Trapped On The Razor's Edge

This week brought more bad news from Pakistan, as the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf, ignored warnings from Washington and declared a state of emergency. Musharraf justified the move by pointing to the deterioration of law and order in Pakistan and an increase in terrorism by Islamic militants. His real reason, however, seems to have been fear that the Supreme Court—which he has now disbanded—was about to declare his recent re-election while in uniform unconstitutional.

Now the Constitution itself has been suspended. Far from stabilizing his rule, however, Musharraf's failing will only further erode the viability of Pakistan's anemic state. In a sense, discussion of whether Musharraf survives misses a more fundamental question:

What's the underlying problem with Pakistan itself? For the general's problems are far from unique; most Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, have suffered crises of legitimacy throughout their tenures, forever teetering on the verge of collapse. Understanding why is critical for both Americans and Pakistanis, since this key country will never be righted until its deep institutional rot is somehow addressed.

Pakistan's woes date back many years, preceding even the nation's founding in 1947. The idea of a Muslim homeland on the Subcontinent originated in the 19th century, when the British swept into the territory. The new rulers, who displaced the near moribund Mughal Empire, brought with them liberal ideas of popular representation. These soon found local root, and South Asians began to petition London for self-rule in the late 1880s.

A segment of the Muslim elite, however—which, under the Mughals, had ruled the much larger Hindu population—always feared the advent of representative government. Led by a prominent intellectual, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, they warned during the late-19th century that the advent of pluralism would reverse the tables and consign local Muslims to a permanent underclass.

British administrators found such arguments convenient, since they neatly fit into their divide-and-conquer strategy and helped splinter local opposition to colonial rule. In the early-20th century, London did grudgingly agree to create some forms of limited self-government. But the British used Muslim fears to justify the maintenance of separate electorates, allowing Muslims to vote for Muslims only and Hindus to vote just for Hindus. This worsened the territory's religious schism—and it gave credence to the fundamentally illiberal notion that religion alone could be the basis of popular government.

Things got worse after World War I, when the British expanded voting rights within the Raj. The Indian National Congress—at the time a predominantly upper-class Hindu organization—tried to make common cause with local Muslims, for example by condemning the British decision to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate. While this effort did bring some Muslims into the fold, many others chose to remain aloof and drifted toward the newly formed Muslim League, led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah—a personally secular and charismatic but unyielding, British-trained lawyer. Under Jinnah's leadership and with British help, the league prospered—so much so that when most top Congress figures were incarcerated during World War II, the league was allowed to flourish.

Unlike Congress's leaders, Jinnah never promoted democracy within his party, largely because he lacked the temperament to participate in the fray. As a result, while Congress under Mohandas Gandhi became a genuinely broad-based organization seeking to represent all Indians, the Muslim League remained tightly wound around Jinnah's iron will. Congress encouraged vigorous internal debates on a range of economic and social issues. In the process, its leaders and rank and file grew familiar with the habits of argument, negotiation and compromise vital to a healthy democracy—all of which one still sees in India today. But neither the leaders nor the citizens of what would become Pakistan were so lucky.

This shortfall would have dramatic consequences once Pakistan was born. At the time of India's partition in 1947, few key members of the league had any exposure to democratic governance. Worse, the handful of Muslims who did have experience ruling—having served the British in the elite Indian Civil Service—were downright contemptuous of the rough-and-tumble nature of democratic politics. This would prove an immediate handicap. Though predominantly Muslim, newborn Pakistan was riven with sectarian, regional and class divides. While simply appealing to Islam itself may have worked well as a nationalist tactic under the British, it offered no help in actually administering such an extraordinarily diverse place once the colonists went home.

Predictably, Pakistan's bureaucrats and politicians proved unequal to the task. Drafting a working Constitution took nine years, distracting attention from other pressing jobs—such as aiding the millions of refugees from partition—and stirring up bitter controversies. Jinnah, before his death in 1948, did enjoin Pakistanis to ignore religious affiliation in questions of governance. But the framers of the Constitution ignored him and tried to turn Pakistan into a highly centralized Islamic state—a structure ill-suited to a country with six main ethnic groups and nine major languages. As a result, the Constitution quickly proved unpopular and, within two years, it was suspended when the military took over in 1958.

This would be the first of four coups. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the Pakistani military refused from the outset to adhere to civilian control and, in concert with the elitist civil service, would go on to rule Pakistan for 32 of the next 49 years, effectively blocking the development of any healthy democratic alternative. No subsequent civilian regime ever managed to serve out a single term.

Why did Pakistan's military turn out so differently from India's? After all, both forces had emerged from the same British military tradition. There are several explanations for the difference. First, from the beginning, Pakistan's rulers relied excessively on the armed forces to maintain law and order and quell political discontent—using them, for example, to put down early clashes between ethnic Sindhis and "Muhajirs"—refugees from India. These experiences had a profound impact on Pakistan's officer corps; having frequently intervened in the country's early years to restore order, they soon came to believe that they alone could guarantee the nation's security and stability and had the right to overthrow their own civilian leaders if they deemed it necessary to keep the peace.

The second difference had to do with Kashmir. In 1947, this principality, which had a Muslim majority but a Hindu monarch, became a major flashpoint as both India and Pakistan claimed it for themselves. The nations would go on to fight two wars (in 1965 and 1999) over the territory. By successfully playing up the dispute with its much larger and more powerful neighbor, Pakistan's military was to argue for and win bloated defense budgets, which further increased its power.

The third difference stemmed from the cold war. While India decided to pursue a nonaligned foreign policy after Independence, the young state of Pakistan deftly played on U.S. fears about Soviet penetration of South Asia to bolster ties with Washington. In 1954, the two states signed a defense pact, further privileging Pakistan's military by securing for it large-scale U.S. aid.

In neighboring India, by contrast, the military was kept on a much shorter leash from the beginning. Even prior to independence, Jawaharlal Nehru (who would become India's first prime minister) stressed the absolute need for military officers to respect the chain of command; in one signal case from World War II, for example, he supported the right of native members of the colonial Army to defect—but then refused to reinstate them later on, arguing that they had broken their sacred oath of office and couldn't be trusted.

After independence, Congress under Nehru came to command almost countrywide popularity, quickly drafted a democratic Constitution, and held open national elections. As a result, India's civilian government soon enjoyed a level of legitimacy its Pakistani equivalent never managed. This put India's military in a clearly defined subordinate position. And when the military exceeded its brief in 1959 by using inordinate force on rebel groups in the country's northeast, Nehru and his Cabinet quickly stepped in to bring them to heel, upbraiding commanders and forcing them to moderate their tactics.

Thus the norm of robust civilian control over the military soon became embedded in India's political life. In Pakistan, meanwhile, unpopular governments, weak civilian institutions and an aggressive officer corps all conspired to send the country down the path of military dominance. While the Army has at times managed to impose order through brute force and coercion, it has rarely, if ever, managed to bring about the rule of law.

As a result, Pakistan today still suffers from widespread sectarian violence, has large swaths of ungoverned territory, pressing social and educational shortcomings and no functioning democratic institutions to force the problems onto the government's agenda. Given this woeful legacy, Musharraf's current struggles to hold onto power sometimes seem like attempts to rearrange deck chairs on a sinking ship. The country desperately needs longer-term fixes to help it develop true democracy, a rule-based government and a military that knows the importance of confining itself to the barracks. Top priorities should include curbing military spending, limiting the scope of military intervention in government matters and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. Without such changes, you can expect Pakistan to keep repeating its history for many years to come.