The South Asia Channel

A new U.S. tactic of restraint

During a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry decided not to visit Pakistan out of respect for the country’s ongoing electoral processes. He made the right choice. The United States has repeatedly found itself in the middle of Pakistan’s domestic politics, a problem partially of its own making. In 2006, the ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/GettyImages
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/GettyImages

During a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry decided not to visit Pakistan out of respect for the country’s ongoing electoral processes. He made the right choice.

The United States has repeatedly found itself in the middle of Pakistan’s domestic politics, a problem partially of its own making. In 2006, the United States tried to broker a power-sharing deal between exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and then-President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, who unceremoniously took power in a bloodless coup against the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999, desperately needed domestic and international legitimization of his presidency. Bhutto – the popular scion of a political family from Sindh – could offer the domestic portion of that by participating in national elections that would be sure to put her back into office as Prime Minister. An increasingly unpopular Musharraf could stay on as president.

While U.S. mediation was warranted to some extent on account of the high stakes involved in the "global war on terror," the result was disastrous. After months of secretive meetings with a coterie of high-level American officials and informal representatives, Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile in Dubai only to be assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban ten weeks later. Ever since, the United States has in some way been blamed for her death and the circumstances following it, most notably the election of Bhutto’s widow, Asif Ali Zardari, as President of Pakistan.

If Secretary Kerry had visited Pakistan, he would have inevitably signaled de facto American support for the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and co-chairman Zardari, who remains President until September. Zardari and the PPP would have relished such attention given their dismal electoral chances, but the United States did not take the bait.

Maneuvers to elicit U.S. support for legitimacy within Pakistan are not new tactics for Pakistani politicians. Since his self-initiated exile in 2008, Musharraf has diligently sought U.S. government support to anoint his return to Pakistani politics. After all, if the United States did this for Bhutto in 2006, then why not for him – the secular, U.S.-leaning, cosmopolitan general turned statesman who enjoys an occasional scotch?

Musharraf should get credit for trying. He lobbied hard within U.S. political circles, with his Philadelphia-based office regularly releasing photographs and announcements of his meetings with members of Congress. In a slightly disingenuous move in 2011, his office even released a photograph of Musharraf with Vice President Joe Biden at a football game, suggesting the meeting was planned. The Vice President’s office quickly covered its bases by clarifying that it was a chance encounter with "no substantive conversation."    

In reality, Musharraf tried many times to get meetings at the State Department and White House but failed. Don’t look for the United States to change track now that Musharraf is back in Pakistan. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Rick Olson recently said of his return: "I don’t see this as a terribly large or significant event…he doesn’t have a great deal of support." The White House later chimed in to say Musharraf’s return was "an internal matter." And recall that just the week before, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland clarified in a morning briefing that the United States "has no favorites among Pakistani politicians and we are looking forward to work with whoever is elected on May 11." An unnamed senior State Department official was even blunter, saying the United States "did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where" U.S. interests may lie."

It is now clearer than ever before that the United States does not want to get involved in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Letting political affairs run their course is the best thing the United States – or any other country, individual or institution – can do. Given negative Pakistani public and government perceptions of the United States, it is extremely unlikely that the United States could effectively achieve its objectives if it chose to get more involved.

No doubt America will find another way to sustain stable and friendly relations with the Pakistani government – too much is at stake. Until the end of 2014, the United States will remain heavily dependent on the Pakistani military’s cooperation in keeping NATO supply routes from Afghanistan through Pakistan open. Longer term challenges of Pakistan-based Al Qaeda members and affiliates, as well as Pakistan’s nuclear program, demand the United States has a more normalized relationship with Islamabad. Time will tell if the United States can truly go cold turkey on getting involved in Pakistani politics to advance its own interests.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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