Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari Image Credit: Reuters

The future of Pakistan's civil-military relations was once again at the centre of attention this past week, amid a deepening controversy over a supposed confidential memo written on behalf of President Asif Ali Zardari in May this year, seeking US assistance to block what was put across as an expected military coup.

The man widely believed to be the author of the document, Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, has not only denied authoring the memo in question but also defended himself with claims that he has never undermined Pakistan's army as an institution. Exactly how the end result will emerge following this controversy is far from clear.

The issue first became public when Mansour Ijaz, a US national and a businessman of Pakistani origin wrote about it in the UK-based Financial Times, in October this year. Since then, the case has been repeatedly cited as an example of the government seeking to undermine the army.

While the facts remain unclear, many across the country believe that their government is capable of doing exactly what it has been accused of. Haqqani, though a close ally of Zardari, is indeed under pressure to step down, while Pakistan's opposition is seeking a full-blown investigation. Ultimately, even Haqqani's departure, if indeed it takes place, will simply not help to overcome the fundamental discord in Pakistan.

More than three years after Zardari became the president after General Pervez Musharraf, the former head of state, was forced out under the threat of a parliamentary impeachment, the conditions surrounding Pakistan's civil-military ties leave much to be desired.

While Pakistan is facing its toughest internal security threat ever, given the challenge posed by Taliban militants, neither Zardari nor his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have tried to take up their responsibilities on this vital national security front. Zardari himself has shown a particularly pathetic record in this area. He simply does not even take the initiative to visit the frontlines of the conflict, instead confining himself to his secure bunker-like residence in Islamabad.

To make matters worse, even in parliament, neither the PPP nor any other of its allied political parties have sought to robustly debate security conditions on the ground with a view to taking a fuller responsibility.

The matter surrounding the communication as claimed by Ijaz has ignited a fire that was long burning under the surface. The issue at hand is not just about the conduct of a handpicked ambassador of the government. The matter is far more significantly about the failure to rid Pakistan of its past legacy of military rule by speeding up the process of assuming responsibility in key areas of vital national interest.

Breakdown in services

Indeed, there is some evidence of the ruling structure having worked tirelessly to undermine the army's position. Steps such as reducing the influence of the army -run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) counter espionage agency have just not helped to tackle what is in fact a far more complex challenge.

Zardari's biggest flop however has been his inability to rise to the overall set of deep challenges facing Pakistan and to deliver a capable government which can provide solutions. Instead, stories of corruption linked to the top tiers of government continue to make the rounds.

The handicap of the government appears to be best visible in the deterioration of key institutions linked to vital functions of Pakistan's economy. In recent months, Pakistanis have become all too familiar with glaring examples of breakdowns in services ranging from trains to aircraft, all run by public sector institutions.

In the meantime, the overall economic direction not to forget Pakistan's credibility — within and outside, remains essentially in tatters. The inability to even begin modestly enforcing reforms that are long overdue has turned the idea of a government in Pakistan, to a joke.

In this background, squaring the focus on tightening controls around the army will only backfire. While it is true that the Pakistan army has a long history of previously ruling the country, the problem which is central to civil-military relations lies not with the army itself but Zardari and the inept nature of his government.

Irrespective of how the situation comes together around Haqqani, the challenges confronting Pakistan will simply not go away. Zardari's grip over Pakistan is failing, all because he has simply not shown the ability to give the country a qualitatively new and vastly better direction. 

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.