After the 2013 Election, Where Next for Pakistan?

Nawaz-Sharif1154By Isaac Kfir

On May 11, 2013, Pakistanis overwhelming voted for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The PML-N is led by Nawaz Sharif, who in the 1990s held the office of prime minister on two separate occasions (1990 to 1993 and 1997 to 1999).

The 2013 election, although tainted by enormous bloodletting and allegations of corruption, could represent a new dawn for Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif is arguably a different candidate from his PPP predecessors in terms of his background and outlook as to what Pakistan needs.[1] What however sets Sharif apart is that he knows all too well the limitation that a civilian Pakistani faces in terms of what the military will permit.[2] Sharif inherits a deeply divided country that has many problems, ranging from energy shortages, sectarian violence, a US drone campaign, and a troublesome international neighborhood, to name but a few.

In many ways, Sharif’s main challenge, just like that of his predecessor, will be dealing with legal challenges and the Pakistani Supreme Court. Sharif is not that different from Asif Ali Zardari, the current Pakistani president, as he too faces accusation of corruption and malfeasance.[3]

In fact, since the restoration of civilian government in 2008, legal controversies have shaped much of the Pakistani political landscape, due in part to an activist Supreme Court determined to impose the rule of law on Pakistan and its conception of what type of state Pakistan should be.[4] In the past five years, the Pakistani Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has played a key role in shaping the political system by challenging the National Reconciliation Ordinance,[5] examining the activities of the military and allegations of abuses,[6] and dismissing Yusuf Raza Gilani, former PPP prime minister, following his conviction for contempt of court.

The fact that the court was so active during the Zardari administration makes it probable that Chaudhry will continue on the same path, as he has a clear agenda: place the rule of law at the epicenter of Pakistani society and in doing so challenge the elites.[7] At the same time, it is also probable that those wishing to undermine the Sharif government will use the court, just as Sharif and his supporters have done, to undermine the civilian polity. Should this happen, it would make it exceedingly hard for the government to promote its policies.

A second issue Sharif will need to address is how to deal with the military, without interfering in what is deemed “military issues.” The first big challenge is the expected retirement in November of General Kayani and a number of other senior officers.[8] Kayani has played an important role restoring the army’s moral after the turbulent Musharraf era and brokering between the PPP and the PML-N. One wonders whether the new army chief of staff will be as politically savvy as Kayani.

The second key issue is the US drone campaign in Pakistan, sectarian violence, and the Pakistani Taliban. All three issues are high on the security agenda. While in opposition, Sharif was highly critical of the drone program.[9] Yet Sharif will find it difficult to challenge the program because not only does the Pakistani military see great value in it, it is the linchpin in President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism program. Getting the US to revise this program might prove exceedingly difficult, especially once the US withdraws its conventional forces from Afghanistan, which will only increase Washington’s view of the Pakistan-Afghan border area as being of vital importance to US national security.

The Pakistani military, though publically critical of the US, is conscious of its dependency on the superpower and its military hardware. This dependency may explain why the military allows the US to continue with the drone program within Pakistan.[10] The commitment is also part of the seven demands that US ambassador Wendy Chamberlain placed before Prevez Musharraf on Sept. 13, 2001.[11] Therefore, Sharif will probably face opposition from the military should he try to take a stand that the forces deem too anti-American.

There are, one suspects, serious concerns within the upper echelons of the Pakistani military regarding US-Afghan relations. One thing that the military does not want to see is the US turning Afghanistan into its main security ally in the region, something that could be on the cards if the US creates bases in Afghanistan.[12] Pakistani senior officers know all too well that when it comes to South Asia, the US is an unreliable ally; far too often the US has abandoned Pakistan.[13] What would also complicate the situation is that Sharif will need to have the support of populist Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), currently the second largest political party in the National Assembly—a key campaign issue for the PTI was the need to end the US drone program.

In terms of foreign policy, Sharif needs to find a way to improve Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors, primarily Afghanistan and India. Pakistan-Afghan relations are turbulent for historical and strategic reasons. The tensions between the two are likely to remain not only because they have been on a downward spiral for years but also because of the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan and because Afghanistan is gearing up to a presidential election that should bring the end of the Karzai era. Historically, Pakistan has always sought a pro-Islamabad candidate in Kabul as part of the Pakistani military need for strategic depth and because of concerns over Pashtun irredentism. However, it is becoming difficult to find anyone in Afghanistan who has a positive thing to say about Pakistan because its southerly neighbor, and specifically the ISI, are seen as entities that meddle in Afghan affairs to the detriment of Afghanistan.[14] Arguably, this suspicion is one reason why Afghanistan is increasingly looking to India[15] and Iran[16] for support. It is therefore no surprise that one of the first acts that Sharif performed after his swearing-in was a call for granting India a “most favored nation” status as a way to stimulate trade between the two countries.[17]

So, as Sharif enjoys the usual honeymoon period accorded to new leaders, the veteran Pakistani politician faces a Herculean task in respect to governance of his nation, as there is much that needs to be done in order to help repair it. This repair work will not only require support from the military and the judiciary but also the opposition, which at the moment is in total disarray and which may decide to focus on Sharif’s legal problems as a way to unite against him. Moreover, Pakistan’s reconstruction will not succeed without the support of the international community, yet the US, India, Afghanistan, and others have historically failed the nation.

