In Pakistan last week, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised the strong relations between the two Muslim countries and vowed to stand by Pakistan’s side. “We understand your pain and will continue to stand by you in the days ahead,” he said.
Mere months after Pakistan’s government seemed on the brink of collapse and there was even talk of another military coup, the Turkish leader expressed confidence in the country’s ability to address the challenges that it faces.
Erdoğan added, “A strong democratic Pakistan has much to do with regional peace, prosperity and stability.”
Turkey notably backed Pakistan’s demand that the United States apologize for the death of civilians who perished in a drone strike in November before reopening NATO supply routes in Afghanistan, even if Turkey is a NATO member.
Military relations between the two countries have historically been strong. Turkey’s is more secular than Pakistan’s army but under Erdoğan premiership, the country has moved into a more Islamist direction. At the same time, he has reined in the generals who, like their Pakistani counterparts, like of think of themselves as the guardians of the secular tradition. Pakistan’s civilian leaders can only dream of such authority. The army and intelligence services, considered a “state within a state,” are enormously powerful in Pakistan.
Pakistan has had its fair share of military coups since independence. The army ran the country three times after 1947. Pervez Musharraf led the last military government between 1999 and 2007. His successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has promised to keep the armed forces out of politics but enjoys tremendous influence as the nation has been on a war footing since the Americans invaded Afghanistan more than ten years ago, rekindling a conflict with Islamist insurgents that has wrecked Pakistan.
The country is home to different ethnic groups that had never formed a nation before 1947 — and, in a sense, still haven’t. The majority Punjabi army is reluctant to expand operations in the western tribal region where the people are of Pasthun descent and insurgents battling NATO forces in Afghanistan are known to shelter. The army’s offenses in the region are estimated to have displaced up to half a million people. Terror has spilled into Pakistan proper with assassinations and bombings taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
Another outright military takeover is unlikely as it would associate the generals with the unpopular American raids and overall sense of decline, the blame for which is currently put on the civilian government.
Still, the present situation, where the civilian government lacks the authority to set foreign and security policy independent of the army, is far from satisfying for either party. Erdoğan’s moderate Islamism could be a model for Pakistan’s leaders to simultaneously keep the generals at bay and appease the masses but as with all things in Pakistan, it hinges more on the army’s willingness to let it happen than the civilian leadership’s ability to copy it.