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After Osama bin Laden raid, hopes dim for more civilian control of Pakistan military

Seating a commission to investigate Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan has proved difficult. But some see progress in the fact that the conversation about control of national security policy is at least being addressed.

By Staff writer / June 8, 2011

A Pakistani man riding a motorcycle pulls two others on bicycles loaded with wood along a road in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 11. After the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden, popular hopes dim for greater civilian control over the military.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

A government commission aimed at answering how Osama bin Laden remained in Pakistan and how the US killed him undetected has run aground, dampening popular hopes for greater civilian control over the military.

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Pakistan’s parliament called for the commission’s formation after putting tough questions to military and intelligence leaders in a stormy, closed-door session last month. However, when five members were named to make up the commission last week, one abruptly declined his seat, and the process remains under fire.

An honest investigation into Mr. bin Laden’s presence here has the potential to pry open debate over national security policy beyond the circles of the military establishment. But those who would welcome that have been demoralized by the civilian government’s lack of fight, and now bungling of the panel.

That's because “this commission on Osama bin Laden is meant and designed to ensure that nothing comes out of it,” says Cyril Almeida, a political analyst in Islamabad.

“Civilian leadership has surrendered foreign policy and national security to the Army,” he adds. “The civilian government’s only agenda is to serve a full term” by avoiding a military coup.

Pakistan has a long history of military dictatorships. Even when civilians return to power, as they did in 2008, they have given the military wide latitude on how to handle Islamic militants and relations with neighbors.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani appear to support an aggressive rout of militants of all stripes so long as the moves do not appear to be US-driven. The military, however, sometimes applies the brakes: whether to kick out CIA agents or to delay offensives along the border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistan military

A senior security official here says the military is trying to pace itself, tackling some militants before others so as to avoid overextending itself.

But the widespread impression inside and outside Pakistan is that the military is actually protecting certain militants in order to have greater influence over the outcome in Afghanistan. Even if such impressions are incorrect, they flourish due to the lack of open democratic debate on national security.

That is starting to change, however, as people have witnessed multiple security failures including the bin Laden raid and an attack on a Karachi naval base.

Pakistan's civilian leaders

“I agree that the military has been responsible for pursuing certain policies, which have been detrimental to our interests, but why should the civilian government cede this space to the military?” says retired Brig. Saad Mohammad. The civilian leaders, he argues, “are inept, they are corrupt. That’s not their priority, they seem to be least concerned.”

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