Pakistan’s new Muslim League government, led by two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is facing a bad economy, a paralyzed energy sector, public health threats from polio and measles, and the continuing spread of extremism, said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Mr. Kugelman said Prime Minister Sharif, who will take office on May 25th, is a businessman able to “invite the IMF to come back in and request another tranche for the IMF,” but he won’t change the culture that is allowing extremists to act with impunity. “I don’t think any civilian leader in Pakistan is in a position to do this,” he said. “Ultimately, this is something that the army, or that the security establishment, has to deal with.”
Mr. Kugelman related a story where masked men beat several girls with iron rods for not having their heads properly covered while the police looked on. “And you’d expect the police to rush in there and deal with it, but nothing happened. And later, one policeman admitted to the Pakistani media that he’d received orders from above to not do anything.”
“When militants commit attacks, perpetrators need to be tracked down and persecuted, but this doesn’t happen,” he said.
Mr. Kugelman said the military in Pakistan still dictates foreign policy, though its role is changing. “The military is a very different institution than it was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even 5 years ago,” he said. “This election was significant not only because it was the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another, but also because it was the first time the military was not really involved with in the elections.”
Mr. Kugelman said he didn’t think the elections would have much of an effect on US-Pakistan relations. “The question we really need to be asking is what happens later in the year when there’s a transition in the military leadership, when General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani retires, and there’s a new military leadership,” he said.
One potential spoiler for US-Pakistan relations is that the local government in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, could be formed by Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party. “Imran Khan has very starkly during the campaign expressed very different views on militancy and drones than the US would have wanted,” he said. “I think that the United States and other countries are very concerned about the prospects of Imran Khan’s government taking over in that province.”
As to why Imran Khan didn’t do better in the elections despite using social media to attract hundreds of thousands of people to his rallies, Mr. Kugelman said it was because social media does not play the same role in Pakistan as it does in Arab Spring countries. “Basically, he was depending on the Facebook generation to sweep him into power, and you can’t do that in Pakistan, because the Facebook generation does not represent the masses. It represents a tiny percentage of the population,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Nadia Mughal, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Nadia Mughal: We’re pleased to welcome Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington D.C. Michael, thank you for speaking to the Global Observatory.
On May 11th, Pakistan held national elections marking its first democratic transition of power from one civilian government to another–a historic milestone, given Pakistan’s turbulent political history. The elections signal the beginning of the Pakistan’s Muslim League government, led by two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. What are some of the key domestic challenges facing the new national government?
Michael Kugelman: Thank you Nadia, it’s a pleasure to talk with you today.
Let me identify four major domestic challenges facing Sharif as he comes into power. The first one is really the one we hear the most about, and that’s militancy, certainly. Pakistan is no longer a country where there’s extremism in the so-called tribal areas, in the hinterlands, and something that the rest of the country can forget about. We’ve gotten to the point now where its tentacles have spread to all of the major urban areas, from Karachi, the biggest city, which has essentially become a new haven for the Pakistani Taliban, to Punjab, the populous province of Pakistan, the province where the government is headquartered, where the military is headquartered. In the southern parts of Punjab, you have violent sectarian groups all based there. Punjab, of course, happens to be the stronghold of the PML-N party, Nawaz’s party. And militants essentially operate with impunity in Pakistan, so that’s a clear challenge that is going to have to be dealt with.
A second one is the economy, and this is arguably the most immediate challenge. Pakistan, as I understand it, only has about five weeks worth of foreign reserves. It’s in big trouble. So, I think one of the first things Sharif will probably have to do is invite the IMF to come back in and request another tranche for the IMF. That’s going to be key.
Third challenge: energy. The country’s been suffering for—it seems like decades, it’s really been four, five years. There are days when there’s only six to seven hours where there’s power. It’s called load-shedding; it’s really a euphemism for blackouts.
And the energy crisis is really tied to the economic problems in the country, because essentially, no one can pay the bills. People—energy customers—can’t pay their bills, or they chose not to pay their bills. The government can’t pay its bills, so it can’t pay the energy distributers. So it’s essentially a cyclical debt crisis, which really paralyzes the energy sector, and since Pakistan lacks the revenue and the liquidity to get around that cycle, it’s a huge, huge challenge.
And finally, I would highlight one that doesn’t get as much attention, and that’s the public health crisis in Pakistan. If you think about the health situation in the country, there are diseases, illnesses that simply you don’t hear about in other countries: polio, measles. There are very few other countries where these are endemic, but in Pakistan, for a variety of reasons, they’re just a major problem, and the medical field can’t handle this. There’s not enough doctors, there’s too many sick people and not enough doctors. The health crisis is certainly a big challenge as well.