[1] The 63-year old Sharif is an experienced Pakistani politician who began his career under Zia-ul-Haq, serving as the Punjab province’s finance and then chief minister from 1985-1990. He comes from a prominent Punjabi family. “Profile: Nawaz Sharif,” BBC News Online, May 13, 2013. <>

[2] In his two periods as prime ministers, Sharif grossly underestimated the power of the military. His attempt to install General Ziauddin, with whom he was close, instead of Pervez Musharraf, as chief of the army staff led to the October 12, 1999 military coup. Iftikhar H. Malik, “Pakistan in 2000 Starting Anew or Stalemate?” Asian Survey, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2001), pp. 104-115

[3] Andrew Buncombe, “Pakistan suffers again from old rivalry,” The Independent, March 16, 2009; “Reopening of Cases against Shariffs: Court Adjourns Hearing To Sept 15,” Financial Post, August 7, 2012.

[4] In a recent decision for example, Chief Justice Chaudhry declared that the ownership of land is an Islamic concept as part of a campaign for land reform in Pakistan where thousands of acres are uncultivated due to absentee landlords.

[5] The NRO provided amnesty to more than 8,000 politicians accused of corruption. The NRO must be understood within Article 62 of the Constitution, which requires all politicians to be of “good character.” David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, “Judicial Coup in Pakistan,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2010. <>

[6] Peter Goodspeed, “Judge’s suspension sparks political storm in Pakistan,” National Post, March 10, 2007, p. A.14.

[7] In a recent decision, Karachi’s anti-terrorism court sentenced Shahrukh Jatoi and Siraj Talpur to death for the killing of Shahzeb Khan. The two come from two of the most powerful families in Karachi. Jon Boone, “Pakistani men sentenced to death for policeman son’s murder,” The Guardian, June 7, 2013. <>

[8] The officers that are slated to retired, beside General Kayani, are General Khalid Shamim Wynne, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC); Lt. General Khalid Nawaz Khan commander X Corps Rawalpindi; Lt. General Muhammad Alam Khattak commander XII Corps Quetta; and, Lt. General Waheed Arshad CGS GHQ. “New Chief of the General Staff to be named next week,” The International News, December 23, 2012. <>

[9] “Pakistan’s Sharif condemns US drone strike on Taliban,” BBC News Online, May 31 2013. <>

[10] In 2009, the US military agreed to give its Pakistani counterpart more control over targets, flight routes, and decision-making. Julian Barnes and Greg Miller, “Pakistan Is Given Key Controls Over Military Drones,” Pittsburg Post, May 17, 2009, p. A.3.

[11] The demands covered such issues as stopping Al Qaeda from operating on Pakistani territory, including the interception of arms shipment through Pakistan and an end to Pakistan providing logistical support to bin Laden; provide the US with a blanket overflight and land rights in respect to all necessary military and intelligence operations; and provide the US and allied military intelligence with territorial access in conducting operations against terrorists and suspected terrorists and those that harbor them, including the use of Pakistan’s naval ports, air bases, and strategic locations. Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006), pp. 204-205.

[12] “Afghanistan/United States: Karzai Agrees to US Request for Bases,” Asia News Monitor, May 13, 2013.

[13] Pakistanis remember that in 1965 the US not only opted not to help Pakistan in its war against India, it imposed a military embargo. In the 1990s, as a reaction to the Pakistani nuclear test, which came as a response to the Indian nuclear test, the Glenn-Symington amendments were imposed, which meant that Pakistan could not receive aid from the US. In 1999, following Musharraf’s military coup, the US once again stopped providing aid to Pakistan, under section 508 of the 1999 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Mariam Mufti, “The Influence of Domestic Politics on the Making of US-Pakistan Foreign Policy,” in Usama Butt and Julian Schofield (ed.), Pakistan: The US, Geopolitics and Grand Strategies, (London: Pluto Press, 2012), pp. 67-69.

[14] Interestingly, the ISI has claimed that the Karzai government has provided Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan with support. Fakhar Rehman, “Pakistan intelligence agency claims Afghanistan supports Taliban splinter groups,” NBC World News, March 27, 2013. <>

[15] In 2012, India’s foreign minister and his Afghan counterpart Zalmai Rassoul co-chaired the first meeting of the India-Afghanistan Partnership Council, which is an important feature in developing a strategic partnership between the two countries. India, since Sept. 11, 2001, has provided billions of dollars in humanitarian aid in addition to playing an important role in training the Afghan army officer. “India/Afghanistan: India, Afghanistan Boost Strategic Ties,” Asia News Monitor, May 3, 2012.

[16] In 2013, Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani and his Afghan counterpart Abdul Salam Azimi met in Tehran to discuss improved cooperation in the judicial realm. Larijani highlighted the historical, cultural, and religious connection between the two countries. The meeting also emphasized Iranian commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which has included providing $50 million annually since 2005 to support Afghan anti-narcotics efforts. “Iran/Afghanistan: Iran, Afghanistan Underline Expansion of Judicial Ties,” Asia News Monitor, May 21, 2012.

[17] The move has won support from Haroon Agar, the president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (KCCI) and Abdul Waheed, chairman, All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters Importers and Merchant Association (PFVA). “Enhancing trade ties: Hopes pinned on new govt. to grant MFN status to India,” Daily Times, May 19, 2013.

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