Obama and Pakistani Politics

The huge news out of Pakistan this week is that cronies of President Asif Zardari (widower of Benzair Bhutto) in the Supreme Court have banned Zardari’s primary rival former PM Nawaz Sharif from holding office.  This is the latest desperate ploy from Zardari’s shaky coalition to stave off an eventual challenge (and undoubtedly defeat) of Zardari from Sharif.

There is a deep irony to this ruling as Bhutto-Zardari rode to power and overthrew Pervez Musharraf because of Musharraf’s dictatorial ham-fisted sacking of then Chief Justice Iftikfar Muhammad Chaudry.  Bhutto and then later her husband (after her murder) ran on a platform of reinstating Chaudry (which has not yet happened though Zardari did release him from house arrest).

Zardari, much like his predecessor, is using the Courts to overturn a real democratic principle to the country.  President Bush was left with the choice of what to do when Musharraf declared martial law–as you may recall he rather ignorantly stated that Musharraf was suspending democracy in order to save democracy because he was against the terrorists who hate freedom (impeccable logic to be sure).

What will Obama do with this situation? He ran on and has taken since in office a very hardline stance against The Taliban, including now the Pakistani Taliban.

Zardari is the most pro-American of the civilian politicians in Pakistan. He owes  his rule to the US engineered coup that brought his wife to power which ultimately led to her horrific death. The history of the US intervening in Pakistani politics in order to see governments pliable to US will has usually had the unintended, reverse, and negative effect of strengthening anti-US forces while de-stabilizing democracy/civilian rule in the country.

Nawaz Sharif would at this point mop the floor with Zardari in an open election.  Sharif is popular because of his strong relations with the networks of madrassas, religious piety, closer ties to the Taliban (though interestingly it was Bhutto during her PM-ship when the Pakistani policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban first started).  Sharif is running on a platform of anti-American Pakistani national sovereignity.  He opposes sending the Pakistani Army (as both Musharraf and Zardari have done) into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to fight Pakistani Taliban.

Sharif has put enough pressure on Zardari that Zardari (perhaps fearing another in Pakistan’s long line of military takeovers of power) has signed an initial truce with The Pakistani Taliban allowing for Sharia in the FATA.  The US is not happy about this decision.  Whether the truce will last or rather is simply a temporary calm for both sides to re-supply, re-train, and re-arm is up in the air.

But Obama for his plan in Afghanistan to work has to be very careful.  The history of the region suggests that any sanctuary for insurgents across the Durand Line in Pakistan makes any rule over  the country of Afghanistan impossible (ask the British, The Soviets, even Alexander the Great).

If Obama does nothing and lets the truce stay, then Pashtun-istan will become the haven for The Taliban to cross over and camp out in the winter and then re-attack when the snows melt in the spring.  If he pushes too hard for the Pakistani Army to go back, he could further weaken Zardari’s already tenuous hold on power and bring in either a returned military dictatorship and/or a coup or future election bringing Sharif to power who will oppose the US using Pakistani airspace, much less their army.

The first thing I think the US needs to consider is whether the Pakistani Taliban do or do not want to overthrow the Pakistani government.  Whether they simply want to rule the SWAT/FATA and be left alone or in fact do seek a total takeover of the Pakistani state.  I tend to think the former, but I admit it’s not a clear cut case. But if it is the former, then increased attacks on them could backfire creating blowback within the Pakistani state as we have seen with the horrible attacks in Islamabad.

The Pakistani Taliban have an asymmetric advantage in a fight against the Pakistani Army.  And while the US special forces are training a Pak Army built for war against India (why on the earth that stupid setup still exists for another day) in COIN population-centric warfare, I just don’t know if that will do the trick.

The logic behind a (lasting) truce is an attempted buy in or co-opting of these groups into a governing position, allowing them then to be potentially opposed from within the now enlarged bounds of politics.  But it too could backfire if the desire of these groups exists beyond the NWFP and FATA.

