Pakistan election creates new worries for U.S.

  • Updated: May 14, 2013 - 1:24 PM

Nawaz Sharif's track record of ambivalence towards extremists could prove troubling in more nuanced ways.


Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters at a party office in Lahore, Pakistan. Sharif declared victory following a historic election marred by violence.

Photo: K.M. Chaudary, Associated Press

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Nearly 15 years after he was ousted in a bloodless coup, business tycoon Nawaz Sharif and his center-right party are poised to regain control over Pakistan’s government, after the historic May 11 vote - the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in the country’s history.


As with the last two times he won the premiership, Sharif appears to have ridden to power on the back of strong support from his Punjabi heartland, a province that is home to much of the Pakistani elite, but also a patchwork of violent sectarian and Islamic groups.

Nobody has ever accused Sharif himself of being an extremist, but like anywhere else, success in Pakistani politics requires playing to the base. Take Sharif’s push in 1998, during his second stint as prime minister, to pass a constitutional amendment that would have imposed sharia law across the country.

“He doesn’t believe in sharia,” said William Milam, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time. “This was a totally cynical thing to do, it was obviously directed to try and keep the Islamists attached to him.”

Few, if any, in Washington or Islamabad think Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), will try to change the overall trajectory of bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan - on security or other priorities. But Sharif’s track record of ambivalence towards extremists could prove troubling in more nuanced ways.

Sharif’s senior advisers insist he would be committed to working in close collaboration with the United States, including on security issues, the fact that PML-N governments have, as Millam put it, “played footsie,” with extremist groups in the past represents exactly the sort of mixed message many in Pakistan worry the violence-wracked country simply cannot afford.

Since the end of last decade, Pakistan has faced a growing threat from the domestic insurgent group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, composed of Islamic fundamentalists intent on overthrowing the state. What once was a movement largely confined to the country’s remote tribal areas now has a growing presence in major urban hubs, most worryingly Karachi, Pakistan largest city and its economic heartbeat. In a bid to disrupt the elections, they’ve launched terrorist attacks that have left more than 100 people dead in recent months.

Gone are the days when Pakistan’s powerful military could take on foes - both its own and Americas - with impunity and not face popular pushback. A decade ago, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who assumed power in a 1999 military coup, enjoyed almost unfettered power to partner closely with the United States in its post-Sept. 11 “war on terror.” Now he is under house arrest in his estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, facing trial for his actions during the waning days of his term. According to retired three-star Pakistani Army Gen. Talat Masood, today in Pakistan “there is a lot of confusion, especially amongst the political class” about the military campaign against extremists.

“And because of the political confusion and in the media, the people are also equally confused as to exactly what this war is all about, whom it is directed to,” Masood explained in Islamabad earlier this spring - a key reason, he said, for Pakistan’s recent failures in its fight against militants.

Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi put it more directly. What Pakistan needs, she said, is a strong government that will tell its people, “we need to confront this threat, here’s how we’re going to do it, we need your support.”

In the last few years, she lamented, “I have not . . . seen anybody stand up and make that kind of a speech.”

In the waning days of this year’s campaign, Sharif began to speak out publicly - including to Western media - against what he has characterized as a flawed U.S. “war on terror.”

But Sharif’s senior advisers have also taken pains to highlight the party’s longstanding partnership with the United States, including their boss’s close relationship with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The message: Sharif is a known quantity to U.S. policymakers, as opposed to, say, Pakistani cricket icon Imran Khan, who has publicly threatened to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister.

Sharif’s advisers said in March that should the PML-N form the next government - which is likely to be a coalition - the plan is to “pursue a policy of close cooperation, of intense dialogue,” said Tariq Fatemi, Sharif’s senior foreign policy adviser and a former ambassador to the United States, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, whose stability is a top priority for both countries.

When it comes to actual prescriptions for reining in the patchwork of militant groups whose violence is paralyzing more and more of the country, PML-N officials emphasized a holistic approach.

“Force alone will not resolve this problem,” Iqbal insisted. “We have a whole comprehensive package of . . . reforms that we believe will go after acts of militancy and terrorism at the root,” the deputy secretary explained, launching into a presentation on the party’s scheme for dividing and conquering militants’ various sources of support.

“There are elements who have been misguided on religious message, which is the wrong narrative of religion. So we need to engage them by giving them an alternate narrative,” said Iqbal. “There are people who have joined this movement for social reasons, social inequality and other reasons. So we need to have justice and good governance.”

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