NM: As you’ve mentioned before, militants from the northern tribal areas of Pakistan have continued to pose a significant threat to the security and stability of the country. During the election season, many candidates were accused of being soft on the Pakistani Taliban to avoid threats to their campaigns, while the Taliban carried out bombings against what they called “secular” parties. What do you think is needed in Pakistan to combat these militants?
MK: The first step is really a simple one. It would seem to be a common sense one, but unfortunately it’s not in Pakistan, and that’s that justice needs to be served. When militants commit attacks, perpetrators need to be tracked down and persecuted, but this doesn’t happen. As I was saying before, there’s an incredibly oppressive climate of impunity in Pakistan when it comes to extremism and militancy. People do these things, and they get away with them.
One example: not to long ago, masked men barged into a girl’s school in a major urban area of Pakistan, and they beat several girls for not having their heads properly covered. They were using iron rods to do this. And the police, they were there observing, but they didn’t do anything. And you’d expect the police to rush in there and deal with it, but nothing happened. And later, one policeman actually admitted to the Pakistani media that he’d received orders from above to not do anything. He was told just to let it happen. So, that’s why something needs to be done with this. There’s a need to do more, whether it comes down to reforming the police, or just coming up with bolder, more emphatic, robust response. Justice needs to be administered.
Another thing that has to happen, which is going to be very difficult, is that the state, the Pakistani state, needs to end its informal ties to some militants. Certainly, the Pakistani security establishment over the years has tended to pick and chose what it thinks is a “good” and what it thinks is a “bad” extremist. The Pakistani Taliban and other extremists that go after the government are not thought of as good guys by the Pakistani security establishment. But on the other hand, certain militants that over the years have targeted India, or the ones that target US troops, international troops in Afghanistan—it’s a bit more complex there. And there’s just this confusion, essentially this schizophrenia, when it comes down to it of elements of the security establishment of Pakistan refusing to see extremisms as simply an evil in and of itself. There’s this need to pick and choose, and that has to end. Otherwise, nothing’s going to happen with militancy.
And finally, the other thing that has to happen, which again is difficult, is the ideological climate that encourages militancy needs to end. There are all types of ways that can be done. One of them I think involves reforming the educational sector. Particularly, engaging in textbook reform so that certain narratives are not spouted.
Now, Nawaz Sharif—I don’t think he’s going to do this. I don’t think any civilian leader in Pakistan is in a position to do this. He’s a businessman. I think he’ll do a lot for the economy. He’ll bring the IMF in, I think there can be some relief there, but in terms of doing anything about militancy, I don’t see it happening. Ultimately, this is something that the army, or that the security establishment, has to deal with.
NM: I’d like to talk about Pakistan’s military, which ruled the country for decades and which ousted Sharif from power in 1999 during his second term in office. In light of the outcome of the election, what role do you see the military will play in Pakistan’s political transition?
MK: The military is a very different institution then it was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even 5 years ago. It is very sensitive about its image, and it knows that ever since the Abbottabad raid when Osama bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan, its image has taken some hits. And it’s not seen as invincible like it used to be. And it knows that the great majority of Pakistani public opinion does not want the military to have an overt role in politics, and it’s mindful of that. And the military will respect that sentiment from the public, because, again, it’s very sensitive to public opinion.
The only way that the military will jump in and take on an overt role in politics once again is if it feels threatened, and of course that could be if the law-and-order situation were simply to break down; that’s one possibility. But also, somewhat of a more likely scenario is if Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, former head of the military, currently under house arrest in Pakistan, if he were to be put on trial. Now, of course, Pervez Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif, so there’s an interesting story line here.
The army would like nothing more than for Musharraf to disappear. Ideally, it’d want some deal to be struck where he could go back into exile and be gone. But, if Sharif were to put him on trial, the military would not be happy about that. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think that Sharif will essentially try to come up with some sort of arrangement in which he can go back to Dubai or go back to Saudi Arabia or something like that. This election was significant not only because it was the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another, but also because it was the first time the military was not really involved with in the elections. It wasn’t doing rigging; it was even staying away from the polling sites, which I think is interesting.
So, I think we’ve come to a new era in Pakistan where we can expect that the military will not play any sort of overt role in politics. Behind the scenes, certainly it’s still the ultimate arbiter, but I don’t see it having a very clear, explicit political role as it had for much of Pakistan’s history.
NM: Social media use in Pakistan has grown rapidly, with a growing number of Pakistanis, especially the youth, gaining greater access to the Internet. Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party utilized the power of social media campaigns to increase its popularity and energize the population to get out and vote. In your recent report on social media in Pakistan, you argue that, while it provides an important platform for communication, it is yet to be a catalyst for change in the country. Can you expand on that?
