Wednesday, March 25, 2009

U.S. Looking to Back a New Leader in Pakistan?

An article in the NY Times today highlights the fact the U.S. is seeking to work with former/semi-present Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif. Sharif has just recently returned to Pakistan after accepting an exile from the country in order to settle corruption charges in 1999. Upon his return he attempted to run for office until the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled that he could not do so. After that court decision Sharif led a successful movement to reinstate a Supreme Court justice that will likely overturn the court's previous decision and allow him to run for office.

The NYT article quotes a former Pakistani senator that says that Sharif holds a lot of popular support and is likely to be the "next guy Washington should talk to." While it may be true that Sharif holds popular support in Pakistan he seems to be a wild card as far as trying to figure out what kind of ally he will be for the U.S. In the past he has supported the installation of Islamic, aka Sharia, law in Pakistan. This is the kind of law that radical Islamic groups support, and interpretations of it justify the oppression of women amongst other harsh practices that Western countries often find abhorrent. Sharif also has direct ties to conservative Islam and some organizations that he has worked with in the past are linked to terrorism. Some say another strike against him is that he ordered Pakistan's first nuclear weapons test and thus intesified the regional conflict between Pakistan and India. I personally think that the ties to radical Islam are more disconcerting because our major concern with Pakistan right now is rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, and a leader in Pakistan that is unwilling to assist in that task will be a major hindrance. The development of nuclear weapons in Pakistan was something that country felt it had to do to protect itself from an historical enemy in India, and I don't believe the U.S. of all countries can hold that against them.

Those that encourage U.S. support of Sharif say that his 8 years in exile have made him more wise and moderate than he was when he left Pakistan and thus more likely to work with the U.S. Supporters also say that he is essential in reaching out to jihadis because he has good relationships with them and will be able to facilitate cooperation between the West and Muslims that currently disagree with Western policies.

Based on this article Sharif seems to be an unknown quantity and I'd like to know some more about him before I decide one way or the other. My big reservation is that even if he is more moderate now and could work with the West wouldn't his cooperation with the West make him fall out of favor with the more conservative elements of Islam that he is supposed to help reach out to? I think the bottom line is that the West in general, but mostly the U.S., needs someone who will facilitate our mission to find Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. I don't think there will ever be any reconciliation between those elements of radical Islam and the West so we need to continue our current aggressive policies. If we get a leader in Sharif who will help us in that fight then I think that his pull with conservative elements of Islam will erode and he will lose his ability to act as a facilitator to them.

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