ISLAMABAD – The U.S. raid that killed Usama bin Laden gave Pakistan's weak civilian government a rare chance to wrest some power away from an influential military establishment that suddenly faced unusual public criticism over its failure to detect the Al Qaeda leader and prevent the foreign incursion.
Instead, the ruling party is defending the army and allowing it to investigate its own intelligence fiasco, undermining the notion that Pakistan's elected leaders will ever be able to assert their full authority in a country prone to military coups. The civilians' timidity doesn't bode well for U.S. and Pakistani hopes that the nuclear-armed nation will evolve into a stable democracy.
"The civilian-military imbalance is the greatest threat to Pakistani democracy. It is also the issue the civilian politicians are least capable of tackling," said Cyril Almeida, a prominent Pakistani commentator.
It's not easy for the ruling Pakistan People's Party to take on the army, even as the military brass reel from the humiliation of the U.S. raid.
The May 2 Navy SEALs operation in Abbottabad left bin Laden and at least four others dead, giving the U.S. a huge victory against Al Qaeda. Pakistan's military said it had no warning of the raid, disappointing many citizens, some of whom said the army and intelligence chiefs should resign.
The popular uproar was extraordinary in a country where many live in fear of the security forces.
But the civilian government itself is deeply unpopular. It is generally regarded as less competent than — and at least as corrupt as — the military. Its failure to address the pressing problems in Pakistan — a struggling economy, chronic power shortages, deteriorating security — has disillusioned many Pakistanis who were thrilled to see it take power three years ago after nearly a decade of military rule.
At this point, the government's sole focus appears to be surviving for a full five-year term. That would be a historic achievement for a democratically elected government in the nation's 63 years of existence, but one which apparently has left the current administration too nervous to challenge the generals.
The wariness showed in the changing messages that have emanated from Islamabad since the raid on bin Laden's compound north of the capital. At first, the country's civilian leaders declared bin Laden's killing a great victory. But within days, the Foreign Ministry had issued a statement that slammed the U.S. for violating Pakistan's sovereignty and warned against any future raids. The army issued a similar warning.
At the same time, the military appeared to launch a subtle campaign to shift the blame to the civilians.
Former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a People's Party member who has tangled with the party leadership and is believed to be close to the military, publicly called on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to resign. That raised many eyebrows considering Gilani and Zardari have essentially no control over security issues, and have ceded to the army much of the country's foreign policy as well.
On Monday, Gilani addressed Pakistan's parliament in a speech that appeared heavily influenced by the military and the army-run spy network. Although he said bin Laden's death was "indeed justice done," he also heaped praise on his nation's armed forces and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency. He said "all the intelligence agencies of the world" failed in allowing bin Laden to hide in a garrison town Pakistan.
Instead of appointing an independent, or at least civilian-led, panel to probe the debacle, he said the military would handle the investigation.
That drew criticism from some Pakistanis, who noted that the military does not have much of a history of holding its leadership accountable for mistakes.
For instance, in 1999, then-army chief Pervez Musharraf masterminded an operation at Kargil, a Pakistani push into the Indian-held part of Kashmir. The offensive nearly brought the nuclear-armed neighbors to war, but Musharraf kept his job, and later that year ousted the civilian government.
"The history of heads rolling and the history of people being held to account is not a very bright one in Pakistan," said Ayaz Amir, an opposition lawmaker.
Some were hoping Gilani would push for a rethink of Pakistan's entire security policy, which many critics say is too focused on archrival India instead of the threat from Islamist insurgents threatening the Pakistani state. Pakistan's army has fought three wars with India, including one in 1971 that saw Pakistan's eastern flank break off and become Bangladesh.
"Gilani did not take this opportunity to launch a kind of transformation or sort of commission that this country desperately requires," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist. "So I think Pakistanis, in general, continue to be confused and continue to want real answers instead of rhetoric."
In many ways, the most frustrating thing for many Pakistanis is watching the one institution that seemed all-powerful in their downtrodden, struggling country, be so spectacularly hoodwinked by the United States. But it's also tough to watch the men and women they elect flounder.
"The common man is really pissed off. They've lost faith," said Khawaja Asif, an opposition lawmaker. "You can't imagine how sad they are feeling."
Nahal Toosi can be reached at http://twitter.com/nahaltoosi. Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.