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U.S. Scrambles to Remake Pakistan Policy

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: February 21, 2008

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The unstinting support Washington has lent to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf throughout the past year of tumult has led to something of a crisis for U.S. policy toward Pakistan. White House officials say they still hope opposition leaders will find a way to work with Musharraf. But CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey, himself a former top Bush administration policymaker on South Asia, says “Musharraf is obviously a poison pill” (NYT) and that he may be “fading out.” Markey looks at the choices open to Washington, including strengthening Pakistani institutions, in this Policy Options Paper.

Official results (PDF) from February 18 elections confirming the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), won the most seats, followed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), could have huge implications for Washington’s efforts along Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan, too. U.S. efforts to clamp down on terrorist bases in Pakistani frontier areas hinged on military support from the Pakistani army and security forces. But the winners of the parliamentary elections say they will break from Musharraf’s position and seek talks with the militants (NYT) in the tribal areas. In an interview with CFR.org, Frédéric Grare, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the defeat of the religious parties in the elections brings “a new chance for the United States to seize this opportunity,” and finally understand the nature of the Pakistani society.

The United States has had a tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, as this new timeline explains, and continues to score low in Pakistani public approval ratings. A poll from the U.S.-based International Republican Institute showed only 9 percent of Pakistanis said their country should cooperate with Washington in its war on terror. A report in the Washington Post, citing U.S. officials, says U.S. forces have been leading unilateral strikes within Pakistan’s borders without permission from Pakistani authorities. The report says such strikes could become more frequent this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from the elections. In January, amid speculation regarding U.S. action in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates stressed Pakistani sovereignty and added: “We would not do anything without their approval.”

The vote leaves major questions about where the volatile country will veer next. An editorial in Pakistan-based newspaper The News says “the possibility of an unwieldy situation emerging in the aftermath of the February 18 polls remains high.” PPP cochairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, and Sharif’s PML-N party agreed to form a coalition government (BBC) and have ruled out the inclusion of parties that had been allied with Musharraf. The parties have agreed to reinstate the chief justice, sacked by Musharraf in November, but remain divided on the issue of Musharraf's political future (Dawn). The PPP and PML-N parties combined make up more than half the seats in the parliament, but if they are able to form a coalition with a two-thirds majority, they could take a number of steps against Musharraf, including impeachment.

Failures of the PPP and PML-N to come together in the past make analysts skeptical (Dawn). The Los Angeles Times raises the possibility Musharraf’s party could still get in on a coalition, reinvigorating his claim on remaining in power.

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