Pakistan needs peaceful transition of power

May 17 2013 - 11:12am

Pakistan's National Assembly elections on May 11 provided a significant victory to Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. Despite violence, turnout was approximately 60 percent. A peaceful power transition from the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to this opposition party means progress from the nation's history of military coups. Sharif and his chief political rival, Imran Khan, have pledged to work together.

Sharif was prime minister twice earlier. Most recently, he was forced out of the post in 1999 in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He and his family spent more than a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia. Musharraf himself has left government power under pressure and has been under house arrest awaiting trial for illegally detaining judges.

This latest election was a serious reversal for the PPP, dominated by the Bhutto family, and Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Charismatic Benazir Bhutto also served twice as prime minister. As leader of the PPP, she was making a dramatic effort to win national power for a third time when she was assassinated late in December 2007.

The assassin who shot her also detonated a suicide bomb, killing at least 20 others on the scene. (At a rally that October in Karachi, organized to welcome Bhutto home from political exile, two suicide blasts killed 140 people. And suicide bombers have tried to kill the nation's president, prime minister and interior minister in recent years.

The political violence is a serious, long-term problem that breeds anxiety about the nation's future.

Also in recent years, Pakistan-U.S. relations have been vexed. Targeted killings of individuals by American drone aircraft have caused intense continuing controversy.

Pakistan since 9/11 has been a front line in the struggle against terrorism. Osama bin Laden's ability to take cover in Abbottabad raised suspicion that government was complicit in hiding him. Washington leaders didn't inform Islamabad in advance of the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid against him.

Islamic radicalism clearly is influential in Pakistan, but the scope of support is unclear. The nation also possesses nuclear weapons, vastly raising the stakes of a possible radical takeover of government. At the same time, the Pakistan and U.S. militaries cooperate especially closely regarding nuclear-weapons security.

Washington also has intervened in Pakistan's domestic politics in pointed terms. Bhutto was allowed to return to Pakistan as a result of direct U.S. pressure on Musharraf. In a comparable case, Nawaz Sharif remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, in part because the Bush administration wanted to keep him removed from politics.

Historically, Pakistan has been a relatively solid ally of the West, a point almost always overlooked in media commentary. The British-trained military is extremely capable. During the Cold War, Pakistan was generally a conservative counterweight to neutralist India and communist China.

In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ensured that this important ally joined both the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to replicate NATO in the Middle East and South Asia, respectively. The nation was unique in having membership in both alliances. Both are long gone, but the geostrategic importance of Pakistan continues.

While media emphasize Islamabad-Washington strains, threats of Islamic radicalism, and incidents of brutal violence, reality -- as usual -- is more complex, and more promising.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of "After the Cold War." Email

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