Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Deathly Divide

By Dhruv KumarPublished November 5, 2015

Written by Dhruv Kumar 11/05/2015 Recent events indicate a widening divide between the government and the military in Pakistan. This could lead to disastrous consequences for Indo-Pak relations, as well as for the United States' interests in South Asia.
On October 22nd, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan met with American President Barack Obama to reaffirm their commitments to peace and stability in the region. While both leaders agreed to continue their efforts to strengthen economic ties between the two countries, they did not address a significant topic that affected the very interests discussed at that meeting.

Although Sharif  has maintained significant control over domestic matters, his influence over the military and Pakistan's foreign policy has decreased sharply. This trend can be attributed to a growing rift between Sharif and the country's military leaders. The Pakistani military has historically been significantly independent, and the nation's past is plagued with military coups. In fact, the divide is presently so strong that rumors of a potential coup spread while Sharif was on his recent visit to the United States.

The decline in Sharif's power began with a movement against Pakistan's current government, which was led by the famed politician and cricket star Imran Khan. Initially a grassroots movement against government corruption, it quickly spread over social media and culminated with Khan's populist party gaining many seats in parliament. Reports indicate that Khan's movement may have actually been supported by the Pakistani military. Regardless, it was highly successful in mobilizing the masses against Sharif and weakening his power - especially relative to Pakistani generals.

Following this, the situation became similar to that of a divided government. Sharif would legislate on the domestic agenda, but would be forced to defer to the military for matters of foreign policy. This led to many negative effects internationally. Although Sharif had openly hoped to ease tensions with India, the situation deteriorated significantly after military officials took advantage. Pakistan's Minister of Defense, Khawaja Asif, stated that India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the military was created solely to "undo Pakistan." The country's Interior Minister openly testified that India wants to see Pakistan remain backward and undeveloped, and other officials stated that India wants Pakistan to suffer economically.

These statements about India by Pakistani leadership can only further antagonize the country, and will add fuel to an already volatile and violent situation along the borders between the two nations. In addition to his efforts to rebuild diplomatic ties with India, Sharif attempted to propose a demilitarization of the disputed region of Kashmir between the two countries in a speech to the United Nations. Once again, however, the rift can be seen very clearly through the military leaders who took advantage of this publicity to bring to the conversation their own bellicose goals about Kashmir.

The Pakistani military possesses almost unilateral power regarding foreign policy and has become a grave danger to the United States. In order to encourage Pakistan to pursue extremist groups within its borders, America currently donates billions of dollars designated for humanitarian aid and to rebuild Pakistan's broken democracy. In fact, the United States spent almost $18 billion on Pakistan from 2002 to 2009 alone. Ironically, during that period $12 billion actually went to the military instead. The total amount of aid the United States has given since the country's independence is expected to be almost $78 billion. By ignoring the problem in his talks with Sharif and continuing to support monetary aid, Obama puts the United States in a precarious position. America is not only worsening the democratic potential of that divided regime, but also creating a dangerous military situation in South Asia that could have global consequences. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and a rogue military in one country could lead to devastating catastrophe.

    The United States must pursue a far more cautious role in South Asia. At this time in Pakistani politics, giving large amounts of monetary aid to a nuclear country teetering on the brink of militaristic undemocracy is not a prudent decision. Of course, aid can be reestablished when its effectiveness is more reliable. The purpose of America's support is not to actually bring about democratic change or humanitarian reform, but to encourage the Pakistani government to take action against extremists operating within the country's borders. However, the latter cannot happen until a stable leader has full control over the military. Until then, the United States should simply watch from afar.