Sharif’s Return Shouldn’t Change Our Strategy in Pakistan


Significant events are unfolding inside Pakistan, most recently with reports within the past few hours that former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, who was exiled for corruption, has been cleared by Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry to return to Pakistan. Judge Chaudhry himself was recently reinstated after an attempt by President Pervez Musharraf to fire him, a move which sparked popular street protests.
Sharif’s return is big news, especially considering the fact that Musharraf has been negotiating a deal with another former PM exiled for corruption, Benazir Bhutto, for her return to Pakistan in exchange for her support of the beleaguered president. The deal would purportedly involve some sort of power sharing arrangement that would allow Bhutto to run as the head of her party (PPP) and vie for the prime minister’s seat again while Musharaf would step down as army chief of staff but remain President.
The return of Sharif appears to further weaken Musharraf’s presidency, which has been beset by the perfect storm of emboldened opposition and protests from militant Islamic, judicial, and democratic forces. While some popular discontent may be healthy and stir up important changes, a number of myths are bound to arise out of this recent news.
The first is the “democracy rising” myth — while the popular gloss on Sharif’s return will spin this as further evidence of a nascent democratic revolution ready to topple a military regime, Anatol Lieven reminds us that these parties, though laced with democratic rhetoric, are in fact factions led by feudal, land-owning elites that rely on patronage networks. Pakistan may be moving towards democratic openings but we’d be remiss to think that political parties like Bhutto’s PPP or Sharif’s PML are primed to fully take on the responsibility of democratic governance.
The second myth surrounds the role of the military. Democratically elected leaders are no more likely to suddenly dispense with Pakistan’s intransigence when it comes to fighting the Taliban. The country is too plagued by ethnic and religious fissures for any government to swiftly crackdown on the Northwest Frontier Province, where Taliban fighters are reported to be taking refuge, and civilian leaders have historically thrown up their hands and deferred to the military to control unrest.
Former State Department official Daniel Markey recently penned a thoughtful and sober account of Pakistan’s military as the bulwark institution of the country that is not going away anytime soon. Like many military governments in the region, the Pakistani military and has been far more effective (and less corrupt) than civilian institutions and, for better or worse, has assumed significant governance capacities critical to the country. Markey suggests that pulling the Pakistani military even closer with US aid, joint training, and intelligence sharing, will afford the US considerable leverage to push for a heavier hand against al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as a gradual democratic transition.
I’ve remarked to some colleagues that space-time continuum has been ruptured when Anatol Lieven, Peter Beinart, and a former administration official all agree on roughly the same approach — to encourage democratic openings like the Musharraf-Bhutto deal while acknowledging the critical role the military will continue to play.
Sharif may be returning to Pakistan and whispers may resume of a democratic alliance with Bhutto, his once and future political nemesis, but the fact that Pakistan heavily relies on military stewardship for governance and security is unlikely to change in the near future since civilian governments have routinely failed at the job.
–Sameer Lalwani


20 comments on “Sharif’s Return Shouldn’t Change Our Strategy in Pakistan

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  2. Arun says:

    The events seem to be leaving the US “wise” behind. Elections may not equal democracy, but being able to change leaders after definite intervals is an improvement over the alternative.
    I suggest you listen long and hard to Congressman and Presidential Candidate Ron Paul.


  3. MP says:

    Please, please, please keep in mind that elections do not equal democracy.
    Posted by David N at August 25, 2007 02:52 PM
    So, so, so true.


  4. eatbees says:

    Does anyone here want to talk about Imran Khan, who has been a vocal critic of Musharraf, U.S. meddling AND some of the hard-line Islamist groups linked to state security? Coverage in the U.S. doesn’t seem to mention him at all. Is this because he’s an irrelevant bit player? Why should we assume that Pakistan will once again choose either Sharif or Bhutto with their baggage of clan rivalries as some commenters have mentioned?
    Here is an article from the August 14 Sunday Telegraph which mentions that Khan has been in discussions with Sharif (before the court ruling) and goes on to say:
    “Khan says he has never doubted that he will one day lead his country. ‘I am ready to become a power in Pakistani politics, not necessarily in power. I only want to be in power if I have a clear majority. … But I wouldn’t want to be in a coalition because you have to compromise too much. Musharraf said he would like me as his prime minister. But if you are serious about politics you cannot be associated with corruption or a military dictator.'”
    It’s occurred to me that Chaudhry too might be tempted to launch an electoral career, given all the grassroots support he’s received. After ruling on Musharraf’s unconstitutional dual roles, that is. Or is he happy as Chief Justice? He’s probably enjoying himself now…
    In any event, it sickens me to hear the American presidential candidates whose knowledge of Pakistan is skin deep. It’s true that Musharraf is no longer a reliable pawn of American interests. But neither Clinton nor Obama seems able to look past him. Obama was imagining a future in which he’d have to hit al-Qaida without Musharraf’s permission, but what if Musharraf is no longer in power? I want to hear Obama tell us how he would deal with a new democratic Pakistan, should one emerge.


