How to eliminate foreign meddling in Pakistan

If there’s one thing that is virtually agreed upon across our politically divided nation it is that there is too much foreign meddling in Pakistan. Where people tend to disagree is on the details. Is the problem America’s war on terror? Or is it Wahhabi madrassas funded from the Gulf? Or is it secret Hindu-Zionist agents who landed in space ships? Whatever foreign group you think is behind all the nation’s ills, you the solution is always the same – kick them out! The question that is asked less often, though, is why all these foreigners supposedly want in. Actually, this could be the question that reveals the answer.

The most common reply you hear is that foreigners are meddling in Pakistan as part of a war against Muslims. Honestly, this doesn’t make any sense. Where is the war against Muslims in Indonesia? Or the war against Muslims in Malaysia, or Bangladesh, or any of the other Muslim countries where foreigners are not deeply involved in the country’s politics? What about Egypt where the religious parties are taking control through democratic elections and the Western countries that are supposedly at war against Muslims are actually supporting them? Maybe we’re looking at things backwards.

All sorts of allegations have been made against the present and past governments accusing officials of going to foreign powers and requesting help in internal political conflicts. Mansoor Ijaz’s infamous memo was supposedly a request for the Americans to help stave off a coup being plotted by the ISI (this is Mansoor Ijaz’s claim, not mine). The PM was accused of phoning the British High Commissioner for help, a charge both he and the British strongly deny. Before that, the Sharifs had gone to the Americans to request help averting a coup. Now it seems that even Musharraf has a memo of his own.

Last week it was reported that influential royals from the Middle East were working behind the scenes to defuse tensions between the military and civilians. The Saudis, of course, have famously claimed to be “participants” in Pakistan’s internal affairs and have even allegedly sought to overthrow the government in the past.

Actually, going to foreign powers and seeking help was not started by civilian officials, but the military. As a young independent nation, our military leaders sought an alliance with America to level the balance of power with India. Before we had a nuclear deterrence, we had an American deterrence.

Gen. Zia-ul-Haq perfected this practice by convincing the Americans that he was their top ally in their war against communism. Generals have understood from the beginning that not only would such alliances with foreign powers provide them the latest in weapons and military technologies and strategies, but would also help keep them in power. The Americans for decades were willing to support military regimes if they pledged to keep out communists. By the time Gen Musharraf staged his own coup and usurped power, he knew to change ‘communist’ to ‘Islamist’, but his script remained virtually the same.

This is why civilians started going to foreign powers asking for help. They knew that the foreign powers had been the patrons of the military regimes because the generals had convinced them that military regimes were necessary to protect the foreigners’ own interests at that time, and that they would transition to democracy once the threat had passed. Only the threat never passed. So the civilians started going to the foreign governments to tell them that they were being conned.

So, how do we get foreigners to stop meddling in Pakistan’s politics? The answer seems pretty clear. The first step is to get the military to stop meddling in politics. If the military stops meddling in politics and acts within the bounds of its constitutional role, then the civilians will not feel compelled to go to foreign powers to ask for help against coups. Once the military is not involved in politics, decisions about policy will be made by elected officials as per the constitution. And if the elected officials are allowing foreigners to dictate policy, then we vote them out of office – an option we don’t have with the military. In other words, the only way to end foreign meddling is through strengthening democracy.

Decades of rule by military regimes and weak civilian regimes where the military dictated policies from behind the scenes are what created the mess of foreign meddling in our internal affairs. It’s time to try something new. If you really want change in Pakistan, support democracy.

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