Pakistan’s elected parliament held a 10-hour session on Friday and decided at the end of it that US incursions, including drone strikes, into Pakistan must cease. The American drone strikes in the northwest, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have long been unpopular in parliament and with the general public (though in some of the FATA administrative divisions as few as 10% say they even care; some are more worried about al-Qaeda spreading local terrorism than about drones).
Parliament said that if the drone strikes do not cease, it will take revenge by impeding the free passage of NATO materiel destined for landlocked Afghanistan.
In an unprecedented move, the Pakistani military allowed itself to be grilled by the civilian parliamentarians. Gen. Shuja Pasha, the current head of Inter-Services Intelligence, took responsibility for two major intelligence errors– failing to find Bin Laden even though he was in Abbotabad near the military academy, and failing to detect US helicopters coming into the country to carry out the mission against Bin Laden. Gen Pasha even offered to resign if the parliament asked that of him. Accountability and contrition and willingness to step down are not generally attributes of the Pakistani officer corps.
Many countries in the greater Middle East are characterized by ‘dual sovereignty.’ That is, there are two major seats of power, authority and legitimacy rather than just one. For decades, in Turkey the civilian, elected government was constrained by the power of the officer corps. The same thing was true in Pakistan. In Iran, the elected parliament and prime minister are constrained by the Supreme Leader, a cleric.
Since 2007, when military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf made the mistake of sacking the chief justice of the Supreme Court, civilian society has been gradually asserting itself against the military. It has had successes and failures. The Pakistan Spring of 2007-2008 forced Gen. Musharraf from power and returned the country to the civilian political parties such as the Pakistan People’s Part, the Muslim League, the MQM, and so forth. Musharraf ultimately had to step down. But although the army went back to the barracks, and the civilian political parties came to power, the power of the army has been virtually unchecked nevertheless. In the Musharraf period, there was no dual sovereignty, since the army ruled.
We should not overestimate the significance of Friday’s parliamentary session. It is a little unlikely that parliament can effectively stop the drone strikes. And President Asaf Ali Zardari and his prime minister Gilani are both complicit in allowing the US to hit Pakistan, according to state department cables released by Wikileaks.
Still, Friday saw steps forward toward ending dual sovereignty and restoring a rule of law and civilian control over the military in Pakistan.
The US, which has long held that Pakistan should move to a more democratic system, is therefore in a conundrum. If parliament is asserting more prerogatives, this is a good thing from Washington’s point of view. But the assertion of those rights threatens US ability to act with impunity toward Pakistan and toward the Taliban in that country.
The drone strikes have long been questioned by civil libertarians and they should only continue if a) they are carried out by the Department of Defense, not the CIA (government officials cannot even discuss a classified CIA operation); and b) if there is a status of forces agreement between the US and Pakistan governing their use.
The Pakistani parliament will have done us all a great favor if it helped provoke this outcome.