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Protests in Pakistan; and Why Does the U.S. Hate Nawaz Sharif?

I have no particular brief for Pakistani politician Nawaz Sharif, but the time has come once again to observe how bizarre the treatment he receives at the hands of the American establishment is. To recap, once upon a time Benazir Bhutto was running Pakistan. Then her party lost power in an election to Nawaz Sharif and his party. Subsequently, Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup and established a dictatorship. The United States quickly accommodated itself to this state of affairs, though Sharif obviously wasn’t happy. Then, when Bhutto decided after a period of years that it was time for democracy to return to Pakistan, suddenly the U.S. government became more interested in Pakistani democracy and in the American media Bhutto — rather than the democratically elected leader Musharraf had deposed — became the face of the Pakistani opposition. Then, once it was clear that Musharraf was going down, it became really important to try to manipulate the situation to bring Bhutto, rather than Sharif, to power. Then after Bhutto’s murder, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became the standard-bearer. Meanwhile, the crisis that precipitated Musharraf’s fall from power was his decision to illegally fire some judges who tried to hold his regime to account. Remarkably, upon coming to power Zardari didn’t reinstate the chief judge who Musharraf sacked.

So that’s the backdrop for this:

U.S. and other Western diplomats were trying to defuse the crisis pitting President Asif Ali Zardari — a Western ally whose popularity has plummeted amid Taliban gains and the declining economy — against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who doesn’t hold elected office but is one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians. Mr. Sharif is viewed warily by Washington, which doesn’t consider him committed enough to battling Islamic extremists.

Mr. Sharif is pushing for the country’s chief justice, who was sacked in 2007 by a previous president, to be restored to that job. Mr. Sharif also is fighting for control of the provincial government in Punjab, where Mr. Zardari has imposed federal rule. The eastern province, Pakistan’s most populous, is Mr. Sharif’s home turf. Fearing violence, hospitals canceled leave for doctors in Punjab’s capital, Lahore. […]

Hundreds of opposition leaders and supporters have been arrested since Wednesday, when Mr. Zardari’s government began a crackdown on the opposition. On Tuesday, the government also imposed a two-week ban on rallies ahead of days of protests expected in the run-up to a planned sit-in Monday in Islamabad in front of parliament.

Obviously, insofar as Washington continually tilts toward one Pakistani party and against the other one, the leader of one party will become “a Western ally” and we’ll develop doubts about the priorities of the other guy. But I think Americans really ought to be asking ourselves about cause and effect here. As best I can tell, we’re substantially basing our Pakistan policy on the fact that Benazir Bhutto went to Harvard and befriended many important Americans while there. But that makes no sense. We have interests in Pakistan. Interests that we’ll want to press on any Pakistani government — a Zardari government, a Sharif government, a military government, whatever. Interests that no Pakistani government is going to fully share. No matter what happens, there’ll be tensions that need to be resolved. We should be prepared to work with whoever’s in power, and clear on the fact that arresting opposition party figures is never the route to stable democracy.

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At any rate, read this from Najam Sethi if you want to hear what someone who knows what he’s talking about (i.e., not me) thinks.