Center for Strategic Communication

 By Patricia Lee Sharpe

The count’s still contested here and there—and loudly, especially in Karachi, which is no surprise. But the outcome is clear: the Pakistan Muslim League (N) won enough seats in last week’s parliamentary election to form a government all by itself. No need for coalition building in Islamabad.

That’s good. One-party government makes it easier to get things done, especially when there’s a responsible opposition to temper ideological excesses. Such an opposition the out-going People’s Party, whose lackluster performance in power made electoral defeat inevitable, has pledged itself to be.  Even so, the PPP won slightly more seats in Parliament than the perky new kid on the block, the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice Party) founded by ex-cricketeer Imran Khan, which had hoped to win a parliamentary majority.  The U.S. should be happy.  Khan has been very critical of Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.

A Milestone

Before we start looking toward the future via a rather murky crystal ball, let’s pause to note an important milestone. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the 2013 election will allow a civilian-led government to hand the baton to another civilian government. U. S. President Barack Obama has already congratulated PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, and maybe this time—having been granted a third go as Pakistan’s Prime Minister—Nawaz will manage to complete a term in office. In 1999, Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf, with whom Nawaz had just waged (and lost) a high-altitude, mid-winter, mini-war against India, staged a coup and sent him scampering into exile in Saudi Arabia.

A New Nawaz?

“I’ve mellowed.” So says Nawaz, but the world around him may have changed more than he has. To name just a few of the more dramatic events of the past decade or so: the Twin Towers catastrophe in New York; U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq; the rise of drone warfare; the elimination of Osama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein; the Arab spring and its messy aftermath; the still raging civil war in Syria; the earth-shaking awakening of the Chinese dragon; the death of Kim Jung Il.There’s more, but the point has been made.

A New Military?

Nawaz also faces a different Chief of Army Staff.

Many times during the lead up to last  Saturday’s polling, I thought that the level of election-related violence—car bombs set off; candidates, party officials and ordinary people murdered; a high-level kidnapping—must surely have reached coup level. The Army would step in, declaring with the usual paternalistic panache that poor old Pakistan still isn’t ready for democracy. It didn’t happen.

Perhaps the Pakistani military under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has also mellowed. At the very least, Kayani honored his pledge (or inclination) to keep the Army out of the electoral process, even if that meant the Pakistani Taliban’s selective violence might skew the results toward parties they gauged to be more sympathetic to the Islamist cause. Taliban targets tended to belong to the MQM, the PPP and the AWP, all openly secular in orientation.  An interesting note: the PML-N insists that it too was harrassed, as if Nawaz feels some need to show there’s air and light between him and the Taliban.  Even more important: Taliban threats notwithstanding, people in most constituencies flocked to the polls to exercise their right to vote.

Maybe the Army remained aloof from the elections because Kayani is waiting for a better excuse to show who’s boss in Pakistan.  A possible cause for a fatal sting: if and when Nawaz moves to initiate a bona fide normalization of relations with arch-enemy India. Ex-businessman Nawaz says he wants more trade, and he has already invited India’s Prime Minister to the inauguration of his government on June 2.

Why would the Army object to this? Simple.  Peace with India might shrink the military budget.  It might also erode the officer corps’s standing in the Pakistani pecking order. What’s more, should private business take off in a serious way, the many enterprises controlled by well-paid ex-army officers would lose their commanding position in the Pakistani economy.  In short, friendship with India and a thriving civilian-based economy would undermine the rationale for the existing military establishment.

The China Factor

But what if a new threat were already on the horizon, another would be hegemon offering another border to police aggressively?  Iran, obviously, would not qualify, but how about China in its current high-handed expansionist mood? 

Even a neighbor like little Myanmar has discovered that reliance on China’s apparent benevolence can be much too much of an initially good thing. For years China was a reliable, lucrative importer of minerals and forest products, a friend who wasn’t picky about human rights. Then China got overbearing and dictatorial.  So the junta in Myanmar started democratizing, freeing the economy and making friends with the U.S. Although a displeased China has begun to stir up the border tribes  it helpfully pacified for so many years, Myanmar’s opening to the West continues.  President U Thein Sein, will be visiting the White House soon. U.S. human rights activists consider his visit to be premature. Foreign policy realists, watching as China aggressively probes  terrestrial and maritime boundaries, are not unhappy. Those realists might also be sympathetic to keeping Pakistan’s army in a state of readiness, more or less allied with India, in a quiet watch across the Himalayas, where the U.S. certainly does not want to deploy its own troops.

