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.
"Sharif has said that the United States needs to end drone strikes," according to Kamran Bokhari, the director of Middle East analysis at the private intelligence firm STRATFOR. "Though he knows that you will say one thing when you're out of office, but do different things when in office, it would be difficult for Sharif to work aggressively with the United States in the war on terror." Most likely, Sharif would narrow the circumstances in which drone strikes could be authorized.
And in two other policy areas, a Sharif government would likely be uncongenial to the United States. It would probably take a more aggressive stance toward Kashmir, detracting from the fight against jihadists. "If Pakistan's military is geared to fight India," a high-level Pakistani official asked me, "how can they fight insurgents?"
And Sharif would likely push for the extension of sharia law, as he did both times he was prime minister (in 1990-1993 and 1997-1999). While this probably wouldn't threaten U.S. strategic interests, it would bode ill for Pakistan's women and religious minorities.
Sharif is aided in his rise by a sympathetic media, who ignore his shortcomings and help him "cultivate the image of a strong man who does not budge from his stance," in the words of commentator Yahya Hussaini. Officials in Zardari's government raised this concern with me. One complained that several recent pro-Sharif rallies were shown repeatedly on television before they had attracted many participants, and that the saturation coverage helped to increase their size.
The strong anti-American strand in Pakistan's media, moreover, indirectly aids Sharif. Thus, the message behind one music video that played frequently on Pakistani television during the recent crisis was that Pakistan's problems are caused by the American war in Afghanistan, not by jihadism. The video portrays a sinister-looking CIA agent and a cigar-smoking President Zardari cackling as a Predator strike kills an unjustly imprisoned Pakistani man who escapes from prison determined to "change the system of the country." Elsewhere in Pakistan's media, conspiracy-minded figures like commentator Ahmed Quraishi, who sees the hidden hand of the United States and India behind virtually all of Pakistan's ills, are reaching new prominence.
Against this turbulent backdrop, President Obama has correctly noted that Pakistan should not be given blank checks; in the past, the United States often failed to gear its aid toward American strategic interests. Pakistan remains the critical country in the war against al Qaeda, yet too little aid has been directed toward counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operations.
At the same time, the United States cannot be seen as meddling excessively in internal affairs. The challenge is to avoid that error, while still giving meaningful support where appropriate. The United States has a poor reputation for supporting its allies in times of crisis, and it is important that this view of America not be reinforced. With Nawaz Sharif waiting in the wings, Washington should be keenly aware that Zardari's government is far better aligned with America's strategic interests.