The major candidates to become Pakistan’s next prime minister oppose American drone strikes on Islamic extremists in their country, which bodes ill for the U.S. policy after Pakistan’s historic parliamentary elections in May.
According to estimates by the London-based nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. has conducted 366 drone strikes since 2004, killing as many 3,581 people, including 884 civilians, and wounding 1,465. About 314 of those drone strikes have been carried out in the Obama administration.
Pakistanis outraged by civilian casualties routinely protest against the strikes, and opposition to drone operations has become a prerequisite for Pakistani politicians, who accuse the U.S. of trampling on their country’s sovereignty. The government in Islamabad has criticized the strikes even as it has quietly condoned them.
“Whatever civilian leadership is installed [after the elections] will demand greater respect for Pakistani sovereignty by the U.S. and an end to the use of drones,” said Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.
“The U.S. would be well-advised to seek some kind of accommodation with the Pakistani government on both these fronts,” said Mr. Inderfurth, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “To paraphrase the statement made many years ago in Vietnam: We are at risk of destroying the relationship [with Pakistan] in order to save it.”
Pakistan’s May 11 parliamentary elections will mark the first time in the nuclear-armed nation’s 65-year history that a civilian government will hand over power to a democratically elected successor.
A two-time former prime minister, a cricket star-turned-politician and a former army general-turned-dictator are among the leading candidates vying for the office of prime minister.
Last year, Mr. Sharif linked ending the strikes to the reopening of NATO supply routes that had been closed by the Pakistani government to protest the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an errant NATO attack in November 2011. The routes eventually were reopened, but the strikes continued.
Imran Khan, a former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team who now heads the Pakistan Movement for Justice, has led thousands of supporters in a protest march against the drone strikes.
U.S. immigration officials stopped Mr. Khan for questioning while he was on his way to New York in October. He later said he was interrogated about his views on drones.
“My stance is known. Drone attacks must stop,” Mr. Khan wrote on Twitter.
His party is not expected to collect enough seats to form a government, but in the event of a strong performance, he could end up in a kingmaker role.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said U.S.-Pakistan relations will remain tense, regardless of who wins the elections.