown, authoritarian stability is not always a winning bet.

Despite U.S. efforts to promote it, stability is hardly Pakistan's distinguishing feature. Indeed, many observers fear that Pakistan could become the world's first nuclear-armed failed state. Their worry is not without reason. More than 63 years after independence, Pakistan is faced with a crumbling economy and a pernicious Taliban insurgency radiating from its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the semiautonomous seven districts and six smaller regions along its border with Afghanistan. It is still struggling to meet its population's basic needs. More than half its population faces severe poverty, which fuels resentment against the government and feeds political instability.

According to the World Bank, the Pakistani state's effectiveness has actually been in steady decline for the last two decades. In 2010, Foreign Policy even ranked Pakistan as number ten on its Failed States Index, placing it in the "critical" category with such other failed or failing states as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. The consequences of its failure would no doubt be catastrophic, if for no other reason than al Qaeda and its affiliates could possibly get control of the country's atomic weapons. The Pakistani Taliban's dramatic incursions into Pakistan's northwestern Buner District (just 65 miles from the capital) in 2009 raised the specter of such a takeover.

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