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COMMENTARY: After Pakistan’s elections, a troubled alliance ‘drones’ on

K.M. CHAUDARY/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted by a coup in 1999, was recently elected back into office.

ELON, N.C.—There is an old saying in Pakistani politics: Only three A’s matter, “Allah, Army, and America.”

For a country that has endured four military dictators, this spring has seen something new: the completion of a full term by an elected civilian government, followed by the orderly transfer of power to another elected government.

Make that relatively orderly. There was Taliban violence. The return of the last military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to general indifference. A sensational campaign led by a former cricketer who fell from a stage and finished the race in a neck brace. The death of a rare white tiger, mascot for the winning party, from heat exposure at a marathon rally. For media scribes eager to chronicle a freak show, it all made for great copy.

The victory belonged to Nawaz Sharif, the two-time prime minister ousted by Musharraf’s coup in 1999. Before that, Sharif was best known outside Pakistan for ordering the country’s 1998 nuclear tests, which strained relations with the United States. We may be in for more hard times ahead.

Particularly as the Arab Spring has lost its bloom, Americans are coming to understand that democracy does not necessarily mean things get easier for the United States in the Muslim world. Last June, a Pew Research survey found that three in five Pakistanis had “no confidence” in President Obama, three in four considered America an “enemy,” and four in five had an “unfavorable” view of the United States.

Though every American knows that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, few know much else about the world’s sixth-largest country. What does the “AAA” thesis tell us about its struggles with democracy?

Pakistan’s architect, the Anglicized lawyer–politician Mohammad Ali Jinnah, thought he was establishing a secular, not Islamic, state for Muslims amid the British withdrawal from India in 1947. But when Jinnah died the following year, he became a portrait on the wall, gazing down on heirs who have argued over the nature of the state ever since.

Pakistan did not have a constitution until 1956. The first military takeover came two years later. The Army long has seen itself as the only institution capable of protecting Pakistan from the internal threat of dysfunctional democracy and the external threat of a stronger India.

Pakistan and America have a history that goes back to the early Cold War, when the fledgling state sought a patron–protector and the superpower sought an accommodating ally. Often, when the U.S. has needed Pakistan’s help, it has found it under military rule. Over time, our support for the Army has undermined trust with civilian leaders.

Of late, the biggest thorn has been U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan, from which Taliban elements attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and al–Qaida remnants plot terror. Drone strikes escalated dramatically over Obama’s first term. A recent sharp decline, timed to Pakistan’s election, did not prevent drones from becoming a central issue.

An overwhelming majority in Pakistan sees the aerial drone as a sovereignty violation and a national humiliation. It is the mark of an aloof America that fetishizes technological omnipotence and stands ready to “abandon” Pakistan, much as it did after the Soviet exit from Afghanistan a quarter century ago.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the last few years have tarnished the image of Pakistan’s Army as well. Its generals cannot claim a patriotic edge over civilian leaders when both are complicit in a strategic “partnership” that permits America to strike Pakistani territory at will.

The Army’s image problem may keep it from overtly intervening in politics again, but it also poses risks for relations with rival India. Tensions have increased this year in disputed Kashmir. Previously, Sharif pursued peace with India only to see the Army provoke a war.

Now, in a major policy speech at National Defense University in Washington, Obama admits that our drones have killed innocents and may be “counterproductive.” But he stands firm in defending limited strikes—even as Pakistan demands that they end altogether.

Public opinion will compel Sharif to condemn American policy, even with limitations on drone use. American leverage over Pakistan will soon decrease as our troop presence in Afghanistan draws down in 2014.

The road ahead will not be easy for the U.S. in Pakistan, but Sharif’s government represents the choice of the people. Its very existence is a win for democracy. And if Sharif can resume talks with India, he will be taking steps to defuse the world’s highest-stakes conflict.

It isn’t always about us.

Jason A. Kirk is associate professor of political science at Elon University. He can be reached at jkirk2@elon.edu.

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