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.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
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.

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.

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.”

Rather than capitalize on the moment, civilian leaders like Mr. Gilani closed ranks with the military during a speech last month before Parliament. Over the past several years, the government has also allowed a turf battle between the prime minister’s office and the Interior Ministry hamstring the National Counterterrorism Authority, an agency that was supposed to help set policy.

Repeated efforts to reach the spokespeople and senior party leaders of the government failed. However, some of the government’s critics say civilian leaders have reason to be scared.

“If they take the step of setting up a very strong commission … their government may be in trouble,” says Asma Jehangir, a top democratic activist. A coup “is a threat, because otherwise why would a civilian government not want more power?”

The commission's 'hiccups'

Underlying various technical objections to the commission so far is the sense that some of the appointees have some biases toward the military. One appointee is a retired general, Nadeem Ahmed.

General Nadeem is more renowned for humanitarian work than soldiering. Before retiring he was already one of the world’s most experienced disaster managers, having overseen the 2005 Kashmir quake recovery and the 2009 displacement of some 3 million Pakistanis by anti-Taliban offensives.

In his “retirement” he has headed Pakistan’s response to the floods, the world’s largest natural calamity. Now he is eager to help sort out one of the country’s biggest political disasters: the bin Laden raid.

Nadeem’s biography is a reminder of the amount of trauma Pakistan has faced over the past decade – and the extent to which the military is entrusted with binding the wounds. For years, the military has been a bastion of reassurance among otherwise weak institutions. That confidence has eroded dramatically in recent weeks.

Nadeem says the commission is going through “hiccups,” but once finally seated, will take up two key questions.

“One is the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and all the issues related to it: Why? When? Where? Is it failure, or is it complicity?” he says. “Second, the US raid, which was not done with the Pakistan government: How it happened and why was it not really picked up in time?”

Nadeem says he has no preset answers: “I will go with a totally open mind and see things as they come on merit.”

The answers will either paint a picture of failures by the security establishment, or risky double-dealing with a global superpower and global jihadists.

Whatever emerges, he agrees with Brigadier Mohammad that civilians must be more involved in policymaking. “The security policy needs to be devised at a national level and must have input from all the stakeholders,” says Nadeem.

Past commissions in Pakistan have a poor track record of spurring change. For now, democrats are putting more hope on the awakening of debate in the media and the erosion of foreign policy secrecy brought about by ongoing Wikileaks revelations.

Still, the lack of popularity of the current civilian leaders “limits the enthusiasm of the average Pakistani to force the issue,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist in Islamabad.

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