Wanted: A Post-Military Pakistan

After the attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousefzai, Pakistanis must demand an end to de facto military rule.

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Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer strategy fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

The outrage seen on Pakistan's streets over the recent shooting of 14 year-old Malala Yousefzai is a welcome contrast to the silence that greets so many acts of violence there. The liberal lawmaker Salman Taseer, assassinated by his bodyguard in 2010 for daring to speak out against Pakistan's arcane blasphemy laws, received no such outpouring of sympathy. There was no public outcry earlier this year when a Pakistani cabinet minister personally offered a $100,000 reward to any man who killed the filmmaker behind an incendiary anti-Islam video.

Some hope this time will be different. Ahmed Rashid, an astute observer of Pakistani affairs, writes, "For years, critics like me have been voices in the wilderness trying to point out that the military needs to change its narrative and stop backing extremists in the name of countering India if it is to allow Pakistan to develop as a modern state. Now could be that moment."

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It's indeed encouraging to see the military and some hard-line clerics vocally condemn the Malala attack. But other religious parties quickly reverted to form: The head of the JUI-F political party blamed the whole episode on a nefarious "international agenda." A headline in Pakistan's largest English-language paper, Dawn, asked: "Did a drone attack Malala?" And Pakistani officials have already dismissed the idea of a retaliatory attack on militant strongholds in Waziristan.

We've been here before. Back in 2009, a video of the Taliban publicly flogging a schoolgirl in the Swat Valley prompted a long-awaited Pakistani military offensive against extremists. The army temporarily purged the valley of militants (and displaced several hundred thousand civilians), but the Malala attack—which occurred in the same Swat Valley—proves how fleeting that victory truly was.

Pakistan's problems are chronic. They stem from a corrupted strategic culture built on the fabricated fear of a perpetual and imminent threat from India. This much has been obvious for some time, but Washington has been reluctant to acknowledge the cause: the Pakistani military. The principal architects of that destructive worldview, the generals in Rawalpindi have a monopoly on strategic messaging in Pakistan, manipulating reality to paint India as relentlessly trying to encircle, undermine, and dissolve Pakistan.

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Under this siege mentality, Pakistan's public is more prone to conspiracy and more willing to permit the military to field religious extremists as geopolitical assets. Nor are the generals alone in this endeavor: A massive and profitable industry of pundits, mullahs, and media personalities has shrouded Pakistan's public space in a cloak of denial and mistruths. But as Pakistan's most powerful and respected institution, the military bears ultimate responsibility.

Those hoping this cycle can be broken by a new generation of Pakistani leaders must recognize that fresh political faces matter little so long as the civilian government remains powerless to cross the armed forces. Remember, in 2008 one of President Asif Zardari's first acts in office was to announce Pakistan's notorious spy agency, the ISI, would be brought under civilian control in the interior ministry. "The decision was revoked within hours," noted the BBC, "apparently following intervention from the army."

More than new leaders, what is needed in Pakistan is a genuine transition to civilian governance. It is not a novel idea, but Washington has long believed the Pakistani military to be the only effective institution in the country, and that—unlike Pakistan's corrupt and petty civilian politicians—it could produce results.

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The last decade has proven that to be a grievous error in judgment, and one not easily corrected. The military is so entrenched in the political and economic fabric of Pakistan that it's almost impossible to imagine that it will be coerced into ceding authority by any outside power. 

But there are precedents for sending ruling generals back to their barracks. It's happening now in Egypt and Burma. Over the past decade, it has taken place in Turkey, where that country's military was as deeply entrenched in the political system as Pakistan's generals are today. Wresting the organs of power from the military's control proved a long and grueling process, but it's possible to do—and do peacefully.

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Those countries all shared one thing in common: The public grew tired of military rule and demanded an assertion of civilian authority. In Pakistan, too, for change to be legitimate and lasting it must come from the street and not from Washington.

On that score, the opportunity may finally be ripe. After the Malala attack, Ahmed Rashid observes that the military's "core constituencies of right-wing politicians and mullahs have been weakened," while Pakistan's radical clerics "are becoming marginalized for the first time in more than a decade." Perhaps they are. But for Malala's tragedy to serve as a catalyst for change, the Pakistani public must demand more than justice for her attackers; it must demand an end to de facto military rule.

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