Pakistan-US alliance takes hits on campaign trail

May 1, 2013 - 7:34 AM
Pakistan US Election

In this Sunday, April 28, 2013 photo, Pakistan's former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif speaks during an election rally in Murree, Pakistan. Sharif has criticized the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party for selling out the country’s sovereignty in exchange for U.S. aid and likes to recount how he tested Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon in 1998 despite American pressure. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — On the campaign trail in Pakistan, candidates boast about their readiness to stand up to Washington and often tout their anti-American credentials. One party leader even claims he would shoot down U.S. drones if he comes to power.

So it's perhaps no surprise that the government that emerges from next month's parliamentary election is likely to be more nationalistic and protective of Pakistani sovereignty than its predecessor.

As a result, the U.S. may need to work harder to enlist Islamabad's cooperation, and the new Pakistani government might push for greater limits on unpopular American drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country.

But ultimately, the final say on Pakistan's stance toward drones and many aspects of the relationship with Washington is in the hands of the country's powerful army. And even nationalist politicians like former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the leading contender in the election, recognize the need for a U.S. alliance and are unlikely to go too far in disturbing it.

"I think the tagline here is different posturing, same substance" when it comes to the next government's relationship with the U.S, said Moeed Yusuf, an expert on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.

Nevertheless, it's unclear how long Pakistan's alliance with the U.S. can remain relatively insulated from anti-American sentiment. The May 11 vote is historic because it will mark the first transfer of power between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three military coups.

U.S. officials have remained fairly quiet about the election because they don't want to be seen as influencing who wins. But Secretary of State John Kerry has met Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani twice in the last month, underlining the importance of the relationship to Washington.

The U.S. needs Pakistan's help in battling Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan relies on the U.S. for billions of dollars in aid and also needs American support as it seeks a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the government's shaky fiscal situation.

The relationship has been severely strained in recent years, especially following the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden near Pakistan's equivalent of West Point. But it has never broken down completely and has settled into a wary calm over the last year or so. Trust is still in short supply, but both sides recognize they can't do without each other.

"We have moved into a phase of reduced expectations of each other, which is good," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. "It's what they call the new normal."

This pragmatism seems largely set to continue, despite often pointed comments by Sharif and other candidates on the campaign trail.

Sharif has criticized the outgoing Pakistan People's Party for selling out the country's sovereignty in exchange for U.S. aid and likes to recount how he tested Pakistan's first nuclear weapon in 1998 despite American pressure.

"We will never accept any foreign pressure," said Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, during a recent campaign speech. "We will have relations with foreign countries on the basis of mutual respect, dignity and equality."

Sharif's party controlled the government of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, in 2011 when it turned down more than $100 million in U.S. aid following the raid that killed bin Laden. But Lodhi, the former ambassador, said she thought it was unlikely Sharif would give up the more than $1 billion in American aid Pakistan receives annually if he came to power.

Former cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan, who many analysts believe will end up playing a key role in the opposition after the election, has been even more critical of Pakistan's relationship with the U.S., saying he would "end the system of American slavery."

But the manifesto of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is more tempered, saying "Pakistan will endeavor to have a constructive relationship with the U.S. based on Pakistan's sovereign national interests and international law, not on aid dependency."

Pakistan's relationship with the U.S. — and foreign policy in general — has been less of a focus in the election than domestic issues, such as corruption, pervasive energy shortages and stuttering economic growth.

Lodhi believes this is because the U.S. has said it is largely pulling out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and is seeking a peace settlement with the Taliban — a move long advocated by the Pakistani government and supported by the main contenders in the election.

"That has helped to take the edge off negative sentiment in Pakistan which we saw in the last couple of years against the United States," Lodhi said.

One issue that continues to create tension between the two countries is the U.S. drone program targeting Islamic militants in Pakistan's rugged tribal region near the Afghan border.

The attacks are extremely unpopular in Pakistan. They are seen as violating the country's sovereignty, and many people believe they kill mostly civilians — an allegation denied by the U.S.

Pakistan's civilian and military leaders have contributed to these perceptions by criticizing the strikes in public in the past, while supporting them in secret. This support has declined over time as the relationship between the two countries has worsened.

The number of strikes has dropped from a peak of more than 120 in 2010 to close to a dozen so far this year, but it's unclear how much this trend has been driven by U.S. decisions about targeting versus the political sensitivity of carrying out strikes.

Khan, the former cricketer, has sharply criticized U.S. drone attacks and has even pledged to shoot down the unmanned aircraft if he came to power.

Sharif has also been a vocal opponent of the strikes in the past, although he hasn't made them as much of a focal point of his campaign as Khan has.

Nevertheless, Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Sharif would work with the army to renegotiate the use of drones in Pakistan if he took power.

"In the end, I think probably some accord will be reached in which the use of drones will probably be curtailed from where they have been over the past couple of years," Markey said during a recent call with media. "But they will continue, particularly against high-value targets when they are found."

However, Lodhi, the former ambassador, has doubts Sharif would pick a high-profile fight with the U.S. over drones since the number of strikes has decreased so much.

"The centrality of drones may not be what it was in the past," Lodhi said. "Why would you want to whip up something that is going down anyway?"

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

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