There’s another way for Nawaz to keep Pakistan’s military well-funded and content, but it entails continued cooperation in the U.S. war against violent extremists. It also requires Pakistan’s acquiescence in the use of drones in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Carefully handled, this is entirely possible. The Pakistani military, however sympathetic to some degree of Islamization, would hardly enjoy the prospect of taking orders from mullahs, and Pakistan is not always unhappy to be rid of prime U.S. targets.   The U.S. can probably get away with not always consulting about targets and timing, but the price will be high in damage to the U.S. image among ordinary Pakistanis.   The Americans will always be the fall guys for serious mistakes, i.e, deaths with negative resonance in Pakistan.

Speaking of official visits, Li Kequiang, China’s new foreign minister, will shortly be visiting both India and Pakistan en route to meetings in Germany and Switzerland. Touching base with the new government in Pakistan makes good sense. It also makes sense for the fledgling government in Beijing to get an unmediated feel for the mood in India, where Congress control of the central government is shaky. Of particular interest to Pakistan is that India and China have resolved, for the moment, a spat over their  never formalized border in Ladakh. 

Pakistan’s borders are equally subject to challenge and have already been adjusted once to China’s advantage. That experience notwithstanding, a cash-strapped Pakistan allowed China to build the trans-Karakoram highway, making possible a land route from western China to the Indian Ocean where China is heavily subsidizing the construction of a deep water port at Gwador. There’s only one problem with this little gift. Gwador is poorly located for trade from and to the populated areas of Pakistan, but it’s a quick and cheap beeline route from Western China to the sea.  The Soviets didn’t build the Salang Tunnel to make the Afghans happy; they were really building a nifty invasion route.  Playing China off against India and the U.S. might seem clever but could be disastrous.

The Kashmir Problem

Re-cementing relations with the U.S. and achieving rapprochement with India won’t be easy for Nawaz, because it’s not clear that Kayani is ready to wash his hands of the militant  Islamist organizations the ISI has used as proxies to make trouble for India in Kashmir (and for the U.S. in Afghanistan).  No less obstructive, Pakistan’s nationalists and its traditionally Islamist parties are, once again, clamoring for a solution to the long festering Kashmir problem.  Solution, in this case, means incorporating the entire territory into Pakistan, including the valley that India has administered, not always wisely, for a half century.  Most Kashmiris may be Muslim, but India will not surrender this territory without the equivalent of mortal combat, and (even more interesting) most Kashmiris do not want to join Pakistan.  Nevertheless, when Nawaz (or anyone else) proposes to talk trade with India, he will encounter the demand to solve the Kashmir problem first.  It’s the sort of argument that’s habitually used to sabatage the least hint of improved relations between israel and Palestine.  

An Existential Moment?

India, trade, China—none of this will matter until the big issue is confronted.   Whatever the distribution of power between them, the new civilian government and the Army under Kayani face a watershed decision. They can cooperate to quell an insurgency with existential implications for the present form of government or they can allow the Taliban to overwhelm the status quo. The Army was supposed to have dislodged the militants who had taken control of the Swat Valley. Nevertheless, a zealot almost killed the schoolgirl Malala Yusufsai, who had the good fortune to be med-evaced to the U.K. She will survive to continue to champion education for girls. Will Nawaz and Kayani throw her under the school bus?

Past civilian governments have been too weak to eradicate violent extremism, while Pakistan’s military dictators have kept the street peaceful by kowtowing to religious militants. If Nawaz and Kayani cannot cooperate, the tail will soon be wagging the dog. Iran will look like paradise compared to rule by the Pakistani Taliban. We’ve seen the prelude in Afghanistan.

Who is Nawaz?

So how much wiggle room does Nawaz have? And how much does he really want vis-à-vis India and Islamist insurgency? Nawaz himself belongs to a fairly conservative sect. Unlike the Bhuttos, who spent exile in London and the Emirates, Nawaz headed to Saudi Arabia, where support for salafism throughout the Muslim world originates.  Outside funding notwithstanding, within Pakistan itself there has never been significant electoral support for Islamist political parties.  The recent election was no exception. Even in Khyber-Paktunkwa, the Islamists couldn’t capture a majority of legislative assembly seats.

We are, I think, left with a paradox. Nawaz Sharif appears to be a known factor, yet all we really know is that Pakistani policy under the PML-N could go in many different directions, none under U.S. control. In this situation, diplomacy will serve better than drones and CIA sub-contractors.  Nor, though many politicians are for sale, will money alone be the deciding factor.