On the other hand, a truce with the Pakistani government while embedding a certain faction of the insurgents into ruling positions also leaves them open to say form an alliance to focus their efforts on attacking NATO in Afghanistan.  If that Guardian report is true, it is very problematic for the Afghanistan military mission.  In theory only a concerted pincher effort with NATO and an Afghan Army from the East and Pakistan from the West could do the trick.  But that assumes the Pakistani government wants something other than a Taliban or Taliban-like/Pashtun-friendly regime in Afghanistan.  The Karzai government is far closer to India (the lens through which Pakistan sees Afghanistan).  It would require a mass diplomatic triple bank shot to force a regional agreement relative to Afghanistan. Til then Afghanistan is sadly the pawn of India-Pakistan, Russia/NATO friction concerning influence in Central Asia, and China’s potential exercise of power in the region.  As a totally radical alternative, there is always fighting an entirely different kind of battle in an entirely different part of the country.

And if that wasn’t a tough enough nut to crack, Obama also has a potentially serious constitutional political crisis brewing next door in Afghanistan, where ertswhile likely to be defeated President Karzai is trying to move up the date of the Presidential Elections in order to stave off the loss staring him in the face.  Obama has not shown a great fondness for Karzai so if Karzai were able to pull off this authoritarian-lite move, it may just give Obama the rationale he needs to cut him loose and break with him.  On the other hand, if Karzai fails to have the elections moved up, this gambit makes all but assures him of coming defeat.  Look for the US/NATO to push for a more strongman type figure to come to power in Afghanistan.

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8 thoughts on “Obama and Pakistani Politics

  1. Perhaps I missed it, but neither you or the article you link mention the reason the Court barred Nawaz Sharif from running for office.

    This from the AP, “The court was hearing appeals against a ruling barring Sharif from contesting elections because of a criminal conviction dating back to his overthrow in a coup by former dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999. It was also considering allegations of irregularities in brother Shahbaz’s election to the provincial parliament.”

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  2. I agree with Mr. Kain. Aside from the moral aspects of telling (or forcing) other countries to do our bidding, there’s the practical aspect – we’re utterly clueless about most other countries in the world, how they work, who the players are, etc. What makes anyone think that our assistance (ie, meddling or dominance) is going to do these places any good?

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  3. Bob,

    It’s true the Sharif brothers are no saints to put it very mildly. But basically every big name Pakistani pol is corrupt. When his wife was PM, current Prez Zardari was known as “Mr. 10%”–ie the cut he got on everything. He used his ties to her to form all kinds of illegal, shady business deals. So if Sharif can be withheld from office via corruption charges than Zardari shouldn’t be President. Except that Zardari has his dudes in the Court and not the other way around.

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  4. ED, Scott

    No two ways about it. This is a 15 dimensional chess game simultaneously. Here unlike Iraq or Iran there is an actual danger (albeit generally overhyped) that an attack on the US soil could emanate from this region of the world if left unchecked. I think the better position for the US would be to foster regional security agreements–that Sec. Clinton welcomed Iran back to talks on Afghanistan is a good start in that direction.

    I imagine they’ll try some population-centric COIN thing in Afghanistan which I’m sure could reduce violence somewhat but I’m not sure what it could do politically other than cement a further fragmentation of the country. If they are hoping for both a COIN and a strongman type (like Maliki?) and the Pakistani Army taking it to the ungoverned areas, boy that’s a lot to ask.

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  5. Zardari is the most pro-American of the civilian politicians in Pakistan.

    Right — and in this sentence you sum up the problem, that “pro-Americanness” is not the property that Pakistanis vote on but it’s a property that they’re very aware of. So a corrupt pro-American can discredit pro-Americanism; a trustworthy anti-American can inflame anti-Americanism. If US policy was built on supporting the party that seemed to likely to do the best job of running the country well (and in a somewhat democratic fashion, which rules out the otherwise tolerable Musharraf) rather than the one that seemed most “pro-American” regardless of compentance/cleanness, I think things would work out better in the long run. (Even better — be willing to work with anyone who falls within a fairly broad range of acceptability and beyond that don’t try to influence outcomes at all. But this might be too much to hope for).

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  6. In Pakistani politics two elements are very important first is Washington and second is Pakistan Army. In this time Washington standing with Pakistani Politician in history Washington always was with Pakistan Army but now they want to destroy power of Army first they attacked on I.S.I in short words Washington playing a worse game to destabilize Pakistan.
    Inside story is different that Pakistan is an atomic power of world and U.S.A has not been accepted as Atomic power to Pakistan they want to divide Pakistan and I.S.I is Pakistan’s first line of defence, so it’s easy to understand why Indian and U.S.A blaming to I.S.I., U.S.A will never do any thing for Intrest of Pakistan U.S.A always want to see violence in Pakistan.

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