  5. Arun says:

    It was the Army/intelligence apparatus that was supporting the Taliban actively. Pakistan has had since the 1950s a divided government, with the Army fully or behind the scenes in control.
    Sharia law was no objection to the US support to Zia ul Haq, but aha, dictators embody US Foreign Desk values more than elected leaders.
    Look, does not keep archives, otherwise you could see my credentials are strongly anti-Pakistani over a decade of Pakistan watching; but angry as I am, I glimpse a chance of major improvement in Pakistan.


  6. David N says:

    Does no one have any memory?
    I was on the India desk when Musharaf seized power. At the time, the problem for our policy was that this was clearly an anti-democratic act, and had to be met with sanctions, but Sharif was just as anti-democratic, and was moving Pakistan in the direction of a radical Muslim state. He had officially implemented Sharia law, and was actively supporting the Taliban.
    Yes, Musharaf is a military dictator. Yes, Sharif was elected. But neither choice was ever a good one, because there was a real perception that Musharaf was far closer to a liberal democrat than Sharif was.
    Please, please, please keep in mind that elections do not equal democracy.


  7. Shaan says:

    Having read Sameer Lalwani’s preposterous analysis I can imagine he is someone of Subcontinental origin currently residing in the USA.
    “The first is the “democracy rising” myth — while the popular gloss on Sharif’s return will spin this as further evidence of a nascent democratic revolution ready to topple a military regime, Anatol Lieven reminds us that these parties, though laced with democratic rhetoric, are in fact factions led by feudal, land-owning elites that rely on patronage networks.”
    Anyone living in Pakistan these days would regard the above judgment as sheer dipstick nonsense.
    For the first time in 60 years there is a wind of freedom wafting throughout the Pakistan – the demand to protect the free press and the independence of judiciary has become a street catch cry. Musharraf and the military get abused everywhere – this includes the non-elitist rickshaw drivers / paan-wallahs and people in the chaikhanas.
    It is purely and simply a profound anti-Musharraf movement and people like Nawaz Sharif have become the lucky circumstantial beneficiaries.
    Lalwani’s ‘logic’ is probably as accurate as George Tennet’s ‘slam dunk’ views on WMDs in Iraq.
    I suggest you guys opine about something that you are more familiar with.


  8. Arun, seer of irony says:

    “Sharif’s Return Shouldn’t Change Our Strategy in Pakistan”
    “….ask herself why her advisors are pushing her into anachronistic, 20th century grooves — and not ones aimed at a clear-headed and consistent 21st century vision for the country.”
    -both are quotes from this site’s bloggers. One reads them in conjunction and then can only scratch one’s head in bewilderment.


  9. Arun says:

    “Anatol Lieven reminds us that these parties, though laced with democratic rhetoric, are in fact factions led by feudal, land-owning elites that rely on patronage networks.”
    I’d like to point out that **NO** country began its democratic experiment with anything other than the elites, often land-owning, even slave-owning! Not England, not the US, not India, and why should Pakistan be an exception?


  10. Arun says:

    I want to say that the following is unprecedented in Pakistan, but trust the American foreign policy establishment to lose this opportunity.
    “Luckily for the ordinary citizens of Pakistan the Supreme Court appears to be in an unforgiving mood. Today the court threatened to imprison the Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA),Tariq Pervez, unless he produced the missing Abdul Basit – whom Pervez had arrested in January 30 2004 – within the next twenty-four hours.”


  11. Arun says:

    This also from I suggest readers at least flip through it before concurring with the American experts.
    “What do Pakistanis really want?
    In the past year, thanks to Aaj and other TV news channels – beginning with Akbar Bugti’s murder and followed by the crisis over the Chief Justice and the Lal Masjid debacle – Musharraf and his generals have been exposed as arrogant blundering incompetents out only to preserve their own selfish interests. These people are also now widely blamed for the insurgency in Balochistan and the cancerous spread of extremism in FATA and elsewhere.
    Not surprisingly the vast majority of the public in Pakistan (as opposed to a few non-resident Pakistanis in the UK and US) want to get rid of military interference in politics for good.
    They long for an independent judiciary, a free press and an accountability of their political rulers – in short they want a full-fledged democracy with all its trappings.
    With an accountable government there is hope that a rule of law will finally emerge. People desperately wish for justice and an end to the corrupt anarchy that currently exists.
    This of course does not concur with what the US wants.”


