Be Wary of Mr. Sharif

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By Peter Henne

Each day seems to bring worse news out of Pakistan, as US airstrikes infuriate civilians and Taliban militants attack deep inside the country. This follows a longer string of bad news, with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and a recent peace deal with the Taliban that led to the imposition of Shari’a law in the picturesque Swat Valley. Frustrated and nervous at the current ineffective Pakistani leadership, US leaders now appear to be turning to an alternative in Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister who was overthrown by Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Sharif is an effective politician, but relying on him to control the extremist threat in Pakistan and advance US interests would be a serious mistake.

It is true there are problems with the current Pakistani President, Asif ali Zardari. Zardari is the widower of Benazir Bhutto and was elected President in 2008; controversy surrounds him, dating to corruption charges from the 1990s. Moreover, he has proven less than successful in gaining broad-based support for his rule and containing the Islamist insurgency flowing over the Afghan border.

Sharif, by contrast, would likely be more effective in power. He heads one of the largest political parties in the country and is seen as relatively uncorrupted. He has also managed to tie his political return to demands for judicial reform, lending a democratic gloss to his ambitions. Finally, Sharif represents the populous Punjab district, which significantly strengthens his political base. This is due to the often-overlooked importance of the country’s ethnic divisions in its politics.

Yet, his record in power suggests he will do little to stem the steadily growing chaos. When he was Prime Minster, Sharif was highly confrontational with both domestic and foreign opponents. This culminated in a 1998 Pakistani nuclear test and the subsequent nuclear-tipped conflict with India. This brinkmanship continued with his 2007 return to power. In the midst of a dispute with Zardari in early 2009—resulting in a ban on Sharif holding office and his later reinstatement—he urged his supporters to rise up against the Zardari government and led a massive protest in March, which he called a “prelude to revolution.” Sharif thus has a tendency to exacerbate domestic and regional tension in an attempt to increase his power.

There was also a decidedly Islamic tone to Sharif’s actions. Sharif, like most Pakistani leaders, supported the Taliban in the 1990s. He explicitly appealed to Islam when justifying his actions, and tried to push a bill through Parliament that would institute Islamic law throughout Pakistan. These were likely not serious attempts to Islamize Pakistan, as he recently criticized the Zardari government for agreeing to the imposition of Shari’a in Taliban-controlled areas. However, this willingness to connect political disputes to religious beliefs bodes ill for attempts to combat religious militancy in Pakistan.

Like most of Sharif’s other actions, this was a calculated political move. That’s hardly abnormal, but the combination of his political skills, confrontational style, and willingness to appeal to Islam would complicate US efforts. True, he currently opposes Zardari’s deals with the Taliban, but he also called for outreach to other religious groups, indicating he is only averse to religious rule when it benefits his enemies. If he returns to power he will, if not support, at least tolerate continued radical activities. Moreover, Sharif coupled his criticism of Zardari’s actions with an attack on US counterinsurgency operations in the region. Given the anti-American attitudes among the Pakistani public, it is likely Sharif will leverage this anger to increase his political support, as well as appeal to religious beliefs. If the US does encourage Sharif as a replacement for Zardari, we may end up with a Pakistan ruled by a man willing to whip up both religious and anti-American sentiment in order to maintain his power.

An additional problem with supporting Sharif also points to a possible alternative. The history of US engagement with developing countries is marked by involvement with domestic politics in an attempt to advance US interests, which inevitably results in an anti-US backlash. US support of particular Pakistani figures will appear as interference, and further increase anti-Americanism in the country. Instead of picking the next person to lead Pakistan, the Obama Administration should instead determine what type of leader would best serve interests. This means creating a set of incentives through conditions on US military and political support that would induce any Pakistani leader to take action conducive to US interests, including an emphasis on counterinsurgency and economic and political reform. Continued US meddling in domestic politics will get us nowhere; instead, we need to face Pakistan’s dangerous political reality with smarter policies to maximize success in this increasingly dangerous situation.

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