The Magazine

American Interests in Pakistan

Zardari serves them better than Sharif.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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Recent turmoil in Pakistan has altered the political landscape in ways that should register with policymakers in Washington. Events have cast something of a pall over the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, a champion of the fight against Islamic militants, while elevating populist opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a two-time former prime minister now returned from exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif has adopted an increasingly conspiratorial and anti-American tone. The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), he may be preparing for a return to power--which could create trouble for U.S. strategic interests.

When Zardari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, succeeded General Pervez Musharraf as president in September 2008, some looked to a new era of stability. The convulsions of the past month have undercut those hopes. On February 25, Pakistan's supreme court disqualified Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab province, from public office. While Nawaz had a long history of corruption, Joshua T. White, a research fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, believes the dismissal of Shahbaz Sharif was foolish, in that Shahbaz "was seen as legitimate, popular, and relatively clean of controversy."

Nawaz Sharif responded by urging the people of Pakistan to rise up. Thousands took to the streets, torching cars and images of President Zardari. Protests were held in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and numerous districts in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif managed the situation skillfully, positioning himself as an adherent of democracy and the rule of law even as he instigated violent protests. The ruling barring the Sharif brothers from public office became linked to a second political issue, the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice.

The pro-Sharif demonstrators rallied to the cause of Chaudhry's reinstatement. Sharif began to lead a "long march" from Lahore to Islamabad, accompanied by a throng of lawyers. This coincided with other signs of instability, including tensions within Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party that led to the resignation of his information minister (in protest over a media clampdown) and a senior federal minister.

Zardari caved, restoring Chaudhry as chief justice on March 16. He also agreed to permit an appeal of the Sharif brothers' disqualification from office. Chaudhry promptly reinstated Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of Punjab.

At the height of these events the security forces briefly balked at following civilian orders, "a classic precursor indicator to the collapse of the Pakistani government," counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen told the Wall Street Journal. Since then, Pakistan has stepped back from the brink, Zardari's concessions having defused some of the anger directed at his government. But doubts remain about the government's long-term stability.

The clear winner from the chaos, Nawaz Sharif has "shrewdly aligned himself with Pakistani public opinion," White told me, "and positioned himself to be the next prime minister down the road." By the time that happens, political power may have shifted back from the presidency to the prime ministership, reversing a Musharraf-era reform.

All of this should cause concern in Washington. Sharif has been harshly critical of the U.S. role in Pakistan, and his party, according to commentator Ali Malik in the English-language Pakistani daily The News, "probably represents the single biggest segment of the Pakistani polity that is still not convinced about the urgency of the threat of religious extremism and terrorism"; indeed, the writer accuses the PML-N of having "a soft corner for the extremist elements." Sharif's illiberal attitudes, moreover, are nothing new. In a 1990 run for prime minister, he railed against Benazir Bhutto as part of an American-led "Indo-Zionist lobby."

Where would a Sharif government stand on U.S. Predator strikes carried out on Pakistani soil? The present government has been distinctly more accommodating than its predecessor. In 2007, Musharraf's last full year as president, the United States located over 20 terrorist targets in Pakistan and requested permission to strike about 15, but Pakistan's leadership approved only 3 strikes. In contrast, Zardari has authorized over 30 hits in his seven months as president, allowing the United States to eliminate several high-value targets.