Pakistan’s democracy reached a milestone Saturday when, for the first time, the government stepped down after ending its 5-year term, setting the stage for what many hope is a peaceful transition of power. And because the U.S. continues to wage a war in Pakistan’s backyard, this election could be a very important one for not just Pakistan, but America as well.
As of now, there are three main contenders for the upcoming elections, but only one would actually be beneficial to U.S.-Pak relations in the long-term — Imran Khan. With his fresh views and beliefs that are rooted in integrity, Khan, a cricket player turned politician, and a very outspoken critic of the current government, could not only have a major impact on the upcoming elections in Pakistan, but also in the way Pakistanis see America. However, this won’t be an easy road.
While the other two main rivals, President Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif can aid America in completing short-term goals, the result of these short-term goals is that America’s soft power, and potentially hard power, in the country completely diminishes. On the other hand, while Imran Khan and the U.S. may treat one another with tough-love, the end result could be much less strained relations in the future.
In Gallup’s most recent polls, 92% of Pakistanis disapprove of the current U.S. policy towards their country and consequently, feel rising anti-American sentiments. It is not a secret that these sentiments are vested in the U.S.’ continued use of predator drone strikes, which not only are counterproductive towards eliminating the Taliban and terrorism, but also wreak havoc on innocent Pakistanis who live in the Tribal regions.
This is where Khan steps in. According to him, the reason for the rise in militancy by Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal regions is that the Taliban has seen Pakistan as a partner of the U.S. in the drone strikes, and that link between the two states serves to propagate the jihadi narrative, painting the struggle as one between Islam and infidels.
“Unless we get out of this partnership with the United States, hard core nucleus of militancy will continue to use it [jihad] as a motivational tool for preparing suicide bombers,” he said.
And he isn’t far off the mark. The U.S.’ drone strikes are the most tangible evidence of America’s presence in the region, and allow the Taliban to continue what they believe is a Jihad mission. If America downgrades its physical involvement, it is likely that the Pakistani Taliban would have to reconsider its Jihadist stance, which in turn is likely to better relations between American and Pakistan as a whole.
Relations between the two countries are also sour because while American’s feel that Pakistan is indebted to them because of the aid that is poured into the country, the average Pakistani is disgruntled by that assumption, mainly because they don’t even see a penny of that aid. The explanation behind that is simple: corruption.
Khan believes that foreign aid from the West is propping up corruption and helping to keep it in power in the nation, and he is right in thinking so. His solution is to become independent of all aid in the future — something that could also lead to better relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.
“Unfortunately, aid has been a curse for Pakistan. It is not helping the people, it is disappearing in corruption,” he said, “If we have aid which keeps feeding these governments, it’s propping them up. If we don’t have aid we will be forced to make the reforms and stand on our own feet.”
The biggest difference between Khan and his rivals is that unlike Zardari and Sharif, Khan is likely to criticize America and to hold his own unlike the other two puppet-leaders. But in the long-term, a leader such as that is needed, both for Pakistan and America, if America wants to maintain any semblance of soft power and influence in the country. Otherwise, if the relations continue to go in the direction that they are now, any sort of support for America will become the kiss of death for Pakistani politicians, leaving America in much worse position than it's already in.