The National Security Implications of Pakistan’s Latest Political Crisis

Once again, Pakistan is suffering from a self-induced political crisis. For days, street protests led by opposition politicians Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri have paralyzed Islamabad and threatened the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Layers of intrigue surround Pakistan’s domestic political soap opera, keeping Pakistan’s cable news anchors hyperventilating and its twittersphere on overdrive. So far, however, the smart money is on continuity, not change, when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defense policy. This is both good and bad for U.S. national security.

The good news is that no matter how Pakistan’s latest protests end—whether a fizzle or a bang—we have little reason to fear an imminent, radical revolution in the way Pakistan deals with the United States, India, Afghanistan, its own nuclear arsenal, or any of the other major issues the United States cares most about.

This is because when it comes to national security and foreign policy issues, the cardinal rule for understanding Pakistan still holds: the army, far more than the civilian government, tends to call the shots. Time and again, Pakistan’s civilian leaders have had their wings clipped by the generals, and this would almost certainly be the case in the (highly unlikely) event that Khan or Qadri finds his way to power.

Although both opposition leaders have been eager to pick fights with the ruling government, they have been equally careful not to clash with the army. Qadri routinely speaks of the need for “revolution” in Pakistan, but the only real revolutionary movement in the country—the only one that rejects the state and the army’s dominant role in it—is the Pakistani Taliban. That group is now at the receiving end of a military offensive in North Waziristan. For the time being, the army’s strength and relative unity limit the prospects for a genuinely revolutionary turn in Pakistan’s political order.

Of course, this is also the bad news. The repressive, anti-democratic character of a political order in which the military plays a dominant role staves off revolution, but it also stymies healthy reform and progress. As many of Pakistan’s best political analysts have concluded, the only “winner” in the recent political crisis has been the military and its associated intelligence service, the ISI.

Because opposition politicians have so far failed to mobilize the millions, or even hundreds of thousands, of supporters they threatened to take to Islamabad, their claims to mass national popularity have been thoroughly discredited. Imran Khan’s shrill intemperance has hurt his prospects for building up a party that could demonstrate real skill at governing and eventually take a turn at holding national power. Qadri, a lesser political force, shows no sign of having broadened his base of support beyond a committed band of zealous cadres. Those thousands are enough to create trouble on the streets of Islamabad, but they hardly constitute a major political party in a nation of nearly 200 million people.

For his part, Nawaz Sharif may survive the protests, but his party has taken a serious beating. Charges of police brutality against Qadri’s workers in Lahore (allegedly ordered by the prime minister’s brother) and poll rigging in the last election tarnish his reputation, no matter the specific details. Worse, by appealing to the army to manage security in Islamabad, Sharif demonstrated his inability to handle the opposition through civilian channels. Sharif’s political standing—at its apex in May 2013 when his party won a convincing victory in national elections—has crashed, and with it went what little negotiating leverage he once enjoyed with the military.

With all of Pakistan’s major parties now embarrassed or in disarray, serious hope for a gradual consolidation of effective democratic rule is dimmed. In retrospect, none of this seems surprising, but it is all the more tragic when we recall the wave of optimism that rolled over Pakistan in 2008 when General Musharraf was forced out of power, or even the renewed hope stirred by Sharif’s win in 2013.

For the United States, Pakistan’s democratic development is of more than mere academic interest or ideological preference. Over the long run, U.S. security concerns will be resolved only if Pakistan finds a way to transform itself from a fractious, developing country at odds with most of its neighbors into a more prosperous, peaceful, and modern state. Until then, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, entrenched network of international terrorists, and increasingly important geostrategic location will trouble the sleep of U.S. policymakers.

Democracy is not the only way to achieve such a transformation, but there are good reasons to believe it would be the most inclusive and least bloody approach. Pakistan’s past experience of direct military rule has, more than anything, highlighted the army’s inability to govern effectively no matter what claims to meritocratic or technocratic leadership the generals have made. Worse, the alternative to messy democracy or military rule is probably even more frightening: a revolutionary movement fed by populist and/or theocratic fervor. That alternative is not immediately in the cards, but successive failures by Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders take their country closer to the edge.

In other words, the most important national security consequences of Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis are not immediate ones having to do with the war in neighboring Afghanistan, the U.S.-led counter-terror campaign, or even the escalating diplomatic and border skirmishes with India, for none of those issues is actually managed by the civilian government under pressure. Each of these areas will likely suffer from Islamabad’s distraction, but not catastrophically.

The real consequences are long term, having to do with the downward trajectory of Pakistan’s political and economic development. Sadly, rather than offering real hope of positive reform—as Khan claims—or democratic revolution—as Qadri promises—Islamabad’s political crisis only reinforces the notion that neither Pakistan’s military nor its present crop of politicians can offer the country a realistic, constructive means to lead the country forward. 

About the Author(s)

Daniel Markey

Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Author of “No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad" Follow him on Twitter (@MarkeyDaniel).