An influential US foreign affairs expert, Ashley J. Tellis, currently senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells Anand K. Sahay that in Pakistan the civilians are fighting a rearguard battle to protect their turf, and that this is being opposed by the Army and the judiciary in cahoots.

There were always questions about the Pakistani state, and the supra-institution status of the military there, but the current civil-military stand-off seems sudden and extraordinary. What is a plausible explanation?

Far from being sudden, the present civil-military standoff actually was a long time coming. Right from the time of the Raymond Davis affair (the killing by a CIA official of two Pakistani armed men in Lahore on January 27, 2011), the divide between the civilians and the military began to grow ever deeper. It always existed, but the Davis episode, the Osama raid, and now Memogate, have only highlighted the fact that the two “executive” arms of the Pakistani state reside on different planets.

At its core, the divide is explained simply: the civilian government wants to transform Pakistan into a developmental state, wrest political supremacy away from the military and reach a new modus vivendi with Pakistan’s neighbours; the military, in contrast, wants to preserve Pakistan as a garrison state, protect its institutional and economic privileges and sustain a competitive relationship with Afghanistan and India, thereby justifying its continued supremacy in Pakistan’s political life.

Unfortunately, in this tussle, the civilians have proven more inept and are often compromised by their own failings — but their efforts to assert their prerogatives in the face of both military and judicial opposition in the aftermath of Memogate has propelled what has always been the simmering discord wide into the open.

Is this an autonomous development thrown up by domestic circumstances, or is it linked to the Afghan theatre in some way?

It is fundamentally domestic. It, obviously, finds reflection in Pakistani policies towards Afghanistan, but it is not provoked by developments in Afghanistan.

The trigger for the crisis appears to be Memogate, which belongs to last summer (although it came to public notice recently). If the situation deteriorates or prolongs, do you visualise difficulties with the political efforts being made in respect of Afghanistan involving a Taliban representational office in Qatar?

If the situation deteriorates, there will be some, but not substantial, impact on the current political efforts regarding Afghanistan, and not very much on the Taliban’s Qatar office. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is determined by the Army. This policy, for a long time now, has been to support the Afghan Taliban as a means of extorting concessions from Kabul. Unless the Pakistani military comes out as the decisive loser in the current crisis — an outcome that is difficult to imagine — Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy will stay the same.

The Pakistani military has reconciled itself to a representational office for the Taliban, but it still controls the most important levers necessary to shape the Quetta Shura’s (the Quetta-based Afghan Taliban’s top leadership) final decisions in regards to reconciliation: protection from US military action and operational,
material, and, to a lesser degree, financial support.

Does the fluidity in Pakistan give the US a better shot at working at political equations relating to Afghanistan?

No. Whatever happens in regard to Afghanistan will require the consent of the Pakistan Army, and I do not see the Army being decisively weakened because of the current crisis. In fact, it is the civilians who are fighting a rearguard battle to protect their turf — meaning, their all too modest decisional autonomy — which is opposed by an Army and a judiciary that are in cahoots.

What has given Pakistan’s civilian government gumption? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has attacked the “unconstitutional” acts of the Army Chief and the ISI chief in an official newspaper from China, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”. Cocking a snook at the Army Chief, Mr Gilani also says that he is answerable only to Parliament.

I think the civilians recognise that they are in a fight for the life of their regime. If the Army had not so brazenly transmitted its petition in the Memogate affair to the Supreme Court directly — a clear affront to the executive because it represented a public declaration of the Army’s autonomy from the state — the civilians would have accepted the indignities heaped on them with more equanimity.

But the way in which the Army and the court have conducted themselves in the Memogate affair has clearly signalled that, apart from the facts at issue, the military does not trust its political masters and is in fact determined to clip their wings by all means short of a direct coup d’etat.

The Army must see these as acts of grave provocation since it has always treated the civilians as chattel. Why has it not dislodged the civilian authority? Is it afraid of American opinion and aid disruption? Can the military and the ISI get back at the civilians by unleashing their Islamist “assets” on them, or other organs of the state such as the Supreme Court?

Exactly! But the Army has also realised that there are extremely high costs today to any direct usurpation of political authority. At a time when the Pakistani economy is in terrible shape, when US aid would dry up instantly in the event of a coup, and when the Pakistani Army is not exactly viewed with admiration by the international community, exploiting Pakistan’s Supreme Court — and the conceit of its Chief Justice — provides a far better way of “fixing” the civilian government than any brazen military takeover. Given the sympathies of the Court, using the Army’s Islamist proxies is unnecessary, at least for now.

Do the unstable conditions in Pakistan mean anything for India? Do we need to watch out for diversionary military provocations staged probably through armed Islamist outfits?

Instability in Pakistan is always bad news for India — but I do not think diversionary military adventures are the biggest danger right now. The Pakistani Army currently has its hands full with problems in the tribal areas and in Balochistan; the situation in Afghanistan is highly uncertain; the US is thoroughly disenchanted with the Pakistani military; and the economy is in crisis. All told, this is an awful time even for a diversionary military provocation, especially given that none of Pakistan’s previous stunts have ever come out right.

This article originally appeared in The Asian Age.