Likely US Pressure on Pakistan for Democracy
Weekly Pulse
November 10-16, 2006
US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher may have assured the media that there will not be any change in US policy towards the region, including Pakistan, but the widely expected about-turn in Congressional politics in the aftermath of the US mid-term elections could prove him wrong.

Especially as Pakistan proceeds towards its own general elections exercise, the core implications for any change in US policy towards the region could be growing democracy-related US pressure on Pakistan—an eventuality that could fundamentally constrain the political ambitions of President-General Pervez Musharraf and his associates in the present government.

Is Boucher’s Assurance Coincidental?

It could not be a mere coincidence that Boucher’s press conference in Islamabad was held a day before mid-term Congressional polls in the United States, because the essence of what the US Assistant secretary of State said was to re-assure Pakistan that there would be no change in Washington’s policy towards it in the aftermath of the polls.

Boucher said the United States would continue to work with Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of its war on terrorism, and that there would be no change in US policy either towards this region or on the war on terrorism. He said Washington would continue to pursue strategic cooperation with Islamabad in economic, educational, technological and energy fields.

The US Assistant Secretary of the State went on to say that the Bush Administration would try to secure Congressional legislation to help Pakistan economically develop the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. He said the United States would support political process to realize genuine democracy in Pakistan; and, therefore, would like to see that next elections were held in a transparent manner.

An important reason why the Bush administration may have felt the need to give such an assurance is to counter the widespread international perception that a Democratic victory in the Congressional mid-term polls will significantly limit President George Bush’s ability to pursue the neo-conservative agenda with regards to the war on terrorism, especially vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan. There was also a near consensus among opinion leaders in the United States that a Democratic victory would dramatically reshape the political landscape for Bush’s final two years in office.

Mid-Term Polls Results

In the US Congressional elections, 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 33 seats in the US Senate seats were up for grabs. Until the polls, the Republican Party controlled both the Congressional houses. Latest public opinion polls had predicted the capture of the House of Representative by the Democratic Party and a close race between the Democrats and the Republicans for the Senate.

With Democrats controlling the Congress, including having their own speaker and effective control on the House committees dealing with defense and foreign policy matters—and a White House less proactive and significantly constrained than before in pursing a hawkish foreign policy agenda—countries like Pakistan acting as frontline states in the US-led war on terrorism must be ready to face an uncomfortable situation in their relationship with the United States.

The checks and balances system is the hallmark of US politics and government, whereby each of the three branches of the US government—the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary—checks and balances the other. It is true that in exceptional or critical circumstances such as the post-9/11 era, the Executive may assert its authority.

However, the reason why the United States has in the past over two centuries been able to make strides in consolidating democracy and freedom is that the Executive assertion at the start of a world crisis necessitating US intervention has led to a countervailing assertion of the Congress at a latter stage, even while the crisis was still there. This happened in the case of the Vietnam war, and the same factor applies to the Iraq war in particular and the war on terrorism in general.

In the early 1970s, the Congress asserted by limiting the Presidential power to declare war under the War Powers Act; in the same fashion, a Congress under Democratic leadership will limit President Bush’s ability to do what he wants in fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Implications for Pakistan

Such an outcome of the US-mid-term Congress elections, coupled with the factor of Bush’s lame-duck Presidency, could have two important implications for Pakistan: One, the US pressure on delivering concrete results in fighting religious extremism and its perceived terrorist manifestations in Afghanistan will grow. Two, given the Democratic Party’s sensitivity regarding the state of democracy in Pakistan, the US pressure on President Musharaf and his government will increase in the run up to the next general elections in the country.

The Bush Administration’s priority in the last over five years has been to combat terrorism with a sheer use of force—and with least concern for the state of democracy in its frontline allies such as Pakistan. For the sake of the war on terrorism, it has continued to ignore domestic public opinion and international civil society concerns regarding democracy and human rights. The war on terrorism has allowed unrepresentative forces to manipulate the political system to their advantage.

In the case of Pakistan, the foremost U-turn that the Bush Administration took was to end nuclear-specific sanctions soon after 9/11, just because the changed strategic landscape in the region had necessitated a major real-politic shift in the priorities of US foreign policy.

On 22 September 2001, the Bush administration waived restrictions under the 1974 Foreign Aid Act on both India and Pakistan, which were imposed in the aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear tests by the two countries. It also allowed some of the nuclear sanctions to lapse quietly while others were waived. Then, in October 2001, the US Congress voluntarily removed some prohibitions from the Appropriations Act. These included sanctions involving weapons sales, government credits and finance and some aid programmes.

The Bush administration has also issued time-bound waivers to the democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan, which the United States had imposed under the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, 1999, in response to the 1999 military coup in the country. Section 508 of this Act forbids US assistance to a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military or decree.” But it also says that assistance to such a country may be resumed “if the President determines that subsequent to the termination of assistance, a democratically elected government has taken office.

It was in March 2003 that President Bush had first decided to waive democracy-related sanctions on Pakistan, paving the way for the country to receive about $250m of economic aid already approved by the Congress. In March 2005, an influential US Senator, Richard G Lugar had proposed the extension of the Presidential waiver on democracy-related sanctions against Pakistan for the fiscal year till 2006.

Prior to his visit to Islamabad in March this year, President issued the waiver, justifying justified its issuing—in a memo to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—on the ground that it would “facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan” and is “important to United States efforts to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism.”

The lifting of these sanctions paved the way for the export of US arms and equipment to Pakistan—even though not including weaponry or equipment it deems essential for its security, such as F-16s and their spares, P-3 Orion reconnaissance planes, helicopters, night vision devices, Armored Personnel Carriers, and even dual-use technologies.

Democracy-Specific Sanctions

If the Congress is controlled by the Democrats, President Bush may not be able to issue the same waiver in spring 2007. That would mean revival next year of the democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan. Next year will see an increasingly growing political activity in Pakistan, with the exiled leadership of the two mainstream political parties—the PML-N and PPP-P—consolidating their own political campaign.

Pakistan’s role in the war on terror will still remain crucial as before, as the Afghan insurgency shows no sign of decreasing. It has even assumed grave proportions with the introduction of the hitherto absent but potentially volatile factor of suicide bombing. The situation inside Pakistan’s tribal belt is also not that satisfactory.

The Musharraf regime has come under US criticism for its failure to control the alleged Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan from the tribal areas as well as for concluding a deal with the Pashtun tribal leaders for preventing the alleged infiltration. As for its efforts to combat religious extremism in the country, the Americans have likewise expected it to deliver more.

In this backdrop, Boucher’s assurance that there will be no change in US policy towards the region (in the aftermath of the mid-term Congressional polls) is questionable. More questionable is his additional assurance that the Bush Administration will seek Congressional legislation for US assistance to economically develop Pakistan’s tribal regions.

The shift in US policy towards Pakistan may strengthen the hands of civilian political forces of the country, either surviving at home or campaigning abroad for the sake of democracy. Difficult times may be ahead for the Musharraf-led political dispensation in Pakistan.