Ex-U.S. envoy answers readers' questions on Pakistan
April 5th, 2013
09:01 AM ET

Ex-U.S. envoy answers readers' questions on Pakistan

GPS readers ask William Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and currently a senior scholar on the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, about the implications of upcoming elections, terrorism and ties with America.

“Elizabeth Shanaz” asks on Facebook whether you see anything undermining a smooth election and transfer to power?

No. Elections in South Asia always have a few rough patches, but I see nothing that will undermine the election or prevent a peaceful transfer of power. It’s likely, of course, that neither major party will win an overall majority of seats in the National Assembly, and the party with the greater number of seats will need to form a coalition to govern. This might require an extended period of time as often there’s a good deal of bargaining and haggling necessary to get a coalition together.

“Bonnie Geffen” asks what the differences are between the leading candidates?

In a sense the leaders of the two major parties are more alike than different, and their political parties are the same, grouped around one family or clan, based mainly on patronage. These parties are neither ideological nor issue oriented. Their goal is political power for its own sake. The leaders of the two major parties are both the scions of rich and powerful families.  There are a few smaller regional based parties that are structured similarly, but the dynastic character of Pakistani politics remains intact.

Still, some parties have broken out of this mold. The first has drawn much attention in the past year, the PTI, of former cricket star Imran Khan. Last year, Khan caught a lot of media attention by drawing immense crowds to rallies, partially because of his celebrity, but mainly because of his effective attacks on the government for its corruption and especially for its foreign policy of cooperation with the U.S. on counter-terrorism and for its seeming acquiescence in the U.S. drone campaign. However, his crowds have dwindled this past year, and it’s now unclear how much popular support he really has. There’s often a large gap between the candidate Pakistanis say they like best and the one they vote for.

In addition to Khan’s party, several other parties don’t fit the PPP/PML-N mold: the MQM, a party with a vote base mainly in the mega-city of Karachi and other urban centers of Sindh. This party has traditionally represented the Urdu-speaking immigrants from India, but after a violent start, has become more moderate and broadened its appeal. It has in recent years, often been a part of coalition national governments.  Finally, two religious parties may have influence on, at least, the formation of a coalition government. These are the JI, and the JUI, which have a loyal core of fundamentalist Muslim voters.

Which candidate in Pakistan’s upcoming elections is more likely to bolster ties with the United States, asks “Asim Rehman.”

None of the candidates or parties would run on a platform of rebuilding ties to the U.S., nor will any of the likely prime ministers be ready to step out in front in such a politically charged task. After 2 years of serious discord, U.S.-Pakistani ties are back to about where they should be, that is they are more or less working smoothly, and that’s probably the best we can hope for.  Until the U.S. modifies its drone program in Pakistan, which is very unpopular with Pakistanis across the socio/economic/religious spectrum, its leaders, no matter who they may be, must approach the U.S. relationship with caution.

“Aditya Surana” asks whether Pakistan’s government will be able to do anything to curb domestic terrorism?

This is the most important question facing the next elected government of Pakistan. In fact, it has seemed to me that there is some irony in the celebrations about the PPP government managing to serve out the full 5 years of its constitutional term. Yes it was the first elected government in Pakistan’s history to do so, as previous elected governments were either deposed directly or indirectly by the army. Obviously this is a hopeful sign for Pakistan’s political future. But since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the army has been in no position to take over the government, had it wanted to. (I don’t think it did.)

But the even more important news out of Pakistan this past year is the enormous spike in fundamentalist extremist violence, not just against minority communities – Shias, Christians, Ahmadis – but against Sunni Muslims perceived as apostate. Attacks on Sufi shrines, shrines held sacred by almost half of the Sunni inhabitants of the country, are now common.  A fundamentalist narrative is taking hold in Pakistan and driving this extremist violence. The PPP government was unable or unwilling to try to stop it. If the next government is similarly handcuffed, the future of the state is at severe risk.

Many readers ask what you make of the return of former President Pervez Musharraf?

Not much. It will have little impact on the election, except perhaps to sew confusion about the army’s long run intentions. But I don’t believe it will fundamentally change anything.

The question reminds me, however, that the other important task of the next government is to reform and restructure the economy, which is now in tatters. I hope that, unlike General Musharraf, who came to power promising deep economic reform, and left office with the economy in much worse shape than when he came, the next government will be up to the task of serious economic reform. Otherwise, economic miseries will just add to the social malaise in the country and make its future even more tenuous.

Is a change in leadership likely to see a change in how Pakistan tackles extremism overseas, asks “wjmccartan”?

In addition to what I said earlier about the extremist threat, we can’t leave Afghanistan out of the picture. A few months ago, there was said to be a long-awaited change in the army’s thinking about Afghanistan. But six or so months later, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have worsened, and Pakistani cooperation on a peace process with the Taliban seems to be evaporating. With it, one assumes, Pakistani support for the extremist Afghan Taliban will continue. As U.S./NATO forces are reduced over the next 18 months, this will effectively place a heavier military burden on the Afghan army, whether it’s ready or not. It’s clear that the Pakistani  army, not elected civilian governments, runs security policy, but the if a new government can’t influence the army to curtail its proxies in Afghanistan into a peace and reconciliation process, the blowback into Pakistan could very well increase extremist attacks on the Pakistani public and state.

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Topics: Elections • Pakistan

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. wjmccartan

    Thank you for your response to my question. Life in the south Asian area seems to be not worth much to either side of the political arena. I don't see any real change taking place in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Its a shame that the voices seeking power are doing exactly what you said, they want power just to have power. What is right or wrong for the people of these countries doesn't even enter the equation. Its now 2013 at this rate it could be another 50 years before the citizens of these countries gain a real voice in the policies of their respective governments. That is a shame, cooperation has so many more rewards then antagonistic behaviour.


    April 5, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • hanifgcu

      But one should not forget the youth and Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) factor in the upcoming elections. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, PTI has gone through the process of truly intraparty election. Unlike other status quo parties, all the positions in PTI are elected, not nominated.

      April 8, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Candid1

    Mr. Milam's remarks about the economy under previous leader are way off the mark. Under Musharraf's tenure, the economic performance of the country was the best it had seen since the socialist experiment of the 1970's that turned one of the leading economies in Asia into a basket case. GDP growth averaged close to 8%, FDI had increased, unemployment had dropped, tax collection had increased, Pakistan got out of the IMF's clutches, the foreign exchange value of the currency increased, the incidence poverty dropped from 33% to 25%. Whatever else one may say about Musharraf, there is no justifiable ground to fault his economic policies. Perhaps, Mr. Miliam is influenced by his own prejudices when commenting on this topic.

    April 7, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  3. Paul

    I must agree with of your comments but i am trying to help a dear friend in the mean-time, cheers!

    April 8, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  4. Paul

    In my opinion there always seems to be serious consequences in being too trusting with these and other re-occurring problems within!! :-/

    April 8, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  5. Paul

    A show of committment & of cordial relations is always a good sign of good policy.... pp

    April 8, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  6. Dew

    The reduction of Nato/US troops in Afghanistan will lead to peace and prosperity in the area. Lets not forget that there was absolute peace in the area before the armies invaded. And Pakistan has lost 40000 lives to over 5000 suicide attacks in the past ten years yet the people and state have sustained. The ambassador is highly inaccurate in assuming that there could be a 'blow back' etc etc that could harm the integrity of the state.

    April 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm |

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