The fact that 60 percent of Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections, thereby defying Pakistani Taliban intimidation, is a good sign. So is the likelihood that Pakistan will see the first succession since the country’s founding in 1947 from one elected government to another after the first government had completed its full term in office.
But we should not expect much change in foreign policy from presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who got his start in politics as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. In the 1990s, during an earlier stint as prime minister, he was a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and has remained cozy with Islamic militant groups ever since; during this campaign he refused to come out strongly against the Pakistani Taliban, which helps to explain why that group did not attack rallies held by his Pakistan Muslim League party. Although Sharif is said to favor better ties with India, his most famous act as prime minister occurred in 1998 when he approved Pakistan’s first nuclear test, thereby ratcheting up tensions with India.
Sharif promises better relations with the United States too, but it is doubtful that he could deliver even if he meant it–and it’s doubtful that he does. As the Indian Express notes: “Sharif has criticized unpopular U.S. drone attacks targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan, and has called the Afghan conflict ‘America’s war.’ The Punjab government, controlled by Sharif’s party, turned down over $100 million in American aid in 2011 to protest the bin Laden raid.”
Even if Sharif were pro-American and secularist (he is neither), he would still not call the shots in Pakistan. Real power, at least when it comes to foreign policy and national security policy, is still held by the army, while in the domestic sphere the judiciary has proved increasingly important of late. President Asif Ali Zardari has been a figurehead. So too with his previous prime ministers. Real power has been increased by the army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who succeeded in removing Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office last year. Both Kayani and Chaudhry are due to retire this year and their replacements will be more consequential than the change of elected leadership.
In foreign policy, however, there is unlikely to be much change since pretty much the entire army leadership–not just General Kayani–supports Pakistan’s existing policies, which include aiding and abetting groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which are killing Americans and their Afghan allies. It is high time we woke up to what Pakistan is up to. Instead of pretending it is a sometimes-wayward ally, we must recognize that Pakistan’s strategic interests–especially in Afghanistan–are squarely at odds with ours, and we must work to counter Pakistani influence as we would do with any other hostile power.
In Pakistan itself, we should work to bolster civil society and the power of civilians in government, but we should not delude ourselves that such efforts will have much impact in the short run–and possibly not even in the long run. Pakistan’s state is deeply dysfunctional and is unlikely to fundamentally change for the better under Nawaz Sharif.