MK: Social media is certainly a big deal in Pakistan in ways that it isn’t even in a country like India. I mean, Twitter, for example: there’re people on Twitter that are on it all the time. They use it as a crutch, I observe this; Facebook as well. What I mean when I say that it’s a catalyst for communication; I guess there’s several different ways that happens. One is that social media will report on stories that the traditional media refuses to report on–sensitive stories such as, for example, not too long ago when the government was secretly trying to come up with filtering technology to block Internet websites–the mainstream media was not covering this story; social media actually got on it and broke it. Social media also will promote humanitarian efforts by advertising flood relief activities. Social media will serve as a platform for causes such as promoting issues surrounding human rights, gender rights, treatment of women, that type of thing.
But, I’d definitely stop short of saying that social media is a catalyst for change, and there’s two reasons for that. One is that the traditional media has really co-opted the social media from doing that. Essentially, go back a few years, I think it was around 2007, there was a movement for change in Pakistan, in which lawyers, journalists, others within civil society launched a protest movement, essentially against Pervez Musharraf, who was president at that time and had declare a state of emergency. He’d fired the Chief Supreme Court Justice, he’d engaged in all types of draconian action. And the television media, the private television station, which are very feisty in Pakistan, they were essentially the ones credited for getting people out on the streets, not social media, not Twitter, not Facebook.
Now, it’s a very different story in the Arab Spring countries, where we’ve heard a lot about how social media has sparked changed. In those countries, the media environment is very different. They’d never been so-called “free media.” Traditionally, media outlets were censored; most of them were controlled by the state. Whereas Pakistan, for a good decade or two, has had a relatively open media sphere in which there’s dozens of private television channels that can be very critical. So, I think that’s one reason.
Secondly is the issue of penetration rates. There’s about a 190 million people in Pakistan; there are only about 2 million people that use Twitter; a few million more use Facebook. So, even though those that use it love it and are very active on it, it really doesn’t have a huge impact on the population on the whole, and I believe that, at most, about 17% of the country uses the Internet. Those percentages are even lower in rural areas, where two-thirds of the country is based.
Now, again, compare this to the Arab Spring countries: Tunisia has 36% Internet use rate, Egypt has 26%. So, I’d argue that if you look at those figures, that could really get to why Imran Khan, this upstart, ex-cricketer politician, why he didn’t do very well in these last elections, even though he attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his rallies. He’s had a huge Facebook following, hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Basically, he was depending on the Facebook generation to sweep him into power, and you can’t do that in Pakistan, because the Facebook generation does not represent the masses. It represents a tiny percentage of the population–mostly liberal, English speaking, etc.
NM: Finally, where do you see the relationship between the United States and Pakistan heading, given the outcome of the elections?
MK: I don’t actually see the elections having much an effect, any sort of effect on the US-Pakistan relationship. The bilateral relationship’s trajectory; I think it’ll remain unchanged. Over the last year or so, it’s been really shifting towards a more scaled-back, limited, counterterrorism, security-based relationship. It’d been like that for the last year from when the Pakistan People’s Party was in power. Really, both sides, both countries realize they don’t share too many interests, so they’ve lowered their expectations, they’ve realized there’s too much mistrust to have a deep strategic relationship.
That’s a trend that will continue regardless of the fact that Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N are now going to be in control of the government. Certainly, the disagreements will continue to flare, especially when one makes demands that the other can’t deliver on, whether it’s demanding that Pakistan do a military operation in North Waziristan, or that the US rein in its drones program. So, this is really more of the same.
What I would say, if there’s one difference that this election have brought about that could affect the relationship is the fact that Imran Khan’s party will likely be forming the government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and that is very significant. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of course, is north-western Pakistan; it borders Afghanistan, where the tribal areas are. And Imran Khan has very starkly during the campaign expressed very different views on militancy and drones than the US would have wanted. Imran Khan has threatened to shoot down drones, he’s insisted that it’s impossible to defeat the Taliban—the Pakistan Taliban—militarily; he wants to negotiate with them. And the fact that his party is probably going to be running the government in that province, essentially where US, international troops are trying to wind down a war in Afghanistan; and this is also a province where equipment supplies are going to be passing through on their way out of Afghanistan. I think that the United States and other countries are very concerned about the prospects of Imran Khan’s government taking over in that province, and I think if Khan’s party were to essentially carry over the rhetoric from the campaign into rule, and if Nawaz Sharif does not come down on them, this could affect the relationship with the United States.
Final note on this though is that ultimately, I think it’s important to acknowledge that US-Pakistan relations are really a military-to-military issue, and the military is not going anywhere, so sure, there’s been a political transition, there’s going to be a new person occupying the government, but it doesn’t matter, because Pakistan’s foreign policy relations with the US are dictated ultimately by the military. So, the question we really need to be asking is what happens later in the year when there’s a transition in the military leadership, when General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani retires, and there’s a new military leadership. That’s, I think, when we’re really going to want to examine this question again.
NM: Michael, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
MK: Thank you.