The debate on the Kerry-Lugar bill’s ‘conditionalities’ is inching worryingly towards becoming a debate about ‘national security’ versus democracy. After fierce criticism from the political opposition and lukewarm support from within the governing coalition, yesterday’s meeting of the corps commanders in Rawalpindi has turbocharged opposition to the bill’s ‘intrusiveness’ in ‘domestic’ affairs. But there are two issues at stake here, and intertwining them runs the risk of undermining the transition to democracy.
One, the bill’s terms and its implications for relations between the US and Pakistan; and two, civil-military relations and the future of the democratic project in Pakistan. First, the debate about the bill itself. The Kerry-Lugar aid is not a new idea. The final bill may have only been passed recently by Congress, but its broad terms have been known for a while now and it’s various iterations easily available on the Web. So why the furore now?
All sides, though, must bear some of the blame. While it is the government’s executive prerogative to negotiate such aid with foreign governments, domestically it failed to keep all the various stakeholders in the loop, consult them frequently and get their input. The government does not appear to have realised that politics and the law intersect on matters such as the Kerry-Lugar bill. The political opposition, meanwhile, has acted within its rights to criticise the terms of the bill it finds unpalatable, but few in the opposition appear to have read the bill and much of the criticism appears to be based on hearsay and facile complaints. Finally, the army high command has also belatedly come around to expressing its concerns and the fact that it has chosen to make its reservations public as opposed to going through private governmental channels is regrettable. Be that as it may — and all of this points to a wider institutional malaise in the decision-making process of the state — the sensible way out is for parliament to debate the issue and for the government to act on its recommendations on whether or not to accept the Kerry-Lugar aid in the present form.
Which brings us to the second point: support for the democratically elected government against extra-constitutional intervention. Right or wrong, wise or unwise, the bill must not become the basis for fresh cleavages between the army and the political opposition on one side and the government on the other. The national security–democracy debate is not an either/or issue — national security can and must be protected through the democratic process. Even by Pakistani standards, it is too soon to forget the damage caused by extra-constitutional interventions.