Meet the New Pakistan

How a sweeping constitutional amendment could transform the country's politics


Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a sweeping Consitutional amendment into law yesterday, transferring much of his own power to the nation's traditionally weak Parliament. The amendment, by decentralizing the government and strengthening the Parliament as well provincial governments, stands to bring much-needed stability and openness to a state long plagued by autocracy and by the military's heavy influence. Pakistan's secretive and self-interested military -- long permiated by Islamist ideology and (until recently) driven by an agenda of dominating neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir via insurgent proxies -- has, as a rule either coerced the president or replaced him outright, as in the military coup that established the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf. As Pakistan's president and military have wrestled for power, they have dragged the state through periods of instability and corruption that has exaccerbated poverty and, at times, provoked domestic terror. Pakistan's volatility and political infighting also make it far more difficult for foreign diplomats to influence the state. As a lead player in the Afghanistan and Kashmir conflicts, Pakistan's international cooperation is essential. Today's amendment could bring new stability to the country, improving Pakistan's internal governance and ultimately aiding U.S. interests.

As authority shifts from the president to the Parliament, the military will likely have a far harder time exerting influence. Just how does the military pressure Pakistan's civilian leaders? A recent United Nations report on the 2007 assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accuses the military, with which Bhutto was on bad terms, of failing to properly protect her or investigate her death. The report does not name any suspects in her death but does, as the New York Times puts it, make "repeated references to the unchecked power of the military and its intelligence wing." That wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has long backed insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir, with the civilian government in Islamabad too afraid to do anything about it. President Zardari, Bhutto's widower, may finally be bringing accountability to the ISI by empowering Parliament to do what he could not.

Part of the reason why Pakistan's military has been effective at coercing the president and prime minister is that they are just two individuals. But the Parliament's sheer volume -- it has 436 members -- means the military now has hundreds of legislators it must lobby. With the Pakistani leadership now more decentralized and dispersed, the military will find fewer pressure points, and its influence may wane. U.S. policy in Pakistan since the Clinton administration has focused on convincing the military to reduce its reliance on insurgent proxies, including some Taliban leaders. Without a Pakistani civilian government that would join in pressuring the military, U.S. entreaties have been largely ineffective. There's no guarantee that the Parliament will take our side, but they will be freer to make that choice than any Pakistani president has ever been.

Just as Parliament will be less susceptible than a president to pressure from the military, however, so too will it be less susceptible to pressure from the U.S. government. In July 1999, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invaded the Kargil district of Kashmir and put his country on the brink of nuclear war with India, President Clinton resolved the crisis by demanding Sharif fly to Washington, lecturing him to the point of humiliation, and convincing him to withdraw from Kashmir. Clinton's performance ended what could have been an international crisis. But were such an invasion initiated by the now-strengthened Parliament, would the U.S. president be able to personally harangue all 436 members into securing a reversal? A Parliamentary resolution for something as rash as invading Kashmir seems unlikely, due to the body's simple need for lengthy debates and floor deliberations. But President Obama will need Pakistan's cooperation on many issues as he sustains combat operations in Afghanistan and opens trade with India. With its decision making now more dispersed, Obama will need more than simple lobbying to influence Pakistan's behavior.

If Zardari's amendment can truly build a stronger and more independent Parliament, the U.S. will enjoy a Pakistan that is more stable, more predictable, and less prone to the military's meddling. But the U.S. meddling in Pakistan will also be less effective. Rather than simply pushing Pakistan to meet our demands on issues like Kashmir or Afghanistan, the U.S. will have to align its interests with those of a majority of the Pakistani Parliament. If its members are at all fair and representative, the welfare of Pakistan's 170 million people will no longer be an afterthought in U.S. diplomacy. But the U.S. is already beginning to emphasize long-term solutions to Pakistan's problems. In the past, Presidents Clinton and Bush pleaded with the Pakistani leadership to pursue insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Obama administration, addressing the whole country rather than just its top officials, is attempting to remedy the conditions that led to the insurgency in the first place. Special Envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke noted yesterday that the U.S. is emphasizing water and energy development in the FATA, which could alleviate the poverty and resentment that terrorist groups feed on there. This project would take years or decades to make a difference. But with political power diffused across a much more broadly accountable institution than the Pakistani presidency, such gradual, large-scale projects may be our best bet at changing the country. In the long-term, that could be better for Pakistan and for our interests in the region.

Image: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari speaking at the United Nations General Assembly about the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose photo he carried onto the lectern. Michael Nagle/Getty Images