The Case for Butting Out of Pakistani Politics

The United States has a history of interfering in the country's leadership. Here's why it shouldn't.

imran khan banner.jpg
Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), waves to his supporters as he leads a march in South Waziristan on October 6, 2012. (Reuters)

Pakistan's leadership transitions over the course of 2013 will complicate, perhaps even disrupt, the already tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship. As in the past, Washington may be tempted to lend support to Pakistani leaders with "pro-American" leanings. U.S. officials should resist these temptations. The United States should cast its weight behind Pakistan's constitutional, rule-based process of leadership transition.

By actively encouraging Pakistan's leaders to stick to their own rules (while otherwise standing above the political fray), the United States would improve prospects for an orderly transfer of power that would contribute to Pakistan's overall stability. Pakistani leaders who emerge from such a process may not be especially friendly to Washington, but they will at least be open to businesslike cooperation on matters of greatest U.S. concern.

Tumultuous Politics Create Near-Term Challenges

Pakistan's most powerful institutions face leadership changes in 2013. National assembly elections are expected in late spring 2013, and the opposition is favored to win. Victorious parties should form a government by summer, but the politicking will not end there. An indirect presidential election follows in September, the army chief's term ends in November, and in December the Supreme Court chief justice will reach mandatory retirement age.

All of these changes will distract Pakistan's leadership from external affairs and limit prospects for near-term bilateral cooperation. U.S. officials should give careful thought to how their actions might influence Pakistan's political environment. Counterterror operations could be particularly disruptive during the election season. U.S. drone strikes and other covert activities on Pakistani soil are broadly unpopular; if conducted in the midst of campaigning they would help mobilize support for candidates with particularly anti-American platforms and tip the balance in the next national assembly. U.S. targeting decisions throughout 2013 should give greater weight to the political costs of drone strikes as compared to their tactical benefits. Once Pakistan's sitting assembly is replaced by a caretaker government (for the two months before election day), the United States should suspend drone strikes, making exceptions only for Ayman al-Zawahiri and plotters of imminent terrorist attacks.

The Path to Political Stability

Given its size, location, and nuclear arsenal, the United States has a strong interest in Pakistan's political stability. A civilian democratic order should improve Pakistan's prospects for stability over the long run, but for now it remains a messy work in progress. Orderly transfers of power and on-time retirements cannot be taken for granted in a country with a long history of election rigging and military interference. Since 2007, Pakistan's activist chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has been an unpredictable factor. With violence in many parts of the country, political turmoil could fuel wider conflict. If Pakistan's political actors stick to the rules in 2013--win or lose--it would be a triumph for national stability.

Washington cannot dictate Pakistan's political outcomes, but it can create clear disincentives for rule-breaking.

Admittedly, sticking to the rules could elevate less friendly faces to power in Islamabad. A new batch of leaders could impede U.S. cooperation or fight among themselves. Opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has a conflictual history with the army. If his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party wins, it would set up another civil-military contest for power. Imran Khan, head of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has criticized U.S. counterterror policy, particularly drone strikes. A new chief justice is more likely to be co-opted or silenced, ending a remarkable period of judicial activism. The next army chief could--just like his two predecessors--begin his tenure by retreating from constructive diplomacy with India. He might also be less cooperative with the United States as it attempts to withdraw from Afghanistan and to accelerate the process of political dialogue with Afghan insurgents.

All of these scenarios would be setbacks for the United States, but they are manageable. The most dangerous, revolutionary scenarios will become plausible only if the process of political transition breaks down. Pakistanis might then rise in mass protest, or the army might split into factions. Recognizing these dangers, Pakistan's military and civilian leaders have all committed to following constitutional processes. The true test, however, will come when they face the imminent prospect of losing their jobs. The president, army chief, and chief justice have shown a will to power that could lead them to obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.

Bent or broken rules will threaten stability and weaken Pakistan's leaders. If the sitting government or president wins reelection through a rigged process, they would sacrifice the popular legitimacy conferred by a fair vote. That would diminish their ability to govern, deliver much-needed reforms, and expand cooperation with Washington. The United States should resist the temptation to interfere in support of friendly Pakistani faces even if they desperately seek U.S. help. Such interference could contribute to a breakdown in the political process.

Presented by

Daniel Markey

Daniel Markey is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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