- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2013

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.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who heads the Pakistan Muslim League, has said that if his party is elected, his government will not tolerate drone strikes.

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.

Pervez Musharraf, a former army general who seized power from Mr. Sharif in a 1999 coup, wants the U.S. to give the drones to Pakistan to fight terrorists.

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.

Pakistan’s army will continue to call the shots on all the key issues and continue to back terrorist groups that kill Americans,” Mr. Riedel said. “The drone war is unlikely to end, and the U.S. and Pakistan are on opposite sides of the Afghan war.”

Mr. Sharif’s party is the presumptive front-runner, according to pollsters.

“I think if you get a new prime minister like Nawaz Sharif, you will get a series of negotiations, renegotiating the terms of a variety of things, including the use of drones, including other counterterror cooperation,” said Daniel Markey, senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said during a conference call. “And those negotiations I think may be difficult ones, ones the United States would ideally have preferred to avoid.”

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, said discussions on the drone program will “lead to some understandings on how this whole program is implemented.”

“We can only do this in cooperation with and with the approval of the Pakistani government, the civilian leadership as well as the military,” Mr. Crocker said on the Council on Foreign Relations conference call.

The U.S. drone strikes have been focused on Pakistan’s northwest tribal region, where Islamic extremists including the Taliban have long enjoyed safe havens along the border with Afghanistan. The Taliban has since spread to the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

Aside from the drone strikes, with the economy in shambles and an increase in attacks on minorities, Pakistan’s next government faces daunting challenges. A caretaker government has been in power since March 2012, when the elected government stepped down.

Pakistan is in a state of institutional failure,” Mr. Crocker said. “It’s not a failed state, but you could argue it is a failing state.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been keeping a close eye on Pakistan while trying not to be seen as influencing the election. Secretary of State John F. Kerry deliberately avoided Pakistan on a recent trip to the region.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship hit historic lows in the past couple of years. Pakistan remains important to the U.S. because it holds the key to a peace deal with the Taliban and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“Both [the U.S. and Pakistan] have contributed to the downward slide [in the relationship] of recent years,” said Mr. Inderfurth. “A new Pakistan government and a new Obama team will have their work cut out for them to reverse it.”

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