ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s civilian government has a rare opportunity to bring the powerful security establishment to heel as the army writhes in humiliation over the surprise swoop by U.S. forces on Osama bin Laden. It will probably miss it.
“I think this is the first time since 1972 that the political government has a small window of opportunity to take the military on and change the skewed civil-military balance,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani army.
“But they are losing the space so fast.”
The killing of al Qaeda’s leader on May 2 in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad just 50 km (30 miles) up the road from Islamabad dealt a body blow to the military’s prestige.
It was embarrassed by the revelation that the world’s most-wanted man had been holed up for years under its very nose, and the public was shocked that a bunch of helicopter-borne foreign commandos could slip unnoticed into the nuclear-armed country.
Over the past week Pakistan’s media has been unusually scathing of the army’s apparent incompetence and intelligence failure.
The army remains a potent and widely respected centre of power, however, and it is unlikely that the political class will find the will, agility or unity to challenge it.
The military has ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s turbulent 64-year history and no civilian government has ever served out a full term.
Although the current administration might become the first to survive the allotted five years, despite public disgust over its handling of the economy, it remains firmly under the thumb of the army when it comes to internal security and both foreign and defence policy.
A pro-democracy civil society group on Tuesday bemoaned a stark “absence of parliamentary leadership” in defining national security policy and overseeing its implementation.
Even the United States sees the military as its main interlocutor: the first person it contacted in Pakistan after the bin Laden raid was Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani.
President Asif Ali Zardari has tried on several occasions to assert his authority over the security establishment, and each time he has failed.
His bid to bring the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency under the interior ministry in 2008 was quashed by the army. The same fate befell his efforts to reach out to old rival India and win U.S. Congressional support for promoting civilian primacy in Pakistan.
However, the discredit of the army over the bin Laden incident presented a fresh opportunity for the civilian government to reclaim some control over security policy.
The moment could hardly have been more timely.
Just hours after the killing of the al Qaeda leader the deeply unpopular government shored up its grip on power with a new coalition partner and a few days earlier, the chairman of the U.S. military’s joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had accused the ISI of maintaining links with the Taliban.
Despite that, more than a week since the bin Laden drama, there have been no signs that the politicians are pushing back or that the military is ceding ground.
“I think it is an opportunity they have missed already,” said Cyril Almedia, a columnist for Dawn, a daily newspaper. “The political government we have has chosen to lie back, keep quiet and try not to be blamed for a crisis in the country.”
“There is also the fear that if you take on the army at a moment of weakness you potentially invite its wrath further down the road.”
Zardari could have demanded that Kayani or the head of the ISI resign to take responsibility for the military and intelligence failures. It would have been a risky step, though, given that the last time a civilian leader tried to sack the army chief, in 1999, he himself was ousted in a bloodless coup.
No heads have rolled in the security establishment and -- far from taking responsibility for any failings -- the army kept a low profile for a week and finally left it to the civilian government to explain to the people of Pakistan what happened.
It had a heavy hand in that explanation, helping draw up a speech by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to parliament.
In his address, Gilani said: “I want to dispel the impression outside that there is no harmony between the state institutions. They are on the same page.”
Gilani announced that an inquiry into the incident would be overseen by a general.
Siddiqa said that the army also appeared to have successfully steered the narrative in the right-wing media, which has not been asking “why was bin Laden here?” but “how come the Americans conducted this operation in our country?”.
“That is a method or turning the debate on its head,” she said. “Nobody is asking the army chief to resign. Or the intelligence chief.”
Talat Masood, a retired general and defence analyst, said the government would miss its “golden opportunity”, partly because it is pinned down by opposition parties that are baying for the president and prime minister to resign over the affair.
“They are more interested in demolishing what little credibility remains of the civilian government rather than building up institutions,” Masood said.
Siddiqa said another explanation for the government’s failure to seize the moment was a vain hope that Washington would lose all faith in the military as a reliable partner in its war on Islamic militancy and create an easier opportunity to redress the balance of power.
“It’s waiting for the Americans to destroy the military and its reputation so that there is enough space for it to walk in,” she said. “This is not going to happen.”
Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton, Michael Georgy and Augustine Anthony; Editing by Robert Birsel