  12. Arun says:

    >>>Like many military governments in the region, the Pakistani military and has been far more effective (and less corrupt) than civilian institutions and, for better or worse, has assumed significant governance capacities critical to the country.<<<<
    You’re joking, right? It is illegal in Pakistan to criticize the Armed Forces; it has never been illegal to criticize the civilian politicians. So guess whom you get to hear more about?
    Let us also note this from
    “One point which has become increasingly obvious is that Musharraf’s politics have made the army extremely unpopular in its traditional heartland of central and upper Punjab.”


  13. MP says:

    Posted by easy e at August 23, 2007 09:38 PM
    I guess he paid attention to my phone call.


  14. jhm says:

    If the military is to play such a pivotal role in our future Pakistan policy, and Musharraf is to relinquish control, wouldn’t we be well served to discuss who’s in line to succeed him in this area, and what factions exist within the military?


  15. easy e says:

    Off topic: Warner breaks ranks


  16. TonyForesta says:

    Pakistan is one majik bullet away from jihadist nukes. This grim reality forces America to walk a delicate line with Musharef. Though hardly a shining example of democracy, Pakistan is working in whatever way possible to contrain jihadists from siezing power. Musharef entered into questionable alliances with jihadist and talibani’s in the Peshawar to stabilize the entire nation of Pakistan. He has imposed dictatorial authority, not unlike Bush and Cheney to maintain his powers, but the threats are everywhere present. Musharraf does not allow US forces into Pakistan for these very same reasons, recognizing that the general hatred of the fascists in the Bush government, and by proxy America could all to easily tip the scales and make his continued hold on power, not to mention his life that much more threatened.
    The Bush governments incompetence, brutal aggression, pathological lies, wanton profiteerin, and woeful mismanagement force American leadership in the futre to tacitly support yet another tyrannical dictator who just happens to share the single interest of preventing our shared jihadist enemies from siezing power.
    Musharrafs latest moves are an attempt to buttress his faltering leadership with voices and constituencies that will assist him along these lines of self preservation, and a self preservation, that for better or worse is in America’s strategic interests.
    Whatever happens to Musharraf is critical to the future of America, because right now he and his military are the only force preventing jihdists from siezing control of Pakistans nukes.
    “Deliver us from evil!”


  17. Willy says:

    Replacing Pervez Musharraf with Nawaz Sharif is replacing one corrupt crook with another corrupt crook. Does the Bush administration really believe instating mr. Sharif would make a difference ? I think all they want is a ally who obeys the orders coming out of Washington.
    Will mr. Sharif be seen as a puppet on a (american) string ? Does mr. Sharif have any credibility with the Pakistani people ? If not, then the radical muslims will prevail in the long run.
    By supporting the afghans in the 1980s the US has also helped radical muslims in Pakistan to increase their influence. The rise of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida is the direct result of the meddling from the USA in afghanistan in the 1980s.
    Whether one likes it or not Pakistan is on the path of becoming a muslim theocracy. And that
    is what many americans and the US government simply fail to grasp.


  18. JohnH says:

    it would be nice to know exactly what the US strategy in Pakistan is. What is described here sounds more like “accept Pakistan for what it is,” hardly much of a strategy. And, considering reports of possible links between Pakistani intelligence services and Al Qaeda, it doesn’t sound like the US has a clue on how to develop an effective strategy. As for training the Pakistani military, I’m sure they would appreciate all the training they can get, though it’s probably presumptuous to think that that would buy their allegiance.
    Add Pakistan to the list of quandries–Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan–for which the US has no real answers.


  19. S Brennan says:

    This particular Pakistani dance was dated when Zia did it, now it is so ancient I’m surprised it hasn’t ossified.


  20. Jeff Dexter says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your stark assessment. You have clearly anticipated the inevitable headlines in tomorrow’s papers- “Pakistan cleared a stumbling block in the way of full democratization.” Pakistan has been down this road before and while military rule is currently waning, expect it to rise again. In fact, even behind the scenes the military brass and ISI still control the levers of power in Pakistan.


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