May 5, 2009

Political Chairs

Nawaz Sharif come on down! You are the next contestant on Pakistan is Wrong. Though shunned in the past, you now have every quality needed to save Pakistan. Let’s start the bidding!

Pakistani politics have become a game-show, or better yet a game of musical chairs, with politicians and strategy rotating to the beat of outsiders. But Pakistan is not a game and shouldn’t be treated so shortsightedly.

American officials claim that Sharif isn’t being pursued at the expense of president Asif Zardari, but rather to enlist him in the battle against the Taliban. Sharif, who's own term as prime minister was cut short by Musharraf, has been tainted by connections to Islamic radicals, but now these connections are in demand. Only a year ago he was marginalized in favor of Benazir Bhutto. He was useless.

The past is forgotten now that he’s useful.

America has long based its Pakistani policy on self interest, starting with the support of several generals, Ayub Khan and Zia-Ul-Haq, in the 1960’s and 80’s. They ruled by force and disdained democracy, but each obtained billions of dollars in American aid in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union. This support was famously challenged by Benazir Bhutto, who warned that America was “creating a frankenstein.”

The pro-American Bhutto became prime minister in 1988, but American-Pakistani relations had cooled by 1990. Pakistan, without Russia to ally against, had little use to an America already shifting its attention to the Persian Gulf. America cut off aid to Pakistan over disagreement with its nuclear program.

In a New Yorker article published in 1993, Seymour M. Hersh quotes an American official: “The Paks understood us better than we understood ourselves. They knew that once the Soviets were whipped in Afghanistan we wouldn’t need them anymore. Would we unilaterally defend Pakistan? Never. Our relationship with Pakistan was to counter the Soviet-Indian relationship. The Pakistanis knew that time was limited. And that’s why they went balls out on the nuclear program. Benazir never had a chance.”

War is the music and chairs stand for use. The game is played while the war drum beats and ends when individual use expires. Then the chair is pulled out from underneath.

America came crawling back to Pakistan after 9/11. General Pervez Musharraf had his uses, stifling democracy but taking modest action against the Taliban and al Qaida. He evaporated when his usage dried up. In came Asif Zardari, benefiting indirectly from American support for Bhutto and directly from his perceived use to fight the Taliban.

Now in hot water, boiling away his utility, Zardari’s future has entered the Twilight Zone. No one is sure where America stands with him; murkiness has circulated rumors that America is seeking to bolster Sharif. Once again use is the decider. Officials credit their interest in the ex-prime minister to “working with the opposition,” but American aid has always gone to those in charge of Pakistan.

“We do of course want to have a close relationship with Nawaz Sharif and his brother,” special ambassador Richard Holbrooke said. “We have not distanced ourselves from President Zardari. We have the highest strategic interests in supporting this government.”

Holbrooke insists that Sharif isn’t viewed as a replacement for Zardari or prime minister Yousaf Gilani. No, Sharif has only one thing America wants - use - which the latest New York Times article on Sharif almost comically outlined.

One European official said, “We need people who have influence over the militancy in Pakistan to calm it down. Who’s got influence? The army, yes. And Nawaz, yes.”

A Pakistani official illuminated Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent plea to Saudi Arabia, which he claims has wide influence in Pakistan. Pakistan or Sharif? Said the Pakistan official, “The Americans have no leverage over Sharif, only the Saudis have leverage over Sharif.”

“The idea here is to tie Sharif’s popularity to things we think need to be done,” admitted a Defense Department official, “like dealing with the militancy.”

A senior White House official repeated, “The [Pakistani] president’s popularity is in the low double digits. Nawaz Sharif is at 83 percent. They need to band together against the militants.”

What the officials failed to mention is that Sharif’s popularity is attributed to his independence, Islamic tolerance and populism. If Sharif were to ally with Zardari because of American pressure, he risks losing the exact popularity that America wishes to exploit. At that point the game will end for Sharif.

So why should he play?

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