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Election May Lead to Change in U.S. Pakistan Policy

The Bush administration says it expects to work with whatever government is formed in Pakistan after Monday's elections and hopes that the new government will work with President Pervez Musharraf.

But many critics say this is the time for the United States to start changing its approach and stop simply relying on Musharraf. They say this election could provide just that opportunity.

Many see the vote as a defeat for U.S. policy — a sign that Pakistanis are fed up with Musharraf and the Bush administration's attitude that he's an indispensable ally in the war on terrorism.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States does not see the vote as a setback — but rather a step forward for Pakistan in terms of democracy and a potential step forward for U.S. efforts to tackle violent extremism. He urges the political parties to work together.

"We are going to continue our work with President Musharraf — and whatever that new government may be — on goals of our national interests, and we have a deep national interest in fighting violent extremists, breaking up those terrorist cells that may operate from Pakistani territory," McCormack says.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the election results should encourage a real shift in U.S. policy.

Speaking in Islamabad Tuesday, Biden called for a tripling of nonmilitary assistance and an approach that is much broader — and less focused on Musharraf.

Brian Katulis, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, is also in Pakistan to observe the vote. He says the election does offer the U.S. an opportunity.

"This represents a possible opening to shift to a new strategy that is not so focused on personalities but is rather focused on developing a more comprehensive approach that's trying to build stronger relations with the Pakistani people and to help the development of this country, not purely through the military lens but through economic development," Katulis says.

A former State Department official, Daniel Markey, sees another potential opening in the North-West Frontier Province — part of the country where the U.S. says al-Qaida and Taliban militants have found a haven.

A Pashtun nationalist party and the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party performed well in the region — defeating a group of religious parties. Markey says the U.S. might be able to make some inroads by helping the local government with development aid.

"This new government could actually be very helpful to the United States and to the West in terms of providing a local face of moderation — one that is inclined to treat problems of militancy and extremism and work with the international community to do so. I think they could be a useful partner for the United States as we look to do more in the tribal areas and in that part of Pakistan," he says.

Markey, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the likely changes at the top in Islamabad could also be positive. As he puts it, it is better to have civilians running the country, and elected leaders rather than coup leaders in government. But there are dangers in the short run — as the backroom deal-making gets under way.

"All of the Pakistani civilians, political leaders, are going to be very distracted from any issues that have to do with things the United States cares most about and are probably going to be so focused on political maneuvering that they will really neither devote time nor energy toward treating these problems that we see as so incredibly urgent," Markey says.

U.S. diplomats have been reaching out to all the players, but the Bush administration is likely to stay relatively silent in public about the results until the final tally is in. As Markey says, there's nothing that hurts a Pakistani candidate like the kiss from Washington.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.