ISLAMABAD Pakistan's military, which has dominated the country for much of its turbulent history, has less sway over foreign policy, and a new power equation is emerging within America's strategic ally, said the foreign minister.
Pakistan has been directly ruled by generals for more than half of its 64-year history and indirectly for much of the rest.
The military has largely controlled foreign and security policies, and has taken the lead in relations with Washington.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said new dynamics were now taking hold in nuclear-armed Pakistan, one of the most unstable countries in the world.
"I want you to also understand that things have changed in Pakistan," she told Reuters in an interview.
"I think this overbearance of the role of the military in the foreign policy of Pakistan is something which will recede as time passes."
Some may question Khar's assessment of the military's role in foreign affairs given the long dominance of the generals.
But the mere fact that she spoke openly of such change may raise eyebrows in the South Asian nation where the military is highly skilled at both mounting coups and running a business empire spanning everything from banks to bakeries.
The military lost all of the nation's wars with India, has been accused of widespread abuses by human rights groups, and has failed to break the back of al Qaeda-linked Taliban despite several offensives.
Still, many Pakistanis have traditionally viewed it as a far more effective institution than civilian governments, which have failed to tackle a staggering array of issues, from widespread poverty and chronic power cuts to suicide bombings.
But the military's standing suffered dramatically after U.S special forces mounted a unilateral raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year.
Pakistan's generals and their all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency were humiliated, and came under rare public criticism.
A NEW EQUILIBRIUM
Since then, civilian leaders have grown more defiant of the military, which in the past has seized power through coups or heavily influenced policy from behind the scenes.
"I think all institutions in Pakistan are realising that there is a place and role for every institution," said Khar, 35, Pakistan's first woman foreign minister.
"And it is best to serve Pakistan's interests that each of the institutions remains within the boundaries of the roles which are constitutionally defined. It's a new sort of equilibrium."
Khar, one of a number of rising women politicians in Pakistan, started her political career with a party affiliated with former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, and eventually rose to junior finance minister.
She since switched to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), whose ties with the military have been strained.
U.S.-educated Khar said the current government's staying power in a country prone to coups had given it sway and room to manoeuvre, on issues ranging from ties with the United States to trade with arch-enemy India.
"As far as the new equilibrium ... you have consistent four years of democracy, it's the longest term a democratic governments has had in Pakistan," said Khar, who is from a political family in southern Punjab.
Khar pointed to the reaction to a NATO cross-border raid in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and plunged relations with the United States to a low point as one sign that civilian leaders have a bigger say in policy.
A Pakistani parliamentary committee reviewed ties with Washington and demanded a halt to U.S. drone aircraft strikes, which U.S. officials see as a highly effective weapon against militants along the border with Afghanistan.
"It is not the first time that foreign policy has been discussed in parliament," said Khar, in her modest Islamabad office. "But is it not the first time that relations with the United States and other important countries were put on hold until the parliament gave a green signal?"
Khar also said the government's approach to India suggested Pakistan's democracy was becoming more robust and the military's grip on policy had loosened.
In the face of some domestic opposition, the Islamabad government last November vowed to grant India most favoured nation status, which will end restrictions that require most products to move via a third country.
The move was hailed by India and the two countries are now focused on resolving economic issues before moving on to more intractable problems such as the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
"Don't underestimate the importance of what this government did with trade with India. Since 1965 there was no political or military government that could open up trade with India. And it was considered a no-go area," said Khar.
"And that to me shows, one the maturity of democracy, the maturity of views, and the maturity of the decision-making exercise in Pakistan."
(Editing by Chris Allbritton and Sanjeev Miglani)