As the dust settles on Pakistan’s elections, Nawaz Sharif is gearing up to lead the country for a third time, and experts in Washington seem to be feeling cautiously optimistic. Many US-Pakistan experts expressed relief that Sharif won over Imran Khan, weighing Khan’s proposed hardline policy with the US and his lack of foreign policy experience in contrast to Sharif. At the same time, analysts realize that the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship will change under Sharif’s administration, as he will be more likely to push back against US demands than the People’s Party. This new dynamic will require the US to pursue a tactical relationship that is cognizant of both the shared and dissimilar interests of the two countries, potentially leading to greater stability.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) versus Pakistan People’s Party (PPP):
The election was remarkable due to the large voter turnout, but also because the US government did not pick any favorites. This could be an effect of the broken-down US-Pakistan relationship which soured under the People’s Party-led administration. Though the PPP has traditionally been more pro-American than the PML-N, Dr Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute explains that it was was too weak to deliver as it had been discredited in the eyes of the public. This made the PPP a less effective partner for the US government. In contrast, Sharif won by a large electoral margin and “has experience in the business of governing, which will provide greater stability to Pakistan, as well as to US-Pakistan relations,” says Weinbaum.
Dan Markey, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed this sentiment and stated that “a stable but marginally more prickly Pakistan under the PML-N is better than a less stable, more obsequious Pakistan under the PPP.” This “prickliness” may have more to do with the right-wing nationalist ideology of the PML-N than Sharif’s personal views on the US. Sharif’s political base will expect him to at least nominally push back against the US on some issues.
Michael Kugelman, a scholar at the Wilson Center, said “even though the PPP is regarded as more pro-US than the PML-N, let’s not forget that Washington has worked with Nawaz Sharif before.” In fact, Sharif recently stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that, “the relationship with the US was quite good when I was in power,” and that “I’d like to take this relationship further. We need to strengthen the relationship.”
PML-N versus Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI):
Statements like these, along with his prior experience working with Washington, have allowed Sharif to cultivate an international reputation for being a principled pragmatist who has learned a great deal from his time in and out of power. On the other hand, his closest electoral rival, Imran Khan, was seen with trepidation by American experts due to his inexperience and extreme rhetoric concerning the US.
“Pakistan dodged a bullet by choosing Sharif over Khan”
Dr Weinbaum said some of the positive feeling in Washington relating to Sharif’s win relates to the American policymakers’ fears about Imran Khan coming to power because “the kind of shaking up Khan wanted to do was unnerving.” Sadanand Dhume, a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, went further to say that “Pakistan dodged a bullet by choosing Sharif over Khan. The latter’s well known antipathy for the US, and simplistic ideas about drones, would have complicated relations with Washington.”
Campaign rhetoric versus government policy:
Imran Khan was not alone in his critique of the US-Pakistan policy during the run-up to the elections. Nawaz Sharif also made certain anti-America statements. However, experts in Washington took these statements with a grain of salt. “I think that the rhetoric he expressed is written off as necessary campaign rhetoric and I believe he understands that governing and campaigning are different,” Dr Weinbaum said. Kugelman said “despite all his anti-American rhetoric on the campaign trail, we can expect him to work very closely with Washington in the weeks ahead.”
Some have raised doubts about Sharif as a potential “wolf in sheep’s clothing” due to his insistence on negotiating with the Taliban and his party’s affiliations with banned terrorist outfits. Dr Weinbaum disagrees with this categorization, stating that one must distinguish “someone who has better ties with the religious establishment from someone who doesn’t recognize that extremism is a real threat.” The belief among experts seems to be that Sharif would take a harder line on extremism after the elections. Aparna Pande, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, said while Nawaz may have said he wants to negotiate, that was when he was in opposition and seeking votes through populism. “He may have a slightly different view when he is in power and has to make policy.”
Though Sharif and Khan’s rhetoric matched pitch at points in the election, the perception amongst American experts is that Sharif was playing to the galleries but would eventually pursue a pragmatic policy while in office. Dhume says that between Sharif and Khan: “Sharif has been much more circumspect in his sympathy for the Taliban… [and] he will take genuine US security concerns into account while formulating his Afghan policy.”
From strategic ties to tactical relations:
As Nawaz Sharif gears up to take over the prime minister’s spot, experts were asked whether US-Pakistan relations would be realigned in a major way in the coming months. Almost all respondents said there would be no major shifts due to the unchanging military basis of US-Pakistan ties. Kugleman said US-Pakistan relations were ultimately driven by military-to-military ties, which is why he doubts that “Pakistan’s political transition will lead to an outright realignment.” Pande said similarly that US-Pakistan relations were largely based on a “security military angle” and that a major realignment would require “the civilians to be able to regain space in the foreign and security spheres of decision-making in their country,” which is unlikely in the short term.
While the shift in policy may not be major, American policy makers will likely avoid grandstand strategic relationships in favor of a more tactical relationship based on the reality that US and Pakistani interests incurably diverge on some points. Pande said that while Obama pursued a strategic policy with Pakistan in his first term, “I see a return to a tactical relationship,” with Sharif’s electoral win during Obama’s second term. Dhume echoed this sentiment. “Neither country is in the mood for an expansive new embrace as in 2008.”
Rather, Kugelman says the relationship will be a new model of “scaled-back, nonetheless sustained cooperation.” He went on to explain that there was “a realization, on both sides, that expectations from the relationship needed to be reduced, so that the two sides could focus on the few potential areas of cooperation that do exist.” This means that both countries will focus on their shared interests, such as trade, which is a high priority for the Sharif administration. It has reached out to the US government several times in the last few years to discuss cooperation on the matter.
In areas where the countries are less likely to agree, such as drone attacks, neither side will push for a zero sum result of either conducting drone attacks every day or prohibiting them completely. Instead, Sharif will likely allow the military to continue setting the negotiating policy with the US on drones, despite his party base’s repulsion to the strikes. He will avoid bringing public attention to the matter, and in return Dan Markey argues that the US government should consider minimizing drone strikes for a period of time in order to avoid damaging Sharif’s credibility for his non-confrontational policy. Eventually, under this new tactical relationship, there could be a time when the countries agree to greater cooperation, giving Pakistan a role in the drone targeting program, which could answer concerns about sovereignty and allegations that fighting terrorism is somehow only “America’s War.”
Waris Husain is a Member of the Board of Americans for Democracy and Justice in Pakistan. His column was originally published in Pakistan by The Friday Times, and can be read here.